What makes staying at the Bar possible
Finding contentment in one's work is crucial for any profession. Not all my colleagues enjoy practising law, I know for sure, and they do realise it. The job of an attorney essentially involves taking on a client's problem and striving to solve it. It's a role of significant importance, akin to a medical profession!
The positive aspects, of course, include moments when your efforts ultimately benefit the client. It's crucial to acknowledge that success in our field isn't solely about winning cases; it's also about managing cases to their conclusion and receiving positive feedback from clients. But satisfaction comes not only from victories but also from relationships with clients and colleagues. There have been instances where, despite fighting tenaciously and believing in the strength of our case and evidence, we received an absurd decision. In such times, the support and kind words from clients and colleagues help in maintaining faith in oneself and the profession.
There were thoughts about changing careers, which seems to be a fairly standard phenomenon — which seems to be a fairly common sentiment — there's even advice suggesting one should change jobs every five years. However, the idea of leaving my clients without legal support, of erasing over a decade of legal practice and more than five years of legal education in a single day, felt impossible. The first factor was the main one for me. I aspired (even if it sounds naive) to change the country through my human rights activities, a country where 'the times do not need the law,' and where mentioning 'human rights' tags you as a societal enemy — in a country that proclaims the rule of law!
I've never been concerned about personal consequences due to my work. Seeing a client's need, I felt obliged to provide professional legal assistance. Post-2020, colleagues and clients often asked me, 'Aren't you afraid?' My response has always been, 'No, otherwise it is impossible to work, and I am committed to fulfilling my duties faithfully.' I'm not entirely sure how my colleagues are managing now, but I've heard that finding a defender in individual criminal cases has become challenging.
About legal advice offices and the atmosphere in the team
In 2021, I had to switch to a legal advice office since working independently became impossible, and the bureau was liquidated. The change wasn't psychologically harrowing, just the usual period of adjustment typical for a new workplace. The relationships there were purely professional. I was 'exiled' more than 100 km from my home, and the office management acknowledged the absurdity of this decision. Consequently, my visits to the consultation office were limited to a few times a month: for duty, reporting, and handling calls under Article 46.
I never fully adapted to the legal advice office after the 2021 reform, which may have contributed to the eventual loss of my licence.
Before 2021, I hadn't worked in consultations, and my observations from two offices lead me to believe that they couldn't really be termed a 'team.' It felt more like a collection of attorneys each working independently, with a slight obligation to 'serve the state' (as they put it when assigning me cases requiring mandatory attorney participation, which others refused). However, before the reform, we had a tight-knit relationship in the law office. We collaborated on projects, worked collectively on cases, communicated well, and held joint events — now that was a team! During my time at the bureau, I had an interesting offer to join a large law firm, but I turned it down. When asked under what conditions I would consider joining them, I answered honestly, which surprised the HR specialist very much, "Only if something happens to my current team."
Of course, even now there are colleagues and their support, it is very useful. Now there are almost no colleagues left among attorneys with a licence, which leads to sad thoughts, because most of the colleagues are true professionals with extensive experience and integrity. We have seen exemplary models of what an attorney should be, but tragically, many such individuals are now imprisoned, abroad, or without a licence. Despite these difficult circumstances, a number of colleagues persist in the profession, holding onto hope for a better future. The presence of such steadfast and principled attorneys reassures me that all is not lost.
Regarding changing attitudes towards attorneys on the part of authorities and clients
As more experienced colleagues recall from the events of 2006 and 2010, we have already been through all this. However, the duration and scale of the repressions back then were much smaller, and the media wasn't as accessible, so for many, it may seem that the challenges we've faced since 2020 are unprecedented. But, regrettably, it's a case of 'the new being the well-forgotten old.'
We must acknowledge that courts handling political cases essentially function as extensions of law enforcement agencies. The negative and disrespectful attitude toward attorneys from the court reflects the same stance held by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Investigative Committee, and the Prosecutor's Office. Our work impedes their efforts to create a facade of 'justice' in what essentially amounts to disenfranchisement. Consequently, attorneys face restrictions such as the inability to take photographs of case files, the rejection of motions, the non-acceptance of evidence, the removal of questions during trials, etc..
Different bodies are worthy of separate mention. For instance, in administrative cases with political motives, defenders often cannot access their clients in temporary detention and isolation centre, despite legal provisions for such access. With regard to convicts in colonies and prisons, there are obstacles to attorneys visiting certain political prisoners who are now held incommunicado, contradicting legal standards. Generally, there are no systemic issues with accessing the pre-trial detention centre, but confidentiality during meetings remains a concern. All these problems are known to the leadership of the Bar, the state bodies, and the prosecutor's office. Yet, instead of being resolved to ensure the right to legal aid, new restrictions and hurdles continually emerge, reflecting a deliberate policy towards attorneys.
As for clients, the volume and nature of their requests have changed. Before 2020, my work primarily involved dealing with business-related economic matters and, to a lesser extent, administrative issues. However, post-August 2020, I observed a notable decrease in business clients approaching attorneys (possibly due to COVID, relocation, the suspension of investment projects, and direct repression), but there was an increase in administrative and criminal cases (stemming from heightened repression, political persecution, and the transition to legal advice offices with mandatory legal aid in criminal cases). Overall, both from my experience and the sentiments expressed by colleagues, there's been a decline in the number of requests.
Client trust levels have definitely changed. I've often heard that, when seeking an attorney, individuals voice requests for 'just not a state' defender. This brief wording tells a lot about citizens' attitudes toward the advocacy system. Today, when clients ask for a special defender, we collect the opinions of colleagues (Were there any strange actions? Do they have competence on the issue? Do they cooperate with the authorities?). There's a noticeable distrust of appointed defenders in mandatory representation cases, leading clients to seek out trusted attorneys and concluding contracts. Such caution is sometimes warranted, particularly if a defender, without substantial grounds, persuades a client to admit guilt, or is reluctant to communicate with the client and their relatives — then distrust appears instantly.
A diligent attorney in administrative and criminal cases of political persecution undertakes extensive work. This includes not only maintaining communication between the client and their relatives, documenting and responding to rights violations, providing defence strategy advice, and explaining current case scenarios and potential outcomes, but also preparing and representing the client in court and during procedural actions. Despite these efforts, it's common to hear sentiments like 'why do we need these attorneys, they just take money without providing any real help,' or 'attorneys only aid the system.'
"Legal default", where a defender is unable to effectively protect the client with the help of legal means, is an additional barrier not only for our work and protection of clients' rights, but also for trust in the legal profession and its status in society.
There are also instances where clients are hesitant or unwilling to disclose the full truth about their case. 'The client always lies!' as one colleague put it. While this isn't always the case, we are always prepared for such scenarios, having experienced some notable examples. Generally, though, especially with ongoing client relationships, trust tends to grow, despite obstacles for discussing cases confidentially.