Viktoriya Shpigelman didn’t grow up around attorneys, but the law has long held a fascination for her. She attributes her initial interest to immigrating to the US at the age of eight from Soviet-era Ukraine, where rules and norms looked quite different from what she encountered in her new home.
“My family came to the US because of the intense religious discrimination that we experienced in Ukraine. Even as a young child, I was exposed to it on a daily basis,” Shpigelman says. “Coming from a very different political system and background helped me appreciate and be very inquisitive about how the legal system and the government in the US work.”
Her curiosity set Shpigelman on a career path that has carried her to W. R. Grace & Co., a specialty chemicals and materials company with operations around the globe. Since joining Grace in 2019, she has transitioned from a litigation practice to a fully commercial role—that of assistant general counsel to multiple business units. All the while, she has continued to carve out time, as she has done throughout her career, for the causes that matter most to her.
Shpigelman got her start in the business transactions group of Washington, DC-based firm Venable LLP. As the 2008 financial crisis unfolded, however, she pivoted away from business transactions, first to appellate matters and ultimately to litigation. A decade into her tenure at Venable, she began to consider moving in-house.
“I felt I was in a unique position where I had the business transactions background as well as the litigation background,” she reflects. “I thought I could use both of those to help a company avoid the litigation quagmire.”
Shpigelman came on board at Grace as a replacement for the company’s retiring long-time litigator. She inherited a dynamic role with global reach, yet she found herself craving the chance to bring her transactional expertise to the table. Since broadening her practice to encompass commercial support for the specialty catalyst business––and later the fluid catalytic cracking and hydroprocessing––she has gotten to do exactly that.
Although her current role is technically outside the litigation realm, Shpigelman still finds plenty of opportunities to put on her litigator hat in the course of her commercial dealings. “I’m the first stop for dispute resolutions with our customers, so if there is a dispute, I can use my litigation skills to help the business,” she confirms. “I can also counsel my internal clients, even during the negotiation process, on best practices through a litigation lens.”
Beyond looking to prevent litigation from the earliest stages of contract negotiations, Shpigelman counsels her internal clients on strategies for the business at large. “In my time at Grace, there have been a lot of transitions within the company,” she notes. “I’ve had to weather those transitions and help my internal clients weather those transitions, while also keeping the trains moving and on time.”
Fortunately, Shpigelman has never been one to back down from a challenge. “As the only attorney in my immediate or extended family, I had to figure out how the legal profession operates, how law firms operate, and how in-house legal departments operate––all without having the benefit of a family mentor to rely on,” she says. “I had to make my own way in the legal profession.”
For Shpigelman, charting her path has always included contributing to projects outside of work, from volunteering at nonprofits like House of Ruth and HIAS to fundraising for her native Ukraine amid the ongoing war against Russia. “My husband is also originally from Ukraine, and we’ve tried to keep the family history and knowledge alive by passing that down to our children,” she adds. “When their schools have culture nights, we’re always there representing Ukraine and Ukrainian culture and trying to teach others that the country is more than just what you hear on TV.”
Between her community involvement and her fast-paced legal practice at Grace, Shpigelman has managed to strike a meaningful balance between the personal and the professional. She advises aspiring attorneys to remain flexible and open to possibilities. “You may think your career is going to look one way, and then it takes a very different turn from what you anticipated,” she says. “Give yourself permission and liberty to explore various areas of the law. You might have strengths in areas where you didn’t think you did.”
Shpigelman is proof that unexpected challenges can lead to exciting opportunities––and to fulfilment in both work and life.