Legal Opportunities in Moscow
Russia has an incredibly rich historical and political background, having moved from its feudal beginnings through Tsardom and Communism to become a modern day semi-presidential republic.
Although the Russian Federation has become considerably more accessible than in the days of the former Soviet Union, it is fair to say that Moscow is still a city about which people have commonly held misconceptions.
Legal Market in Moscow
The majority of the work for foreign lawyers is transactional – so either banking & finance or corporate. It is fair to say that most transactions will have an energy/natural resources element to them, but the quality and variety of legal work on offer has increased dramatically. Although there are of course local-based transactions that will be subject to Russian law, the majority of work on offer will be at the multi-million or billion dollar level for some of the world’s largest and most complicated international clients. Deals will generally be cross-border and, in most cases, will be governed by the laws of England & Wales (at the top-level at least). Particularly on the banking and finance side, a good proportion of deals will involve cutting-edge structures that are later replicated in the usual, more established legal jurisdictions.
The list of firms that currently have offices in Moscow tend to be leading global law firms, with the UK Magic Circle and leading US firms nearly all present. Accordingly, the quality of work and clientele on offer is of the highest order.
So, why work at one of these firms in Moscow instead of in London or New York? Where Moscow tends to score well against other major cities is that the offices tend to be relatively small, compact units. The result of this is three-fold:
- You will generally get more diverse experience, with some firms not having separate departments, rather teams that work on a variety of transactional matters;
- Even junior lawyers tend to get a lot more responsibility and face time with Partners; and
- You will almost certainly get more and better quality contact with major international clients.
The combination of the above points means that even a relatively small stint of a couple of years in Moscow will generally leave your CV in a much more robust shape than a similar period spent in one of the more mainstream legal jurisdictions.
The remuneration packages that are on offer in Moscow tend to be really good. When you factor in the 13% flat rate tax, the net remuneration in Moscow tends to be amongst the highest in the world.
As well as excellent remuneration, it is also generally the case that there are more opportunities for career progression in Russia, with sometimes shorter and clearer routes to partnership (both in Moscow and also upon return to London or elsewhere). With most international firms now looking upon time spent working abroad as a big positive in terms of partnership consideration, a period in Moscow can certainly help you along the promotion track.
The market has been relatively flat over the last few years with the political sanctions in place which has disrupted the salary scales that were previously in place in this market. Whilst salaries are by no means as high as they were a few years ago, they are certainly on par with London. When you factor in the low tax you could certainly be in a strong financial situation. Firms differ vastly on salary bandings so it is best to take Moscow roles on a case by case basis.
In most cases, income tax in Moscow is charged at a flat rate of only 13%. Initially it is likely that you will be placed on a temporary tax rate of around 30% for your first 30 days in Moscow, but this should be fully recoverable (tax advice should be taken as this may vary).
One point for UK residents to bear in mind is that currently, it is generally the case that you must remain in Moscow for at least a full UK tax year (i.e. 6 April to 5 April) otherwise HMRC may be able to recoup UK tax on your earnings in Russia when you return (subject to an allowance for the Russian tax paid in that period – again, we recommend that specialist tax advice should be sought).
Given the low rates of tax and the generous remuneration packages on offer, it tends to be that net salaries for expat lawyers in Moscow are generally amongst the highest in the world.
Moscow has a thriving expat community, home to a variety of nationalities (the most prevalent tending to be American, Australian, Canadian and English). For the more socially minded, there are frequent expat nights in the city and it is, by all accounts, incredibly easy to meet a good circle of friends quickly.
Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to secure reasonably priced accommodation in Moscow, although it is fair to say that such apartments are not to Western standards and are in the less salubrious areas of the city. As with any major city, the larger flats in the nicer areas are expensive, particularly if you choose to live in an area that is popular with expats.
Nearly everyone has heard the stories about the winter in Russia reaching -40 degrees centigrade, but the average low is much nearer -10 degrees. At the other end of the scale, July has been known to hit +37 degrees centigrade, with a warm average of around +24 degrees.
The process for obtaining a visa to allow you to work in Russia would be incredibly complicated, were it not for the fact that the majority of all law firms will arrange this for you.
Complications arise where you are moving with a significant other who is not categorised as a “dependant”, such as a husband, wife or children. In this case, your partner will have to attempt to secure work relatively quickly to qualify for a working visa. However, most firms will provide advice in such situations.
Local language skills are not a requirement for the vast majority of the roles with international law firms in Moscow. English tends to be the primary language in the office, which all the majority of Russian lawyers at international law firms will be able to speak. Where transactions have an international element (which most do), the language of negotiation is usually English.
Many expats live for years in the region without any Russian language skills. This is possible because, if you are happy to pay higher prices, you can find shops/stores/bars/restaurants where the staff speak fairly fluent English. There is also a thriving expat community, so you can easily socialise with English-speaking people in predominantly expat venues.
Whilst Russian language skills are not essential, it is recommended that you make the effort to pick up at least the basics of the Russian language. It is generally very helpful to be able to read the Cyrillic alphabet (especially for signs, Metro stations, etc.), and a few basic phrases can make shopping or eating out a little easier and allow you to visit cheaper/local venues. The majority of firms will offer free Russian lessons (ranging from an hour session a week to intensive courses), and there are now a number of “teach yourself Russian” materials available in the UK that offer an inexpensive way to build up the basics of the language. Although Russian may appear daunting at first glance, once you have conquered the different alphabet, you will find that Russian is generally a phonetic language and not as difficult to master as it may first appear.