Following our Ukraine Initiative, we have always endeavoured to share information about the Ukraine war and the human consequences of its occurrence. The Ukraine Initiative was a way for us to support Ukrainian lawyers, following the idea that if we could help even just one Ukrainian lawyer who had been displaced by the war get settled in the UK and help them find suitable employment, then that could provide an entire family with a degree of stability. Since March, we have connected with hundreds of wonderful Ukrainian lawyers, and we have been working with many top law firms and companies who have shown initiative in their compassion to hire these individuals.
The idea for this Q&A originated from Iryna Kravtsova a Ukrainian lawyer that we placed back in November at Stephenson Harwood. She approached us with the intention of sharing her experience so that others could learn from it. Here we share her point of view and her story, as well as Dan Holland’s, a commercial lawyer and Iryna’s manager at Stephenson Harwood, experience of hiring and working alongside her.
Interview with Iryna Kravtsova –
– What challenges did you initially face when coming to the UK and how did you come about the opportunity where you are now employed?
When the war started, I shared a post on LinkedIn explaining how my life was before the war and how it was now; I described how the war had affected my life and dramatically changed my life goals. In the post was a picture of the basement in which my parents and I were currently living.
To my surprise, the LinkedIn community expressed genuine solidarity in response to my post and I received hundreds of messages. My post appeared to resonate and changed people’s opinions and attitudes towards their own lives. Some people wrote that they realised their life was not so bad after all, and that their working conditions were actually fine, while others said that the post made them want to spend more time with their families or take more holidays to enjoy life. I’m happy if my post changed just one person’s attitude towards life and pleased that this message – quality of life is not just about material and financial gain, but also about our attitudes towards life – resonated.
Alongside these messages, I also received messages from people asking how they could help; one of these was from Edward Parker, Director at Fides Search. Following a call, Edward asked for my CV and explained that he would send it to some of the UK law firms and companies that he was working with. While I was confident in my professional skills and experience, I didn’t have much hope that anything would come from this, but I thought why not; it was a new challenge.
It’s a common perception that UK-based companies are not interested in Ukrainian lawyers, even if they have an established professional background. The only exception is an intragroup relocation – when a multinational company gives in-house lawyers the chance to work at different jurisdictions within the organisation. Nevertheless, I decided to share my CV with companies in the UK, as it was not only about new professional challenges, but also survival. When I had the conversation with Ed, I was in Poland with my parents. Going back home to Ukraine, where I would have to stay under missile attacks – without electricity, water, and heating – was not an option for me.
Stephenson Harwood was one of the firms that responded to Ed. The firm was interested in my CV and professional experience. I interviewed with two partners, Dan Holland and Naomi Leach, while I was still in Poland. The interview went so well that it didn’t even feel like an interview, rather a supportive conversation. After several interviews, and a series of background checks, they offered me a 6-month contract as a legal analyst in the transactional support team in the corporate finance and private equity practice. It was a surprise when Ed called me back with the news. Although the role was a level below the one, I had in Ukraine, I decided to take it. This was mainly because my Ukraine qualifications were not valid in the UK, so the position of legal analyst was one I could do without being registered as a foreign lawyer.
However, I did hesitate, at first, in accepting the offer, due to the short-term contract, and being far away from my family and alone in a foreign country. On the one hand, I would have safety and stability for the next 6 months, but uncertainty about what will happen after that. My family and friends helped me make a final decision, and I feel their enormous love and support. I am able to stay in touch with my family, who are in Ukraine, with the help of technology, except when there is no mobile or internet connection caused by damage to Ukraine’s internet and telecommunications infrastructure. In terms of my contract, I’m convinced that it is partly my responsibility to show the best of my professional skills and get a permanent position.
I arrived in the UK on 1 November. The challenges I faced throughout the process and coming to England were mainly bureaucratic – obtaining the visa and the relevant background checks – because refugees don’t have local qualifications or papers. This took some time and delayed my arrival in the UK.
– What challenges did you face when you first started your current job? What challenges did you think you were going to have to face but ultimately did not arise?
I think the second question is more relevant to me. There were a lot of things that I was worried about at the beginning that weren’t issues at all. I didn’t worry much about professional challenges, as I’m very open to everything that develops my hard and soft skills. If you do not improve and challenge yourself, you will be stuck. My main worries were about the language barrier, social environment and whether I would be accepted in the UK. I’m very happy that my worries were in vain. All colleagues at Stephenson Harwood are very friendly and willing to help, and the team I currently work with are a dream team. Eventually, I got acquainted with people with whom I could go out for a coffee and have a friendly chat. The language also turned out not to be a problem as it was just a matter of time getting to understand the different accents. In the end, a lot of the challenges that I thought I was going to face turned out to be temporary difficulties that could be overcome.
In terms of other challenges, I’d outline two issues: 1) it is a difficult and expensive procedure obtaining a skilled worker visa; 2) UK employers’ rules on employee checks are an inflexible process for non-EU citizens. For example, there are documents that must be provided to an employer before employment commences, however, these documents do not exist in Ukraine. I have also heard about situations when Ukrainians were refused a job, even after they signed a contract, as the criminal record certificate couldn’t be obtained because the Ukrainian state registers were closed due to the war.”
– Do you believe that there is significant stigma around hiring refugees? Preconceptions about their skills, about their background especially in terms of risk management? And why?
Yes, I do believe this. There is this idea that people from third world countries are not, or cannot be, highly professional or a specialist, and that their education is worth less than a qualification obtained in a first world country – such as the UK, EU, or the US. I believe that all too often they are not seen as being as capable as everyone else, with equivalent skills and knowledge. There is also a stereotype that if people come from certain countries, they can do only certain types of work.
Refugees are often treated as people who can only do blue-collar jobs. This is very unfair, and many employers take advantage of the refugees’ situation, adopting a “take it or leave it” attitude. Many highly qualified refugees, who used to work as doctors, teachers, or office staff, are offered work in the fields or factories. The paradox is that when the refugees refuse this kind of work and keep looking for a job to match their qualifications, we often hear feedback that these refugees came to do nothing except get social payments from the hosting country.
– What advice would you give to employers who may be looking to hire a refugee?
Firstly, and most importantly, employers should not be afraid of giving refugees a chance. For example, in my case, I was offered a 6-month contract. This provides an employer with some time to determine whether I am the right fit for the company, can do the work, and have the sufficient qualifications to conduct and fulfil the workload expected of me. It also allows me to figure out whether I can handle the work and whether the opportunity is right for me, and, if not, it’s a period where I get to demonstrate my skills and experience. The conversation about a permanent contract can follow afterwards, but that initial step can be invaluable.
The employer should also try and treat refugees fairly and not take advantages of their status. Nowadays, we hear a lot discussed about gender, religion, disability, and ethnicity, but there is little discussion when it comes to refugees, specifically refugees’ work rights. That’s why many refugees often end up with work that doesn’t correspond to their professional experience or qualification, and this can often lead to them earning less than they deserve.”
– What advice would you give to individuals who are currently in a similar position to you?
“Believe in yourself and never give up. That is not only applicable to refugees, but to everyone. If you knock on nine doors, and they are all closed, then maybe the tenth is the one for you – and one that is the best fit and the opportunity you have been waiting for.
More specifically for refugees, don’t be afraid to make the first step, send your CV, talk to people, or ask questions. If you do nothing, how can you achieve something? If you’re afraid to fail, then you might miss the right change in your life. Failing is not equal to losing, and it’s up to you how you treat unsuccessful steps: whether you accept it as a good lesson, or a failure.
Don’t be afraid of the language barriers or not being good enough for a certain job. It’s in part about convincing yourself that you are skilled and good enough. Even if you go for an interview and don’t get it, you’re gaining experience, getting feedback, and drawing your own conclusion about where to go from there. You might need to take additional training to strengthen a particular skillset, or improve your English, but if you don’t make that first step you will never know what it takes to get that job or position.
Set goals. Communicate with people and don’t be shy to tell them what you want. Be ready and open to learning something new and expanding your knowledge.
Transform your inner fears and barriers into new challenges. Always remember that there are only a few situations in life where you can’t find a way out: those are death and an incurable disease, the rest are timely difficulties that you can overcome.
Interview with Dan Holland –
- What initial concerns did you have, if any, about hiring a Ukrainian refugee?
“At Stephenson Harwood, we welcome the brightest and the best – whatever their circumstances. When Fides Search contacted us regarding their Ukraine initiative – connecting lawyers in Ukraine with potential law firm hosts in the UK so they can find suitable employment – we were very keen to work with them.
Our work with refugees actually predates the Ukraine crisis. Since 2021, Stephenson Harwood has partnered with Breaking Barriers, a UK charity that helps refugees to rebuild their lives through education, training, and employment, and we’re always looking for ways to provide more substantive help in this area.”
- Taking into consideration the usual steps when hiring talent, what were the major differences or difficulties with this process?
“The recruitment process for this role was similar to others in terms of finding an individual who had excellent experience and expertise, and someone who would be a good fit for the team. That said, the process took longer than usual – almost 6 months in total; this was due to a range of practical issues such as waiting for the relevant visa to be issued.”
- Do you believe that there is significant stigma around hiring refugees? Preconceptions about their skills, about their background especially in terms of risk management? And why?
“We believe that hiring refugees presents a huge opportunity for our firm, and for any business. Many refugees are highly skilled, talented and experienced, and have often developed enormous resilience and adaptability. We can learn so much from them, while providing a secure, stable, professional environment in which they can continue, and further develop, their careers.
Diversity of thought and experience adds breadth and depth to our teams and our service offering – it means we more naturally approach legal challenges with a range of perspectives, and are better able to give holistic advice, firmly set in the real world. [This applies whether we’re talking about gender, age, educational background, socio-economic upbringing, ethnicity, disability, neurodiversity, or anything else.]”
- Was the onboarding any different with Iryna?
“As mentioned above, we had to navigate practical issues such as the visa, but the actual onboarding process remained the same to our usual one. We pride ourselves in offering a flexible, adaptable working environment, which was a great fit with Iryna as she looks to continue her studies; it means that we’ve been able to offer her employment, while also supporting her ongoing academic pursuits.”
- What would be the advice you would give to other firms looking to hire a refugee?
“Bringing diverse minds and backgrounds into any business has obvious and tangible benefits. Organisations who pursue this shouldn’t see it as a charitable endeavour: your business, your people and your clients will get just as much from it as your new employee will.
Practically, it is important to remember that working cultures in different countries vary, and so employers need to be accommodating in terms of integrating them into the workplace and providing the support they need.”
These interviews were a pleasure to conduct. The points of views shared by both Iryna, and Dan make a stand about demonstrating humanity in times of need, a genuine show of human support beyond an economical gain. We hope this article provides insight to individuals who are in Iryna’s position or to law firms who are looking to venture into hiring refugees. This crisis is ongoing and unfortunately there appears to be no immediate end in sight. We are still running our Ukraine Initiative and working with many lawyers who are looking to settle in the UK and continue their legal careers. We are always seeking to involve more law firms in this initiative in order to continue offering jobs to the Ukrainian lawyers who continue reach out to us every week.