14 Mar 2022

Dentons to spin out 250-strong Russian arm into independent firm

Law firm exodus from Russia nears completion as DLA Piper and CMS also resolve to hive off operations

Panorama of winter Moscow. Сapital of Russia. Kremlin, Kremlin wall, churches, Grand Kremlin Palace. Moscow river under the ice.

FOTOGRIN; Shutterstock

Dentons has announced the spin out of its Russian arm into an independent firm in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but says it hopes it will be able to rejoin the global giant ‘when it is lawfully and practically possible to do so’.

The move has come on the day that two other firms with heavyweight Russian practices also announced their exit: CMS – which put the future of its Moscow office under critical review on 4 March – and DLA Piper.

That leaves Baker McKenzie as the last major international law firm to maintain an active Moscow presence – the office is open but ‘under constant review’ - although three other firms have suspended operations as opposed to closing them outright.

The speed and extent of the withdrawal of international firms from Moscow – which began on 4 March when Linklaters announced its impending departure – is unprecedented, but has come against the background of mounting pressure on the legal profession to play a more assertive role supporting international efforts to isolate the Putin regime.

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More coverage of the impact of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on the legal profession

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With more than 250 lawyers and other employees on the ground in Russia, Dentons has one of the largest Russian arms. It was also one of the earliest entrants into Russia.

In a statement, the firm said it was starting to ‘exit Russia’ with its two offices forming an as yet un-named independent firm.

Dentons’ CEO Elliott Portnoy said the decision had been made to ensure the firm could “continue meeting our legal and ethical obligations”.

He added: “We have enjoyed more than 30 years of collaboration and friendship with our colleagues in Russia who bear no responsibility for this crisis nor for the circumstances that have led to this decision. Our hope is that at a future time we will be able to come back together when it is lawfully and practically possible to do so.”

Tomasz Dabrowski, Europe region CEO, added: “We stand with the people of Ukraine and have done everything in our power to assist our Ukrainian colleagues, their families and other civilians displaced by the war. We share the news of our separation process from our offices in Moscow and St Petersburg with deep regret. We will support our 250+ colleagues in Russia in achieving a smooth and orderly transition in accordance with our professional obligations to our clients.”

Like Dentons, both DLA Piper and CMS said they would be transferring their Russian businesses to the existing teams.

‘In light of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and the resulting humanitarian crisis, and our consequent decision not to act for clients connected to the Russian state, we have concluded that maintaining a presence in Russia is not aligned with our values and therefore no longer viable,” said DLA Piper, which has around 70 lawyers in Russia. ‘Accordingly, after 17 years in the country, we are withdrawing from our operations and will no longer have DLA Piper offices in Moscow and St Petersburg.’ 

CMS, which has 21 lawyers in Moscow, said of its decision: ‘We believe that at this time this decision is in the best interests of our clients who will thus continue to receive local support and of our staff who are experiencing disruption to their lives.'

It added: ‘We continue to be shocked by the attacks on Ukraine and our thoughts are with all Ukrainians affected by the war. Our focus remains on ensuring the safety and wellbeing of our colleagues and their families in this terrible situation.

The roster of firms exiting Russia include White & Case. Latham & Watkins, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Norton Rose Fulbright, Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Herbert Smith Freehills, Hogan Lovells and Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner. 

Two firms – Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and Akin Gump – have temporarily closed their offices pending further developments, while Skadden has relocated its lawyers from Russia, but will be maintaining a ‘limited administrative presence’ in Moscow.

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