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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Re-Pat Lawyer Takes On Biggest Deal in Town

MTOleg Berger inspecting legal volumes in his firm's downtown Moscow office. He is committed to continuing his career in Russia.
It is a strange sight. Oleg Berger, partner with the LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae law firm and lead counsel on the biggest corporate acquisition in Russia's history, is reciting the Young Pioneers' oath.

Berger -- aged 9 when he learned those stirring lines and now 37 -- did not get much opportunity to practice them.

Just three days after donning his red Pioneer neckerchief in 1975 his father moved Oleg, his mother and his older brother to the United States.

It was not because his son had joined the Soviet version of the scouts that Igor Berger resigned from his job as a deputy general director of the largest dental clinic in Russia.

"They wanted to have freedom. They wanted their children to receive a proper education that wasn't subject to Soviet doctrine."

Although he recalls the Soviet Union of the late '60s and early '70s as being "somewhat gray," Berger has fond memories of his family's apartment on Prospekt Mira and trips to the dacha.

"I remember my grandfather," says Berger, puffing on a Marlboro and settling into his green leather armchair in his downtown Moscow office.

"He was a tank commander in World War II and heavily decorated. I remember that when he put on his uniform with all the medals I would feel very proud walking alongside him."

In fact it was Berger's grandfather who first identified where his talents lay. Always quick to argue his point, the 4-year-old earned the nickname malenky advokat, or "little lawyer," from the former colonel.

In the family's new home in the northwest suburbs of Detroit, Berger picked up English in no time, while continuing to receive a "steady flow" of Russian culture from the area's Russian immigrants.

High school was followed by business school at the University of Michigan. After running his own successful dental laboratories in Michigan for 1 1/2 years -- "I wanted to apply theory to practice" -- Berger used the proceeds from their sale to fund his law degree at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

He had never doubted where his professional path would lead, and at the age of 26, Berger left the Midwest for Wall Street and the Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy law firm.

"I found law to be more intellectually stimulating -- you get much greater exposure to a diversified group of clients and projects. I wanted to be in the midst of that environment rather than just putting dollars in the bank."

At Milbank, Berger worked in capital markets and project finance where he was first exposed to Russian deals, "particularly in the oil and gas areas," helping to stir a nostalgia for his homeland.

"Even though I spent 20-plus years in the States I always felt different in outlook, values and sense of humor. I've always wanted to find out what has formed me."

The social and economic upheaval in Russia at the time seemed to offer just that opportunity, and Berger finally returned to Moscow aged 29 as an associate with LeBoeuf. Colleagues regaled him with tales of how, during the 1993 coup attempt, LeBoeuf's lawyers were forced to share their office space with snipers keen to get a better shot at the White House.

"I guess to survive here you need to feel at ease not knowing what's going to happen in a month or so."

Bilingual or not, it took a while before his domestic vocabulary could match the demands of Russian legalese.

"When you're negotiating large-scale deals and when you're kicking a soccer ball in the yard -- it's not really the same vernacular."

Today, with over 200 deals under his belt at LeBoeuf's, Berger says he is committed long-term to the firm and to Russia. "The fruits of our labors are all around us and that's what makes this profession so gratifying."

"I see the 36.6 pharmacies and I think: 'Hey, we took these guys public.'" We're doing work on oil pipelines and all of a sudden they're built and oil is being pumped. Companies are formed and they become market players."

The transaction value of LeBoeuf's current merger and acquisition deals is more than $15 billion. Foremost among them is Yukos' mammoth acquisition of Sibneft announced in April.

Here Berger is cautious, and while clearly enthusiastic about the challenges the acquisition presents, he restricts himself, as he must, to superlatives.

"It's a fantastic transaction, it has the attention of the world," he said. "The company will be a formidable force on the international markets."

And as the summer thunder rumbled outside, Berger brushed away talk of storm clouds -- in the shape of the Prosecutor General's Office -- shadowing the super-deal.

"Certainly Western investors are paying attention, but any emerging market that is undergoing an evolution is bound to make adjustments."

The deal certainly backs up Berger's advice to lawyers looking East from recession-struck offices in Europe and the United States: "To succeed here you must have complete commitment. This market is not for the meek."