Exclusive interview with Anna Babych, Vice-Chair of the ERF Public Policy Group and executive partner of Ukrainian law firm Aequo
Merlin Seeman (interviewer)
Merlin Seeman (MS): Please describe yourself and your law office the way they were before the war.
Anna Babych (AB): We strived to run business as usual and concentrate on our plans for 2022, although it was very hard as the prospect of war was in the air. We were considering a war-related risks mitigation strategy. People felt very nervous, many thought about relocating their children from the country for ‘vacations’. Probably most of us had emergency suitcases packed: documents, valuables, medicines, kids’ stuff. All cars were kept with full tanks and packed with necessary things in. The teams worked offline mostly, so many of us had been in the office the day before. We planned our annual corporate retreat where we hold our Results & Plans session; it was scheduled for 24 February. The hardest thing was the uncertainty and this corrosive feeling of the anticipation of a war.
MS: Please describe your day on 24 February. What did you do and what were your thoughts?
AB: The Ukrainian-Russian War started sometime around 0500. We woke up between 0700 and 0800 from repeated sirens. We didn’t hear the earlier sirens once. On the phone, there were many missed calls from parents and other friends. We packed and I left Kyiv with my kids at around lunchtime to western Ukraine.
MS: What did you tell your team?
AB: There was not much to say. It was all clear, even before. Some decided to move to western Ukraine in the very beginning, some hesitated. Every team leader was checking on their team members and the families all the time. Within a week we had organised the relocation of the teams and their relatives to western Ukraine. Very few though opted to stay in Kyiv.
We have regular online team meetings where we decide how to organise our work and life during the war, how to reach clients, what to say and do. We continue to support those who have been called or volunteered to the army and other territorial defence forces.
MS: You have left Ukraine for a safer location with your children. I am sure it was a hard decision and a dangerous journey, but what was the decisive factor that made you decide to leave?
AB: At the time we decided to leave there was a big chance [we'd be caught in a] siege in Kyiv. When you have little kids, it is hard to make the decision to stay with such risks. You see now what has happened in Mariupol. In the first days of war, we thought that Kyiv may well be in a similar situation. My grandmother and other family members still stay in a town near Kyiv – very close to the firing line.
MS: This war of aggression violates the core principles of humanity and breaches international law. Are you currently continuing your work? If yes, what topics are you working on?
AB: We continue to work to the extent possible. There is certain activity in dispute resolution projects. We are starting the reparation proceedings against Russia on behalf of our clients who have suffered; those who have actual damage from shelling and bombing as well as business interruption. We also have compliance requests – there were many legislative changes due to martial law. We monitor them closely. Another active topic is business relocation requests. All investment projects are paused for obvious reasons.
MS: Do you and your team continue to work? What kind of advice are you providing your customers in Ukraine?
AB: Our teams are now relocated and settled. We continue to work with clients’ requests. We relocated part of the team further out of Ukraine. I think the previous answer covers this question as well.
MS: How are the work processes arranged now?
AB: The reality of Covid-19 has fully prepared us for distanced work. So, in that sense, there is no major difference in fact. The biggest challenge at the moment is protecting the mental wellbeing of the team and their families. We are all victims of war now and we have yet to learn how to live with this.
MS: How do you take care of your team during these difficult times? How would you describe the general mood of your people?
AB: After the first shock was gone, we tried to cheer up and support each other. We continue to stay in touch with one another – everyday a morning rollcall is a must.
All of us are monitoring the news constantly. We have an app for sirens, and we check on our beloved ones who have stayed in Ukraine after each siren. This is our new reality.
Aequo continues to pay its team’s salaries. The rest of our expenses are frozen until the end of the war. We also continue our humanitarian aid and support to the Ukrainian Army. Many of the team members are involved in pro bono projects for the clients or NGOs with a humanitarian purpose.
MS: What support can ERF members give?
AB: First of all, I am grateful to all IBA friends who have written to me and offered help! Now I know how approachable I am – friends around the world are the true treasure. I felt like my ‘ERF family’ and other close fellow lawyers were about to adopt me and my family, meet at the border, send toys to my kids, give me everything to keep up! This is priceless indeed – it gives me the power to move further.
The IBA unanimously stands with Ukraine and condemns the abuse of rule of law and the war crimes. It is said out loud that legal support [to clients in regard to] how to get out of responsibility or sanctions is unthinkable and unacceptable. On the practical side, we received quick and valuable advice on the regulations of neighbouring countries for relocated Ukrainians, as well as pro bono advice for humanitarian projects. Needless to say, many IBA members have made donations to support Ukraine and its people.
Finally, I grateful to my friends who have considered the secondment of Ukrainian lawyers to their teams. Even if it is not easy or doesn’t fit ideally – I know that you keep on finding out how it may work. We truly appreciate these efforts.
MS: What is your biggest challenge today?
AB: After 24 February Ukraine understands that, in the world, the only challenge is war. The rest is absolutely immaterial. Help us to save our children and end this war! Push your governments, keep them working and protecting the civilised world, the rule of law and democracy values. We all shall defeat this evil!
MS: What does being a member of the ERF mean to you?
AB: It is my big family now – I know it for sure.