Ivars Slokenbergs: “I am often somewhere over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, but my heart is in Latvia”

  • 2021-09-20
  • Linas Jegelevicius

Ivars Slokenbergs, a New York lawyer, who has found his niche in helping Latvian and Baltic companies aiming at the huge US market, may be waiting now to board a Riga or Big Apple-bound flight, but his heart definitely belongs to Latvia. “I was raised in dual Latvian and American cultures in the US, but having been here – in Latvia and the Baltics for most of the last 15 years – the feeling of being attached to Latvia has increasingly grown.” Ivars Slokenbergs sat down with The Baltic Times Magazine to speak about his vivid life journey and a lot more.

Do you feel more like an American or a Latvian?

(Grins) I would say I am over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean somewhere, but definitely feel more European and certainly identify myself with the Baltics and Latvia – due to my Latvian roots and having spent most of the last fifteen years in the Baltics. However, no matter how many years one may spend here, if one was not raised here or hasn’t at least gone to school here – there are many undercurrents in society one may never understand. So, I am still learning every day!

What experiences have shaped you as a person?

My dual identity – of someone raised and educated in the US – but having grown up in an émigré Latvian-American family, at a time when it was extremely important for my parents and grandparents to maintain the Latvian culture – is probably what most has shaped me. As a child, my family ensured that I was constantly involved in Latvian affairs, Latvian schools and camps, song festivals, choirs and theatre groups in the US. It was a wonderful experience, with many opportunities not ever enjoyed by typical American kids. On the other hand, it meant that you would never be a typical American kid – no sports teams on Saturdays, for example, as Latvian Saturday school took precedence (grins).

Being in both worlds culturally, gave me a lot of truly unique opportunities – a lot of travelling to meet like-minded Latvians throughout the US. Many of the people I met through that Latvian-emigre network I still know today. I can even still recall the day when I met the present Prime Minister of Latvia, Krisjanis Karins, in a summer camp bunkhouse in Upstate New York, probably when we were eight years old.

Later, the Latvian network became global – attending youth congresses, political events, cultural events and eventually, anti-Soviet demonstrations around the world – and culminating with establishment of friendships and networks in Latvia, both before and after the restoration of independence.

You are a New York lawyer, something that not everyone can achieve. How did you get there?

Few people plan their life’s path, and mine was certainly never planned nor linear. Originally, I was supposed to become an engineer – that was an honourable profession that was typical pursuit for many practical Latvian-Americans. It was so for me as well, until the day I realised I would never make an excellent engineer (grins). At the same time – I was getting actively involved in the Baltic independence movement – helping to organize anti-Soviet demonstrations in the US and other countries, trying to remind the world of the ongoing occupation of the Baltics and the abuses of human rights in Latvia – and this led to my interest in law and advocacy.

So, I switched gears from the hard sciences to the “soft” sciences, and obtained my first degree in history, and the second in law. I graduated Brooklyn Law School in New York and sat for the New York Bar examination in the Summer of 1991 – just three weeks before the restoration of independence in the Baltics. It was already then, in 1991, that I was looking to board a plane to Riga and find my role in the dynamic post-independence restructuring of the nation, but it was not yet meant to be.

But life is full of surprises, and you never know where the next door will open and where any opportunity, if taken, will lead. Following restoration of independence, the Baltic States were admitted to membership in the United Nations and each established a Mission to the UN in New York. While searching for a lawyer’s job in New York, I volunteered to help the Latvian Mission. What I expected to be a few weeks of volunteering – writing press releases or similar – turned into a very intensive five-year career as a Latvian diplomat, as within a month I was already made a full-time employee of the Latvian Foreign Ministry and thrust into the very centre of international policy-making and global advocacy on behalf of Latvia. Those initial post-Cold War years were probably the most dynamic period in the UN’s history – it was certainly an exciting time to represent a small country which was just getting on its feet on the international stage.

During that period, I had various offers to move to Riga, to work at the Foreign Ministry and otherwise, but I declined those offers. I chose an entirely different direction – I wanted to take a stab at practicing US law, so I left Latvian Government service, and, through happenstance, ended up at White & Case, a global law firm based in New York, and was thrust into the world of commercial litigation, in particular patent litigation – complex battles between large teams of lawyers on behalf of multinational companies battling to establish the primacy of their patents over those of their competitors and thus reap royalties and market dominance.

Working at a large law firm is challenging – you are surrounded by many super-smart people and demanding partners – such firms are “meat-grinders” in the sense that you are expected to regularly soldier for very long hours, and, while you are well compensated, working late nights and weekends to serve the clients’ needs, without question, is the norm. You certainly learn a lot in such an environment, but it can be soul-crushing if you lack the constitution for it (grins).

So, at some point I was ready for a change. I happened to visit Riga in late 2005, and witnessed the booming economy of that exuberant post-EU admission period, and experienced a “now-or-never” moment, and decided I wanted to finally live in the Baltics and take part in this dynamic society. I got a job in Riga at LAWIN – today it is called Ellex Klavins – one of the major pan-Baltic law firms. In retrospect, I knew very little about Latvian and EU law, and I am thankful that the firm’s management gave me the opportunity to learn the ropes of Latvian law. I then spent a decade at the firm – serving foreign investors on mergers & acquisitions transactions – living through the Global Financial Crisis, and all the others – the Euro crisis, the Greek crisis – the M&A market in the Baltics did not really recover from all that uncertainty until about 2013-2014. I also helped to develop the firm’s aircraft leasing and finance practice – at one point we were representing the lessors or the financing parties of more than half of the commercial aircraft fleet in Latvia, and led the teams on some of the largest commercial aircraft leasing and finance transactions in Latvian history.

In 2016, due to some family issues, I decided to leave everything in Riga and move back to New York. This was both a disastrous move (grins), on some levels, and a brilliant move – as it required another total restructuring and reassessment of my life and career. Yet I never left the Baltics entirely – I kept travelling back and forth between New York and Riga, still doing some M&A consulting, attending networking events throughout the Baltics, but with the expectation of ending up in some international business role in New York. It was not to be! During my visits to Riga, I connected with some Latvian companies needing advice on US law. It turned out that there is significant demand for such advice, which escalated to the point where I pivoted, and established a full-time practice of advising Baltic companies doing business in the United States.

You’ve had hundreds of legal matters under your belt. Were there any that stood out due to their complexity and which you nevertheless managed to pull off?

I am most proud of the work I did in my final years at Ellex Klavins – representing a German client that in the 1990’s took part in the privatisation of the Latvian natural gas monopoly incumbent, Latvijas Gaze, but then wished to exit its investment. This exit coincided with, and was complicated by, Latvia’s unbundling of its natural gas market, as required by EU Directives. So, over a three year period, I led a series of M&A transactions, involving both Latvijas Gaze and its spinoff, Conexus Baltic Grid, with deal values of several hundred million euros. What made these deals fascinating was that they were full of uncertainties – involving legal ambiguities, geopolitics and political meddling – but we got most of them done.

As a New York lawyer, how would you describe your typical client?

To be honest, there is no typical client. I represent both, innovative Baltic technology startups, seeking US market share and investment from US venture capital, as well as traditional Baltic manufacturers exporting goods to the US. What is interesting is that ten years ago, when I was the president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Latvia (AmCham), we were trying to interest Latvian companies in US markets, but at that time the US market was considered by many to be too far away, too complex, and too expensive.

This, however, changed after the Global Financial Crisis – Latvian, as well as other Baltic companies’, recovery was very much export-driven – Baltic companies had to become more productive, more competitive, and had to find new export markets, including those in the US. Another factor is the startup ecosystems that have been established in all three countries – such did not really exist ten years ago as we know them today. The development of these startup ecosystems, and the realization that in the startup age you can develop world-beating companies right here in the Baltics and leverage such ecosystems to reach global markets and attract financing from Silicon Valley and beyond, has also contributed to Baltics’ interest in the US market.

So, the tagline of my legal practice is – “Bridging the Baltic States with the United States” – by this I mean helping Baltic companies navigate the complexity of the US legal market. And I do this from the perspective of someone who knows the Baltics and the business culture here. My approach to clients is to provide excellent legal services, but with a personal approach, based on trust and long-term relationships, and offer a reasonable billing rate.

The ability to work in the Unites States and in Latvia must be unique from many points of view.

Yes, my practice is a unique niche. On the one hand, I’ve spent more than a decade working in the Baltics – I know the local customs and many people. On the other hand, I know the US business culture and practices and have run the gauntlet in a large corporate firm in New York, so that’s a unique combination very few people have.

I offer a nearly full-service business law firm, but the focus is on corporate matters, corporate transactions, all kinds of contracts, be it distribution or intellectual property licensing, as well as intellectual property registration, also business immigration. There are areas where I do not have competence – notably patent law and taxation law – but am able to refer clients to specialists for such areas.

What are the common mistakes that Latvian and Baltic companies usually make when entering the US market?

What I often encounter is lack of appreciation of the complexity of the US market – not just due to its size and geography, but most importantly due to its legal complexity. The US is a federal country with national laws, but also the laws of fifty different states – and it is important to understand that business is largely regulated on the state level. Many of the laws overlap, and investors must navigate this whole system of overlapping Federal and state laws.

Another mistake is trying to do things on your own, or not involving professional advisors, to save on advisors’ fees. Entering into a business relationship on a handshake, or on a contract that has not been reviewed by competent legal counsel, can come back to bite you years later, when a dispute arises. It is usually worth it to invest the money in professional advisors – be it legal, tax or accounting – and thus avoid future misunderstandings or disputes, or properly plan for legal risks, from the start.

Entering the US market you must plan an adequate budget – for your legal, tax and accounting advisors, but also plan that it takes time, in the fiercely competitive market, to establish relationships and trust with US partners. You cannot walk in from Riga, Vilnius or Tallinn and expect your business to flourish without building long-term relationships and trust – of course depending on the specifics of each business sector. And one has to plan to be in the US with “boots on the ground”. Although the pandemic has made remote work a new norm, in many respects there is no substitute for investing time in the US, meeting with your business partners face-to-face, attending trade shows, to establish such trust.

You mentioned your UN job helping the fledgling Latvian state. Do you ever think about what path your career would have taken had you stayed in the diplomatic corps much longer? You could have risen to the position of Latvia’s Foreign minister by now?!

I am not sure about becoming Foreign Minister (laughs), but the three Baltic countries are small and dynamic countries, which results in a lot of opportunities for upward mobility – especially in the early days, when if you were driven and ready to take on responsibility you could reach success rather quickly – at least in comparison with established countries.

Many of my former colleagues at the Foreign Ministry – who back then were junior desk officers – today are ambassadors or high-level officials in EU and NATO structures.

When I arrived at the UN in late 1991, we had little lobbying experience at the UN, and no diplomatic experience, so it was this exhilarating experience of being thrown into the UN machinery and having to learn quickly, and, if you were idealistic (as we all were), you went to sleep every night with the weight of the nation on your shoulders. The main issue in those early days was the continued presence of former Soviet (then Russian) military forces in the Baltics. We were tasked with globalizing the troop withdrawal issue, and in this respect passing several resolutions in the UN General Assembly calling for the withdrawal, also involving the UN Secretary General.

At the same time, we, I mean the Baltic delegations at the UN, were very much on the defensive, as the Russian Federation was accusing us of so-called human rights violations due to the citizenship policies we had. So we had to work very hard to keep Latvia in particular off the list of human rights “bad actor” countries, as was sought by our eastern neighbour, and in this we were successful.

For a young diplomat, it was an amazing time. I was the principal speech-writer at the Mission, and authored speeches for the President, several Prime Ministers, Foreign Ministers and others. At the same time, I was tasked with participating in various global conferences, be it on human rights, disarmament or economic development – and negotiating Latvia’s interests in late-night sessions in Geneva, Vienna and other foreign capitals.

What do you believe you succeeded in doing as the president of the Am-Cham?

Well, while the main mission of the AmCham is to develop trade, investment and friendship between the US and Latvia, we developed a separate mission pillar for the chamber – that of advocating for a better business and investment climate in Latvia. So one example of successful advocacy by the chamber was regarding abuse of the insolvency administration process in Latvia, in particular with many companies struggling in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. We had a situation where certain insolvency administrators were working for their own benefit, taking assets for themselves, establishing fictitious creditors, manipulating the court system, and so on – which was very harmful both for the economy and for Latvia’s image to foreign investors. AmCham was one of the first organisations to start ringing alarm bells about this problem, initiating public discussions, bringing together lawmakers, banking associations, insolvency administrators and others to discuss how to resolve it. Subsequently, we brought the issue to the Foreign Investors’ Council in Latvia, which then took the lead to solving the problem with the Government, but that took a five-year effort. But of course – the AmCham did not solve the problem – but I am proud that we were one of the first to advocate for a solution and initiating that discussion.

You are also involved with the Latvian National Opera Guild?

Yes, indeed, I am President of the Guild, which is a New York non-profit organisation. The Guild has raised about USD $1.7 million over the years for the benefit of the Latvian National Opera and to promote the art of opera in Latvia. We are now conducting a $200,000 fundraise as the main sponsor of a new production of a Latvian opera, Hamlet, with opening night scheduled in January 2022.

My efforts for the Guild are volunteer work – this is my present way of contributing to society. Supporting the Opera supports Latvian culture and its image abroad, which in turn should promote tourism and good relations with other countries, which in turn should support investment. For a small country like Latvia, music and singing, including opera, are two of the things that set it apart on the world stage, with many Latvian opera stars working around the world. And our opera stars, like our basketball players, are, in a sense, ambassadors of the country, as many Americans would never have heard of Latvia if not for Kristaps Porzingis, one of our NBA basketball stars, or Elina Garanca, a fantastic artist who graces the greatest opera stages of the world. It is important that our small countries find their competitive advantages, and their gifts, and use these to showcase for the world, and through such to benefit the country and its economy and image. So, I see my role in the Guild as much broader than just supporting the opera.

Where do you see yourself next? Maybe in Latvian politics?

I have no current interest in entering politics, to be honest. I’d rather continue working in the private sector, helping Baltic companies grow into world-leading companies, and through that grow prosperity for our countries and our people. One of my main concerns is demographics – that our small nations’ futures depend on maintaining our populations, ensuring that our education and social systems are attractive for people to stay and build their families and businesses here, and entice many of those who have left, to return.

When was the last time you enjoyed your much-deserved vacation?

That’s an interesting question! Earlier I complained about being a soldier in a large law firm – subject to its edicts and the will of partners handing out assignments. But now I am my own boss – not just as lawyer, but also with the roles of business developer, marketer, bookkeeper, the accounting guy – and when computer systems go down – I’m also the IT guy (laughs). All of these roles make this job a 24/7 affair – but I would not trade it, as having a solo practice gives great flexibility, which I certainly enjoy – and now and then I do in fact reward myself with brief holidays. I am turning into a digital nomad – structuring my systems and business such that I can work from anywhere – be it New York, Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, the South of France or a Greek island (smiles). Our digital world makes such remote work possible – however, I am very much a people person, and cannot wait for the return of large in-person gatherings in Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius and make new business relationships and friendships.