Once upon a time in a night train from Rovaniemi to Helsinki, a young law student named Aku Sorainen came to share a compartment with a local butcher. After chatting a while, Aku found out that his travelling companion was in the midst of a divorce. In the next breath, Sorainen promised to handle the legal end of things for him; the butcher’s first payment for these services was to treat the hungry student to two meat pies and two beers.
This was the first advocacy assignment for the man who nowadays runs his own established law firm, SORAINEN, in a modern glass office building with a grand view of the centre of Tallinn, Estonia.
Aku Sorainen began studying law at the University of Lapland in 1987. He had dreamed of a career in law since he was a teenager but a career as an attorney did not appeal to him until he was writing his master's thesis. The thesis goes a long way towards explaining how he became the founder and the leader of the biggest law firm in the Baltic States and Belarus.
"When Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania regained their independence from the Soviet Union in the autumn of 1991, many Finnish companies were expanding to Estonia. The situation inspired me to write my thesis on the legislation in the Baltics regulating foreign investments and business", Sorainen recalls.
But it was very hard to get any information on the Baltic countries without spending time there. This was beyond the student budget, so he contacted some big Finnish companies, which agreed to sponsor the study. In early 1993, when the thesis was complete, The Association of Finnish Lawyers published it, and suddenly Aku Sorainen found himself known in Finland as a Baltic specialist, with a group of potential customers no less.
"What can one do in such a situation? Move to Tallinn, of course, and start practising law", he says with a smile.
The fresh graduate did not have much experience in practising law but this did not cause him to shrink from the challenge. He got in touch with the Finnish law firm Hedman, which sent him to set up an office in Tallinn in March 1993.
Living conditions were rather ascetic: the heating and hot water were often off and security was dubious. Even so, Aku Sorainen succeeded in setting up the first foreign law firm in Tallinn and in advising foreign companies on how to access the Estonian market.
"My Finnish background, education and values made it possible to start up here. The Estonian legal system was built at the beginning of the 1990s mostly on the basis of Finnish, Swedish and German legislation, so it was easy for me to understand the terminology and structures. In addition, the level-headed, commonsensical Finnish approach to things has been a passport to sustainable success", reckons Sorainen.
After two years, he decided to start up his own business. At first, he and the first employee, Kristiina Agur – then a secretary, now regional head of human resources at SORAINEN – worked in one rented room and with a computer and printer lent to them by their first customer, AGA Gas Company.
"Even back when I was writing my master’s thesis, I dreamed of founding a law firm that would operate in all the Baltic countries. As soon as it became possible, we expanded – to Latvia in 1997 and Lithuania in 1999."
In 2008, SORAINEN opened a fourth office – in Belarus. The reality is now beyond what were once Aku's wildest dreams.
"When the business was still young, I thought I could manage twenty employees at the maximum. Now the firm employs over 200 people, over 140 of whom are lawyers. We have 24 partners and ten specialised regional legal teams."
"From the outset our key customers have been large and midsized companies, whom we advise mainly on business law and tax issues but, increasingly, on litigation as well", Sorainen adds.
SORAINEN has been recognised repeatedly as one of the top law and tax firms in the Baltic countries and Belarus. In Estonia, it has also received an award as the best and most family-friendly employer.
"We have been in the right place at the right time; but to prosper, it is essential for the company to find the right people for the right jobs – to build up a dream team", notes Sorainen.
"When we find those people, we do all we can to keep them motivated."
In all four countries where it now operates, the firm has a consistent business culture and common work processes that comply with the ISO 9001 quality management system. Personnel development is strengthened through the company's own training programme, SORAINEN Academy, which offers training modules to all personnel groups.
A tour of the company's premises shows that success is not only results and systems but human interaction as well. People greet each other with smiles; mentoring happens naturally with senior and junior lawyers sharing offices; the walls have art made by staff and their children. Team spirit is recognised with art and sports events: at the annual Summer Days people from all the offices get together and the firm even has a staff band, which this May was chosen the second best company band in Estonia.
One should also not forget the characteristics of the founder: clear enthusiasm for the business, consistency in implementing a long-term strategy, attention to detail and, finally, a talent for building and maintaining contacts and business relationships.
Sorainen's advice for law students interested in an international career or starting their own business is to value and show entrepreneurship and humility as well as to acquire international experience.
"Any kind of international experience teaches you how to adjust to different societies and cultures. When I was in high school, I spent one year in Denver, USA, as an exchange student, and I still feel it was one of the most important years in my life."
"When it comes to business, everything starts small. Learn first with the small set, then bit by bit set your sights higher."
In studies, this highly experienced lawyer and business person underlines the importance of the master's thesis.
"It is your first real opportunity to focus on a certain theme and gain special know-how that will allow you to outshine other job applicants."
"Still, you should remember life outside of studies, too", says Sorainen, and thinks back on his student days in Rovaniemi: "I had lots of hobbies: I did a lot of sports, got a night flying licence for single-engine aircraft, did a skydiving course and studied in a local music institute. I was also a trumpet player in Rovaniemi Big Band. We visited salsa festivals all around Lapland and even had a tour in Cuba. It was such an intensive and great time. Altogether, Rovaniemi offered a great springboard for the future."
Photo: Kaupo Kikkas / SORAINEN
|Founder and senior partner of the law firm SORAINEN
Master of Laws, University of Lapland 1993
Member of Finnish Bar Association, Estonian Bar Association (first foreign citizen to be accepted) and International Bar Association
Associate member of the Latvian and Lithuanian Bar Associations
Honorary consul of Malta in Estonia
Member of the supervisory board of the University of Tartu
Married, three children