Russian speakers amongst our readers will recognize him right away – in Russia, Alexander Dobrovinsky is nothing short of a celebrity. Our non-Russian readers might ask – who is he? A hockey player? A movie star? A famous writer? The answer might be a bit of a surprise – Alexander Dobrovinsky is… a lawyer. Not just any lawyer though, but a true bird of paradise amongst them. His sense of style is instantly recognizable, all his books are bestsellers and his radio shows – a true hit. Not to mention that Dobrovinsky and his law firm Alexander Dobrovinsky & Partners LLP are known as some of the best family lawyers in the world and help the most powerful and wealthy people around the globe to deal with their legal trouble.
We took the opportunity to sit down and have chat with Dobrovinsky as he was taking a break from his busy jet setter’s life in his favourite holiday spot – Phuket.
Maciek Klimowicz: Do you remember your first visit to Thailand?
Alexander Dobrovinsky: What brought me here in the beginning, was the movie Emmanuelle; first part of the series was taking place in Bangkok. Emmanuelle discovered the country of Thailand for millions of people and it was the first movie that I watched after leaving Russia and moving to Paris in 1976, at the age of 21.
It’s a story of a charming lady in search of adventure. Sylvia Kristel, a Dutch actress, starred in it and she became a superstar for a couple of years. Everything in this movie was new for me, and when I saw it in Champs-Elysées, I knew I had to go and visit Thailand. A few years later I was planning some exotic travel with my friends and I suggested Thailand. We spent a fantastic three weeks here; I found everything that I like – the right weather, people, cuisine… and a sense of discovery.
But, in contrast to many other Russians who settle in Phuket for good, you still live in Moscow. What is it about that city that keeps you there?
I spent many years living in France, in the USA, in Switzerland, Italy and even Luxemburg, but Russia is my native country, and for me today Russia is the freest country in the world. I think we have more freedom in Russia than people in the West. For example, today in western Europe, if you are against the existence of a third gender or if you don’t support same-sex marriage, you would be called out as homophobic, or if you think that women’s boxing looks disgusting, as a women’s barbell, you would be called sexist. You are not able to express your own opinion in the West today. Democracy has lost its identity – in the beginning, it was about freedom – you can think, you can say, you can move wherever you want to, as long as you’re not committing a crime. But today, if your opinion is not in accordance with the opinion of minorities which dictate their opinion to the majority, you are against everybody. If you ask people what they think, if they are standing in front of the mirror, on their own, they would tell the truth, but they are afraid to say it in public. And I don’t think that’s good.
Let’s talk about your career. I know you’d tried a few other professions before you became a lawyer, were they just stepping stones and practicing law was always your masterplan?
In the beginning, my parents wanted me to be a gynecologist (laughing), but biology, medicine, were of no interest to me. So, when I was about to take up university studies, by a complete accident I applied to study cinema. When my mother heard that, she said I was lost for that family – a family of scientists, doctors etc. She then left for Paris and I stayed behind. I had an apartment in the center of Moscow, I had a nice girlfriend, my mother sent me good clothes, money etc. – I loved it. But then, after the university, I was called on to join the Soviet army, which was out of the question for me. So, I left the country and went to my mother, to Paris. It was 1976.
Once in Paris, I changed my beautiful, Playboy life in Moscow, for a life of a night porter in a small hotel in Paris – a job that I got by accident, through a girl distributing a communist newspaper on the streets. She tried to give me one and me, having just come from a communist country, strongly rejected it. She asked me where I was from and what I was doing in Paris, one thing led to another and I landed this job as a night porter.
But it’s not like I wanted to stay in that hotel all my life; At that moment, I didn’t know yet that I wanted to be a lawyer, but I knew I wanted to change my life. So, I started to ask around and found out that the job the French appreciated the most was government work, where you show no initiative and just collect your salary and get many benefits. Not for me, I thought, what else, I asked. I was told that the two other prestigious professions in France were a doctor or a lawyer. I already knew I didn’t want to be a doctor, so lawyer it was.
But the law is not something you just take up, it takes a lot of time, money and dedication, right?
Right, so I took a few years to earn some money, mostly in antique trade – most of my family were collectors so I had some experience in that area – and at the end of 1979, I decided to go to the USA to see what life was like there. I had a few friends in New York and that’s where I went to study law. I would study during the weekdays and drive a taxi on the weekend, which was a great school of life.
It was at that time that I met Saul, a very old, very well-known lawyer who originally came from Odessa. He invited me for tea, we started talking and I told him about my plans to become a lawyer, to which he replied that he was one. And when, in turn, I asked him where he worked, he pointed to a nearby building. I asked on which floor he worked and he told me that the whole building belonged to his firm. I was very surprised and a few minutes later I offered to work for him, for free, to which he replied: “You are a nice fellow and I think you’re a smart boy, but I have a counterproposal for you – not charge free, let’s say for 200 USD a week.” I was over the moon, a job in this huge company, a great pay, it was definitely my day! But then he looked at me and said: “I don’t think you understood me correctly, it’s not me who will be paying you 200 USD, you will be paying me to work at my company.” He explained that it was not him who needed my 200 USD, it was me who needed to pay it because nothing that is good comes for free. A few days later I started working for him as his personal assistant. I went all around the country and learned, in person, about the different kinds of law practice. And after a while, I decided that I wanted to be a family lawyer. So, on Saul’s suggestion, I did my MBA and was recruited by a big company and suddenly was making 120 thousand Dollars a year.
Initially, it was the prestige that attracted you to that profession. What else are you getting from it?
What I find the most appealing in law practice is the fact that I work for myself; a lawyer is the most independent professional in the world. Secondly, the responsibility that comes with it is like a drug. When you are responsible for a part of your client’s life, there is no space for mistakes, and it gives me a drive that I cannot compare to anything else. The prestige also matters, but for that, you need to reach a certain level. Money? Of course, lawyers can maintain a good lifestyle. And then there is also the challenge of it all. I remember moving from Geneva to Russia with an idea of building a lawyer’s empire out of nothing. And I did it, we are one of the most well-known law companies in the world, I have offices in London and partnerships in 18 countries around the globe.
Was there a single case that skyrocketed your career?
In the beginning I had one big client, a Russian tycoon who paid me a fortune, but his condition was that I would work only for him. But despite the fact that he paid me so much – even by today’s standards – two years later I told him I was done. Because the most dangerous thing for a lawyer is to be a one client show, if that client leaves you, you’re finished. So, I started to slowly progress and today we hire 57 lawyers and all the additional staff.
How do you choose which cases to take and which to reject?
I’m now in a position to pick and choose, which very few lawyers can afford to do. But I had a strategy form the very beginning, to never take losing cases. Because reputation is crucial in this profession, so I only accepted clients whom I could help. Moreover, I had to be in a good relationship with the client, sometimes five minutes of conversation is enough to understand if we can work together or not. And this is how we have never lost a case. When we come into the courtroom and the judge sees us, he smiles because he knows that we will have a winning argument.
I hear you are a bit of a celebrity in Russia, and well known for your sense of style?
Over the years, I learned that I’m very individual, I never want to be a part of a crowd. For example, you cannot even begin to imagine how was Moscow when I returned there from Geneva in 1992. It was a dark, grey place, no colors, empty stores, angry people. And I arrive into that with my 12 Louis Vuitton cases and a bowtie (laughing). I had some colleagues from the old times, half of them became alcoholics the other half were unemployed, and they told me that I had to take off my bowtie. I was shocked! Why?! But I decided to stick with it. In the beginning, a lot of people laughed at me, but then I gained some popularity in the media, I started writing for the Tatler, got my own radio show, and I became recognizable. And now people remember me by my bowtie and my glasses. These are my trademarks.
Celebrity chefs, celebrity lawyers, don’t you feel lucky to be living in the time of celebrities?
You have to be a celebrity, to be in fashion, to be successful, but you cannot be a celebrity without success. We have a slogan: “There is no result without a victory, but there is no victory without result”. I think it’s a very important thing for all businesses. For example, I have people who come to me and want to sue off-shore companies for millions of Dollars. And I tell them, this is a case that I can win, in 2-3 years we will have a victory, but we wouldn’t get results, because we couldn’t get money from an off-shore company. So, it’s not a victory, because there is no result.
What do you prefer: an easy settlement or a hard-won victory?
I’m always for a settlement, it’s easier and it’s cheaper for the client. If you consider your client a cash cow, you’ll never succeed; first, you need to think about the client, money will come. Also, it’s important to remember that a satisfied client will tell about your company to maybe one or two close friends, an unhappy client will tell everybody.
Is there a piece of advice that you always give to your clients?
I always say the same three things. First of all, when I shake your hand, I will die for you. From now on I am a part of your life and you are a part of my life too. And I will never trick you, but if you are dishonest with me in any way, it will turn against you, you will be the looser. The second thing I tell them is that we are partners and a partner is someone that you can share everything with, so you can call me anytime and tell me everything, in total honesty. And finally, the third thing is that, in my experience, my clients arrive to me in a very bad condition, facing bankruptcy etc. Then we start to work together and things get better, and after a few months, a client feels more confidence. Another few months pass and things turn around for the client and then he starts to wonder: “Why do I have to pay so much money to the lawyer?” So, the third thing I tell them is to sign a contract first off all (laughing).
Before we finish, let’s go back to Phuket for a moment. Do you come here often?
I come to Phuket 3-4 times a year. I have a house here, my mother in law lives here, I find it very convenient, there is good golf which is one of my passions, the food is delicious, the weather is excellent and the atmosphere is very good. As you can see, I’m spending August in Phuket, because August in Europe is terrible, all is crowded and expensive. So, I prefer to go to Europe and the USA when the weather is bad. Take Florence in January for example – local people are happy to see you, prices go down, it’s the best time to go! And it’s the same with the rainy season in Phuket, for me it’s the best time to come here.