Interview with Zaza Bibilashvili, Senior Partner at BGI Legal

1. First of all, can you briefly tell us about your law firm – BGI Legal and what is the biggest challenge during the pandemic of the Covid-19 which was faced by both, your company and the legal sector in general.

Greetings! BGI Legal was formally established 16 years ago, in June 2005, although our team has been around for a lot longer on Georgian legal services market. In reality, our practice is already a quarter of a century old. Our predecessor, GCG Law Office, was established in 1996 and was the leading (if not the only) international practice in Georgia during those murky times. Since 2001 I was the director of GCG Law Office. Our firm partnered with a number of international giants, including primarily Arthur Andersen, one of the world’s oldest and largest transnational corporations. However, after the demise of Arthur Andersen following a well-known scandal in the US, its local partners around the world began looking for new alliances. In our case, it was the international consulting heavyweight Ernst & Young, who came to Georgia in early 2002 and of which we became a part. For the next 3 years I was the director of EY Law, and my partner Lasha Gogiberidze was the head of its corporate practice. Soon (mostly again due to legislative restrictions adopted in the US) it became clear that coexistence of auditors and lawyers in one corporation was an almost insurmountable goal. Therefore, E&Y decided to withdraw completely from the legal
services market, at which time our firm, BGI, was formed and will soon turn 16.

I am extremely proud to note that since the day of its establishment, BGI has been consistently top-ranked in Georgia by all international legal directories, which cover our region (Chambers Global, Chambers Europe, IFLR, PLC 500). We are a full-service law firm and lead the market in sectors. In addition, BGI has the highest number of ranked lawyers among Georgian law firms. It should be noted that these rankings are based on an in-depth research and analysis of various sources, interviews with businesses, clients and competitors, as well as independent checks.

BGI currently has four partners: apart me, that’s Lasha Gogiberidze, Sandro Bibilashvili and Unana Gogokhia. By the time this interview is published, we will have a fifth partner – Tamar Tevdoradze, who just took her New York Bar exam. Thus, we are in a leading position in terms of partners’ gender ratio as well, without any artificial quotas). In total, we are a team of 20 highly qualified lawyers, several of whom are licensed in more than one jurisdiction. All this allows us to handle a number of major mandates simultaneously – both transactional matter as well as disputes pending in Georgian courts (which, not to detract from hard work of the head of our litigation practice Giorgi Sarajishvili, is in a deplorable state of political and economic corruption).

Our corporate slogan – Expertise, Experience, Efficiency – was coined for us by the general counsel of one of the largest international corporations operating in our region, as a result of working with us for many years. We are really proud that BGI lawyers routinely break down negative stereotypes about our profession. Such stereotypes include cold-blooded manner of handling client matters as well as narrow-minded, legalistic mindset in tackling various dilemmas during work. Our team, on the other hand, has been commanded for being able to put themselves in client’s skin, adopt reasonable, pragmatic decisions and handle matters with commercially sensible mindset. Our goal is help clients go about their principal business without having to lose time and energy on legal nuisance to the extent possible. A good lawyer is the one you don’t have to see often.

One of the main secrets of our success for the past two decades has been the highest self-imposed standard of professional ethics, which was always there before
any formal ethics rules kicked into effect. Furthermore, we have never depended not our relationship with or goodwill of any government or administration (which sets us apart from quite a number of law firms and lawyers). We have likewise not depended on one or several major clients, and have aimed to maintain a wide ranging, diversified portfolio.

I would also like to mention that in addition to large commercial projects, we run a number of Pro Bono cases. Moreover, under the auspices of the Association of Georgian Law Firms, I personally introduced Georgia’s first ever Pro Bono initiative. Pro bono is a kind of corporate social responsibility for lawyers – when successful law firms take voluntary responsibility to provide legal aide to those in need without any remuneration.

As for the current economic situation and the constraints related to Covid-19 pandemic, obviously the almost 12% decline in Georgia’s economy has affected all sectors. That said, there is always work for lawyers – the only difference is that in times of crises, the nature of work changes and instead of investment mandates, M&A deals and other positive work, there are more disputes and litigations.

2. Working under pandemic constraints is difficult for both employers and employees. It is interesting, what kind of support BGI provides to the employees of the company.

In general, the management of BGI is relaxed and horizontal (what I would call “Anglo-Saxon” in style, as opposed to a more rigid continental European or, god forbid, post-Soviet styles, which can still be seen in a number of businesses). We advocate flexible, reasonable, result-oriented approaches and methods. We put quality first and pay less attention to outdated requirements such as dress code or rigid working hours. The important thing is to get the job done well and not, for example, follow useless procedures and self-serving requirements, which put the already dying economy in an even worse position.

Our management philosophy was further validated and proven right during the COVID-19-19 pandemic, which has been one of the reasons we have been able to weather the storm with little, if any loss. We give our employees (in addition to lawyers, there are about a dozen other employees in BGI) full freedom (obviously, in compliance with existing restrictions and regulations, some of which are clearly unreasonable and serve on public good). We accommodate our staff’s existing family, social or other needs and offer them, first of all, a flexible work schedule. They can also choose whether they prefer to work from home or from office. In general, the factor of trust plays an important role – we trust each other. We trust each other’s common sense, good judgment and goodfaith approach to common goals of our practice. We believe that we are one team, one corporation, one proud top brand in this market, for which everyone is doing their best.

3. If you can, describe how Covid-19 has changed the working conditions in your company and what are pros and cons of the given situation

I have already largely answered this question. I would add one fun detail. For our type of offices, the pandemic has revealed that so many personal meetings, staff meetings and conferences were simply unnecessary to advance legitimate business goals. Life goes on under the pandemic and work continues to be done without such unnecessary diversions. The main thing now is not to replace these long and often useless live meetings with a culture of ZOOM meetings serving the same ends.

4. As the founder and head of one of the leading law firms in Georgia, how would you assess the general economic climate in the country and what do you think can be done to improve the situation in the future?

Let’s start from a little distance: A couple of weeks ago, Freedom House published the organization’s 2021 report, which identifies “oligarchic influences” as prime hindrance to Georgia’s democratic and economic development, as well as the independence of our judiciary. One would agree that the word “influences” is too mild and fails to adequately reflect the reality in which we live. In fact, we face complete and unlimited oligarchic control over all areas of the state system and economy. Georgians do not need Freedom House reports to see this obvious truth, but external confirmation is always encouraging. In fact, all three branches of government are run by people loyal to one “ruling” family and have no sense of accountability whatsoever towards voters and Georgian citizens in general. The highest positions in government are held by the oligarch’s personal physician, his wife’s dentist, his former personal banker, the head of his bodyguard unit, his former (and apparently current) assistant, who serves as Prime Minister, and so on. Such system is not and cannot be viewed as democratic.

The judiciary, which until 2012 was not really independent (especially criminal and administrative chambers), is now as politicized and centralized as before (if not more). What is even worse, Civil Chamber, which practically ran flawlessly prior to 2012, traditional, all-encompassing corruption has completely creeped back. I do not say this only through the experience of our firm. You can talk to diplomats accredited in Georgia, leading non-governmental organizations and business associations – all of them would confirm the same.

But let’s continue: Oligarchic systems vary in our part of the world. In Ukraine, for example, there are many oligarchs, which, on the one hand, hinders the economic development of the country, but on the other hand, promotes competition between different interests groups. Here in Georgia there is only one oligarch, an omni-present and disproportionately powerful player who owns and manages all state institutions,fully controlling all three branches of government and all important resources in the country. By beinga virtual monopolist who effectively eliminates competition, he is able to single-handedly suspend major infrastructure projects (Anaklia Deep Seaport, Tbilisi Bypass Railway, etc.), ensure that government agencies issue 17 permits in a single day so that he is able to detonate the pre-historic Sakdrisi gold mine in the shortest possible time and begin mining gold there, to instruct the state to create unbearable conditions various investors, so that they are forced to sell at meager prices and his companies can take over valuable assets at cost. In such conditions, it is probably quite logical that the level of foreign direct investment is at a historical low point of recent times and no international investor in his right mind wants to look towards Georgia anymore.

As if all this were not enough, the government has been imposing new and unreasonable regulations for the past nine years (e.g., the so-called visa reform, which has effectively forced many foreigners previously living here to leave Georgia; ban on the sale of land to foreigners, preventing major investment into Georgian agriculture); creates new bureaucratic entities (agencies, inspections, commissions, and other nests of corruption and nepotism), instead of reducing them; raising taxes instead of lowering them, as had been envisaged by the tax code which predates this government. The Prime Minister recently said that “small government” is a bad idea, while the debt to GPD ratio has doubled and it has reached a critical level, which is a recipe for failure and poverty!

Based on all the above, the investment climate in Georgia is unattractive, to say the least. Also, I personally have no illusion that under the leadership of this political and economic team and their vision, our fortunes can improve. Unfortunately, the opposition is not doing much to offer a viable alternative either. The solution, I would say, is a complete reset, a complete political restart in due course. Such expectation is already ripe among many Georgian voters and, I believe, the time is not far when it will be possible to renew the progress of our country.

5. Finally, if there is any issue that we have not discussed or if you want to add something, please feel free

We already spoke at length. I will however use this opportunity to wish every success to the International Chamber of Commerce in Georgia and its young,  energetic team, which has to work in these difficult times and face historical challenges.