A freezing, dangerous, wasteland? Look again and you’ll find a party city with great opportunities

Lauren Long

I had an idea of what Russia would be like as I crammed a box of Yorkshire tea into my suitcase alongside my Russian phrasebook and the (faux) fur coat foisted on me by an anxious relative.

Friends thought I was mad to be re-locating to Moscow for six months: ”why do you want to go there?” Was always the first reaction, swiftly followed by “is it safe?”. I didn’t have a very good answer for either question beyond “it seems like an interesting country…” and “I’ll be careful”, neither of which seemed to clear their confusion that I had voluntarily agreed to be sent to a freezing, dangerous, Soviet, culinary-challenged wasteland.  

What I discovered within hours of touching down at Domodedovo airport shattered whatever misconceptions I had held.

As an international secondee you are given a nice apartment in a really central location (my own was a 20 minute walk from the Kremlin and opposite a grand yellow church made famous by Russian poet Alexander Pushkin).

Herbert Smith Freehills’ office is five minutes from Red Square. It is much smaller than London which makes for a less formal working atmosphere. There is the inevitable small office/more responsibility/ longer hours correlation. As the only English corporate trainee in the office I was frequently asked to prepare the first drafts of contracts; so while my friends in London were proof-reading shareholders’ agreements, I was staying up all night drafting them and in my final week I was left to coordinate a transaction closing, fielding frantic 10pm phone calls from the client while the lead partner was away on business.

English and Russian lawyers work closely together on deals which tread the line between the contractual flexibility of English law and mandatory norms of Russian law which bind Russian companies. Fortnightly discussion meetings in which junior lawyers present on recent legal developments further this Anglo-Russian legal exchange.

Outside of the office, what perhaps surprised me the most is that far from the bleak cityscape of crumbling soviet tower blocks and a miserable populous, Moscow is a vibrant, cultured, 24/7 party city. Trainees and associates from all the London firms go out on Friday and Saturday nights – often until dawn – and HSF lawyers are usually found on a summer terrace opposite the Bolshoi on a Friday evening. The city centre itself feels really safe to walk around alone, even in the middle of the night.

It would of course be blinkered to ignore the many political and social problems that affect Russia: the crushing poverty of rough sleepers, often elderly, on streets lined with Ferraris and Porches is particularly hard to accept, and it’s easy to get stuck in an expat bubble, but for the quality of work as a trainee, the culture and six months living well outside of any recognisable comfort zone, Moscow is amazing.  

And no, I didn’t freeze. In fact the snow that covered the ground when I arrived in April soon melted into a short-lived but sweltering summer where temperatures hit a consistent 32ºC. No use for that fur coat then.

Lauren Long, trainee, Herbert Smith Freehills