About Success Builder
How do you find your place in life? How do you find something to do that both comes naturally to you and makes you happy? The answer is that you have to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from university and from life itself correctly. The Success Builder Project features HSE University graduates who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences and lessons learnt and talk about how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.
The Master’s Programme Lawyer on the Global Financial Market began accepting students in 2018 and graduated its first class this year. Among them was Sberbank Chief Legal Advisor Irina Gridasova. In this interview with Success Builder, Ms Gridasova explains how to switch from political science to law without missing a beat, looks at gender stereotypes in the legal field and describes translating the clerical language of contracts into the language of living and breathing clients — a task all lawyers dread.
What prompted your choice of a major when applying to university? Can a high school student who chooses political science really understand what they are getting into?
It was a tough choice. A senior in high school must process an inconceivable number of impressions. It is both important and difficult to understand what you will find interesting in life and what type of work you would like doing, and it is tough to make an informed choice at that young age. I knew that I liked foreign languages, and that led to my choice of universities. And because learning languages was easy for me, I knew that my studies would be interesting. I enrolled at Moscow State Linguistic University in two departments at once, translation and political science. I figured that, by understanding politics, I could make my mark in public service and develop my outlook at the same time. And studying really did turn out to be interesting. However, I increasingly began questioning whether I wanted to devote my energies to political science.
In Russia, political science is almost metaphysical and has little connection with reality. Only one of my college classmates works in this field, writing texts for politicians
I really wanted to get away from abstractions and do something more concrete. This also had to do with the conflict in Georgia in 2008 because my second language was Georgian. When I had just started my studies, they told us that we had major prospects in the diplomatic line because the government had specifically requested that Georgian be included in the programme. But overnight, all that effort went out the window and nobody took any more interest in our group. I began teaching English and working as an interpreter at music festivals, but I was dead set against becoming just another student focused only on getting a diploma without developing towards a future career.
What attracted you to law?
During my student years, I developed a certain basic understanding of geopolitical and legal issues. My curriculum at MGIMO included such subjects as the history of political and legal sciences, law, and the theory of state and law, although these classes were more typical for law students. Most importantly, I liked them. By the fourth year of study, I had grown tired of teaching private lessons and wanted a more serious office job. I hired on with a legal consulting firm as an evening secretary. That was the Herbert Smith Freehills company, a quintessential English law firm. It was there that I first got a taste of the legal world and decided that I wanted to get a second college degree. I was considering either economics or law. With law, I liked the objectivity, logic and structure, that were lacking in political science. Many of the company’s staff were graduates of MGIMO and recommended that I apply there, especially because of its emphasis on foreign languages. Thus, I earned my second Bachelor’s degree in International Finance and Trade Law at MGIMO.
While a student there, did you have an opportunity to try your hand working as a legal specialist?
I worked a bit as a legal secretary in a Russian law office where I had the prospect of becoming an assistant lawyer, but after the work environment at the English company that had offices all over the world, the atmosphere at the Russian firm did not seem as comfortable as I would have liked. Soon after, a day job opened up at Herbert Smith Freehills and, because my studies started at 4 pm every day, I was able to arrange to work for the first half of the day, but as a secretary to start. Of course, it was hard to combine work and a full course load, but the result was worth it.
The legal field is very conservative, but it will also have to change. Did it surprise you that the fundamental principles of law are somewhat at odds with the changing reality?
I graduated in 2015 and can compare how everything has changed in recent years. Fintech and legal tech have made incredible progress, and cryptocurrencies have nearly become a separate market for legal services. Of course, there was practically no discussion of these things at the university back then. People had to master most of these innovations themselves, and everyone has their own, unique experience in this regard. It previously took aeons for an innovation to be included in the basic curriculum. Now it takes only a decade or so to show clearly that a trend is really a reformation.
What first got you interested in finance?
After my stint at Herbert Smith Freehills, I got a job with the 01 Group where I worked for 18 months in the department that dealt with corporate issues and, mostly, foreign jurisdictions. I then moved to a department that was more involved in supporting and structuring various transactions with counterparties. I worked there for about another year and was immersed in securities and general finance. I really liked it. That was probably where I first had the desire to study economics and finance but in connection with legal issues. Unfortunately, the company was going through a hard time and I realized I should look for a new job. Then, my very first interview of 2017 led to a job offer with Sberbank. I took it because I felt a connection with banking and, besides, a company as large as Sberbank offers opportunities for development and further training.
Law is a rather masculine profession. Have you always felt comfortable around colleagues in ties?
Actually, there are quite a few women lawyers in Russia, even more, I think, than men. Only the judicial sphere, it seems to me, has more men. Maybe because there, men can express their need to fight, compete, and come off as strategists waging their personal wars. Men are better at global thinking, creativity, and seeing the whole picture. But any gender-based thinking has certain strengths and weaknesses. For example, I deal with a fairly low-key part of the legal process — contract law and transaction support. This requires more diligence and attention to detail, in which I think women are stronger.
Honestly, I have not experienced any discrimination against women in the legal sphere, but stereotypes do play a role. Businesspeople often listen more to the male point of view. For some mysterious reason, people sometimes perceive it as more convincing.
Which are the key skills in your line of work?
There are two main types of legal work — consulting and in-house lawyers. The latter work in companies’ legal departments and support their main business activities. In both, I think it is important to be able to think and communicate critically and to be customer-oriented and flexible.
Your job is not to show “how it shouldn’t be done,” but “how it can be done” while ensuring that everything conforms to the applicable laws
That is, as a specialist, you need to be able to adapt, think analytically, and find non-standard solutions. A successful lawyer is able to formulate her thoughts outside the legal language of contracts and argue her position clearly for any client. My experience as an interpreter probably helps me in this regard.
What is unique about the HSE programme and why did you choose it to continue your professional growth?
The fact is that I came to Sberbank to work in a department that primarily supports specialized activities in the financial markets — the issuance and placement of the bank’s own securities, as well as services for placing the bonds of outside clients and depository activities. Prior to that, I received several certificates as a specialist in financial markets in depository, brokerage, dealer, securities management and Forex dealer activities that were required for my job. Sberbank is a huge corporation where every department and every specialist deal with, among other things, a narrow part of what is happening in the financial markets. You get used to working in your own area, but you might lack a working understanding of the general banking processes and principles of financial markets — that is, the underlying logic behind what all of the various departments do.
The fact is that I came to Sberbank to work in a department that is mainly engaged in supporting specialized activities in the financial markets - the issue and placement of the bank's own securities, the provision of services for the placement of bonds to external clients, and depository activities.
I wanted to get an overall picture of the business processes of banking and the financial markets, as well as a deep and detailed knowledge of working with securities, derivatives, and other specific financial transactions and instruments. That led me to what in 2018 was a brand new Master’s programme at HSE — Lawyer on the Global Financial Market — that was admitting its very first class of students.
It turned out to be the only programme in Russia specializing in securities, derivatives, and financial instruments in the context of taxation, legal tech, and fintech. The programme has no peers, and at the same time fully meets market demand. In my case, this unique Master’s programme at HSE gave me new prospects for developing my career. Last summer, I attended a course on International Finance Law at the London School of Economics. It enabled me to supplement my knowledge with the international aspects of financial markets, particularly within the EU legal framework. In the process, I was able to compare it with the level of teaching and expert materials in the HSE programme. I can say that HSE is completely on a par with its Western counterparts in this area. There is a real shortage in Russia of such specialized programmes focusing on the juncture of law and finance.
Did HSE give you the expertise and case studies needed to work in the real world?
This is a major strength of the HSE programme — communication with a large number of specialists who work in the financial markets, Central Bank, Moscow Stock Exchange, and Sberbank. And not just purely financial expertise, but expertise in economics as a whole. We had lots of classes right in the companies where the speakers worked. All the experts developed their own unique case studies over their working career. This is what makes the programme worthwhile: the foundation is the same everywhere, but the instructors' material and personal experience give a 'face' to education. You won’t find access to such information anywhere else. I also made many useful acquaintances through my studies, and these might prove helpful not only in professional pursuits but in life in general.
How does Sberbank maintain its employees’ level of education, particularly with the help of outside resources?
Sberbank, like major Western companies, strongly encourages employees to earn new degrees and certificates. The bank also has its own corporate university, but most of the courses focus on soft skills. Of course, these are also an extremely important aspect of working in large organizations, teams, and departments. But there is also the opportunity to pursue continuing education with outside organizations that focus on legal disciplines. Such training programmes are incorporated into the work process.
What is a legal adviser, and does one do?
Honestly, a legal advisor is just a leading in-house lawyer — although this does not detract from his or her expertise and importance. I have now moved to a unit within the Sberbank legal department that supports derivatives transactions, brokerage activities, and repurchase agreements. This department is now actively working with new banking products on global markets: it is a very creative part of the business. In particular, we are responsible for developing services and apps and many things connected with IT and automation.
Sberbank is no longer a bank, but an IT company, a very progressive organization that seizes on and incorporates all the new trends. And this is changing what seemed to be the traditional job of a lawyer. Many contentious issues arise when the traditional monetary relations between banks and clients must shift online. For example, we are focusing now on electronic signatures and some of my colleagues recently dealt with placing commercial bonds on blockchain. A lot of work was done in recent months to translate banking communications into a digital format without any loss of integrity.
Does this mean Sberbank now trusts digital assets?
Cryptocurrency is an interesting field, but one that is not fully regulated — although the long-awaited federal law ‘On digital financial assets and digital currency’ was finally adopted and I think it could expand market opportunities in this area. More attention is now being given to process automation, and this puts many tasks on the shoulders of lawyers. For example, Can a certain digital process serve as confirmation of a transaction? Can a client request a transaction remotely? This has become particularly relevant during the pandemic.
What is the banking industry looking for in terms of specialists who solve legal issues?
For any specialist with a law degree in the banking sector, knowledge of technical issues will be an advantage. Because IT skills are very necessary, the future belongs to those programmes that combine professional and technical expertise. With regard to people just starting out, the banks look for candidates who understand economic processes and how legal tech, innovation, and the banking sector as a whole are developing. In my case, I got all this at HSE: class discussions looked at market issues and the impending automatization of the legal profession. Keep in mind that most routine legal work will be given to AI.
In the legal profession, it is the skills that people — not AI — can demonstrate that are becoming important
These include erudition, the ability to consider cultural background, the ability to make a decision based on not only the facts but also personal experience and creativity. In general, I would advise today’s law students to hang out with a narrow group of others interested in this profession, join like-minded groups on social networks, find and attend various events, conferences, and career days and get acquainted with the people there. For example, there is an interesting Facebook group called Legal Talents. It is a community of lawyers where people post interesting vacancies for law positions and job seekers can also post their CVs.
Do you worry that AI will replace your job as well, given that Sberbank is known to be working actively with neural networks?
Deep down, all lawyers fear this. The nature of the work might change, but I also see a positive side to it: machines will handle mundane tasks, leaving humans free to focus on the more complex and interesting jobs. At the same time, I don’t believe there will a come a time in this century when AI will be able to compose the types of complex agreements that we do.