Who Became an Attorney in 2023
Published on February 21, 2024
The Belarusian legal profession is experiencing some of its most challenging times, perhaps even the most difficult. The total number of attorneys has been continuously declining since 2020, with 6 lawyers currently imprisoned for political reasons, and the number of lawyers stripped of the right to profession is constantly increasing. The legal profession is rapidly migrating from an independent institution to "State's people", participating in the legitimization of unfair and undemocratic elections and providing free consultations to victims of the genocide of the Belarusian people. Against this backdrop, it is useful to see how attorneys and those wishing to become ones are "voting with their feet" for this new legal reality.

Our project conducted its own investigation into who became an attorney in 2023, which we want to share with you. During our investigation, we relied solely on open data sources, which imposes certain limitations on the information.
General state of affairs in the legal profession
Our project pays a lot of attention to documenting the state of affairs in the Belarusian legal profession. The aim of this material is not to recount all the problems faced by Belarusian attorneys. These are covered in the report "The Crisis of the Belarusian Bar: How to Restore the Right to Defense", released in 2022 and the update to this report "Belarus. The Crisis of the Legal Profession: Continued Repressions 2022 – 2023", released in 2024. This material will only touch on the quantitative composition of the Bar. Thus, 2020 began with more than 2100 attorneys. Following the falsification of the 2020 elections and the onset of mass repressive practices, the number of professionals began to steadily decline. Thus, the Belarusian legal profession entered 2021 with 2074 attorneys, 2022 began with 1874 attorneys, and 2023 started with 1692 professionals.

Additionally, a significant problem was the presence of many districts in Belarus where there were either no attorneys or only one professional, as we noted on our website. Thus, by the spring of 2023, there were 9 districts in Belarus without a single attorney (including such sizable districts as Stolbtsy and Belynichi) and 30 districts with only one attorney (when one attorney goes to court or is involved in investigative actions, the district is being effectively left without legal representation, which precludes any guarantees of procedural rights).

By September 2023, the number of districts with no attorneys dropped to 6, while districts with only one attorney increased to 40 (this number includes districts that managed to secure one attorney and those that were previously better served).

It should be noted that in terms of attorney population coverage, Belarus (1 attorney per 5000+ people) has come close to Uzbekistan (1 attorney per 5000+ people), hopelessly being not only behind developed countries, where the standard ratio is 1 attorney per 600-800 people, but also behind Georgia (1 per 800), Moldova (1 per 1500), Ukraine (1 per 1000), and even the Russian Federation (1 per 2000).

Looking ahead, it's clear that the policy to maintain the number of attorneys and access to legal assistance has failed. We entered 2024 with 1603 attorneys.

How it was intended to solve the issues with the number of attorneys
On November 30, 2021, amendments to the Law "On the Bar and Advocacy" came into effect. Some of the most controversial changes that sparked heated discussions among legal professionals were related to the simplified process of internship and examinations for employees of courts, prosecutors' offices, law enforcement, and investigative bodies. There were numerous opinions suggesting that defense would now be carried out by former police officers. However, 2022 has demonstrated that there was no influx of such "ex" employees into the legal profession. There were isolated news stories about someone from the judiciary becoming an attorney, but it's important to understand that transitions of judges, prosecutors, and investigators to the legal profession, especially after completing the tenure necessary for retirement, had always been a relatively standard career path for legal professionals from these institutions and was seen as something akin to an honorable retirement. Similarly, individuals with legal education from these bodies often moved into the legal profession as part of their standard career exploration process. There was no mass or particularly administered flow of "ex" employees into the legal profession, meaning this mechanism did not work (if it was ever considered by the authors of the amendments as a mechanism for the legal profession to gain personnel). We will discuss the reasons for this later.

The second approach indicating a desire to address the issue of the number of attorneys was to attract young legal professionals, graduates of law schools. The aforementioned legislative changes eliminated the requirement for a minimum professional experience for future attorneys (previously, a minimum of 3 years of experience in the legal field was required). Considering the inertia in decision-making, the educational cycle, and the need for internships, it was unlikely to expect this factor to have a significant impact in 2022.
Who became an attorney in 2023
According to data kindly provided by the Ministry of Justice, a total of 50 people became attorneys in 2023 (and another individual appeared on the attorneys' list but then disappeared from it, with no further information available about this situation). Simple arithmetic shows that during the same period, 139 people left the legal profession.

"Former" employees among attorneys (5)

Firstly, it should be noted that based on the 2021 legislative changes, we were able to identify with a high degree of certainty only 5 newcomers (10% of the newly admitted) from the state agencies. We have previously written about two of them (one from the investigators and another from the police force). Among the others, one had worked in the prosecutor's office for 3 years (from 2019 to 2022), another had 20 years of experience in financial investigation bodies, and there are solid grounds to consider the latter person as having joined the legal profession from military justice bodies after a long service. There is also one attorney with a long tenure as an assistant to the court chairman, though with a significant break between the end of his court service and his entry into the legal profession.

Another group accepted into the legal profession in 2023 (3 persons) have law enforcement backgrounds in their service records (including one with experience in OMON (riot police)), but quite some time ago. As mentioned before, the mere fact of having once worked in law enforcement says little; there are various tracks and career trajectories in the lives of lawyers that do not preclude them from being and becoming good attorneys who respect and adhere to the law and legal ethics.

As can be easily seen, there isn't a significant influx of employees from the respective agencies into the legal profession. Everything fits within the usual pattern of transition into the legal profession as part of professional movement or as a transition after acquiring the required length of service.

Attorneys without digital trails

Overall, when characterizing those who joined the legal profession in 2023, it's notable that a significant number have virtually no digital trails. For a substantial number of attorneys, there are neither online publications, articles, nor mentions. The only mentions that are typically available in such cases are often either associated with participation in ideologically correct events (such as the Belarusian Republican Union of Youth or student union activities) or with their capacity as attorneys. Naturally, this doesn't apply to everyone, but it does to a significant portion. It appears that the ideological suitability of candidates is becoming increasingly evident: any activity not directly sanctioned by the state is a hindrance to becoming an attorney. This should be considered a problem, as it would be preferable to see more attorneys who are participants in legal competitions, authors of publications in scientific collections, participants in international contests, and generally professionals whose story doesn't start with obtaining a license.

Additionally, for a number of attorneys, even on the website of the Belarusian Republican Bar Association and corresponding territorial Bars, there is a lack of not only a photograph but also a contact number or email address (for example, the advice office of the Rechytsa District). Among the "mysterious" legal consultations, which include attorneys not mentioned anywhere else, are those in the Dobrush and Buda-Koshelevo districts.

However, we are more convinced that if information on some of the other attorneys admitted to the Bar in 2023 was not found, it was not due to their presence in corresponding bodies. Most attorneys without digital footprints are from relatively remote and minor legal consultations. The observed pattern suggests that such consultations are more likely to take in young lawyers, with a few exceptions, which we will mention later.

Young attorneys in the legal profession (18)

We ask our readers not to perceive ageism in this categorization. We use the term "young attorneys" to evaluate how the legal profession in 2023 was replenished with graduates who had not had significant activity after university, except for internships in law firms or work as assistant lawyers. We were able to identify with a certain degree of reliability 18 attorneys joined the advocacy immediately after graduation (⅓ of the newly admitted). This does not mean that among the others there are no more attorneys who entered the legal profession in 2023 immediately after university, however, as already mentioned above - the Bar is replenished with people with minimal digital traces, without publications, information about any participation in relevant events, etc.

Professors in the legal profession (4)

This is also quite an interesting phenomenon. We cannot rely on any objective data at the moment, but previously the phenomenon was more common when an attorney started teaching, rather than a lecturer becoming an attorney. In 2023, 4 teachers of legal disciplines in universities became attorneys (here we reiterate that the opportunities for verifying the remaining newly arrived attorneys are very limited, although, teachers, obviously, are mentioned in the lists on websites).

Legal business, law firms, commercial lawyers (9)

These categories of lawyers have always been traditional "suppliers" of young attorneys. Throughout 2022, employees of former law firms made up a quite noticeable part of new attorneys, now the flow of those who can be associated with specific law firms has significantly decreased — only 3 are identified as previously working in law firms. Apparently, almost everyone who wanted to switch to advocacy has already done so. We counted 6 attorneys from the number of commercial lawyers (including those who were previously self-employed).

Attorneys with a "regular" career path (11 individuals)

As in other periods, in 2023, various individuals entered the Bar, including after certain pursuits and movements towards advocacy throughout a certain part of their lives. The paths are quite diverse: some entered advocacy, then left, and then returned; some were in-house lawyers, then transitioned to the Bar (it's worth noting that there are very few of these, perhaps surprisingly few); some came from various government agencies and unions, while others even moved from sales, having previously worked in special purposes militia unit and as an enterprise lawyer.

Among relatively interesting career trajectories is the transition to advocacy (specifically, to the "problematic" legal consultation offices) of atypical candidates. Thus, the deputy manager for ideology of the Mogilev City Housing and Utilities Department joined the legal consultation office of the Belynichi district, where there were no attorneys, and the chief labor rights inspector of the Mogilev regional organization of the Belarusian Union of Workers of State and Other Institutions joined the legal consultation office of the Kruglyansky district, where there were also no attorneys.

Who else is left

Thus, we were unable to identify 5 attorneys (10% of the total number of lawyers admitted to the bar in 2023), of which 4 belong to smaller consultation offices, and only one attorney belongs to a consultation office in Minsk. Based on indirect data, we believe that in this group, the distribution of where specialists came from into the legal profession will not significantly differ from the overall distribution.
The distribution of the new attorneys among legal advice offices consultations and collegiums, and other comparisons
As we have already noted, 18 attorneys out of 45 identified by us entered the Bar right after university, constituting 40%. Considering the current average age in the legal profession, approaching 45 years, it can be said that there is a certain rejuvenation of specialists. At the same time, one can encounter the opinion that as a result of repressive measures, the bar is losing very experienced and professional attorneys, leading to a lack of continuity and gaining specialists that are not so well-versed in the peculiarities of advocacy.

Among the 52 new attorneys, 27 are women, and slightly fewer, 25, are men. The distribution by territorial collegiums looks as follows:

Brest Regional Bar - 2 attorneys;
Vitebsk Regional Bar - 3 attorneys;
Grodno Regional Bar - 4 attorneys;
Mogilev Regional Bar - 5 attorneys;
Minsk Regional Bar - 10 attorneys;
Gomel Regional Bar - 12 attorneys;
Minsk City Bar - 15 attorneys.

Summarizing the information presented above, the influx of atorneys was the smallest in the Brest Bar and the largest in the Minsk City Bar (but at the same time, the proportion of new attorneys in Minsk is still less than the overall proportion of Minsk attorneys compared to the rest of the republic).

Speaking about the distribution of new attorneys among legal advice offices, it should be noted that the main influx was directed to legal consultations in cities with a population of less than 50,000.
Recently, 3 attorneys were admitted to the Rechitsa legal advice office. In the Rechitsa district office in 2021, there were 11 attorneys, and at the beginning of 2023, there were 6 remaining professionals. The attorneys P. Kulazhenko and T. Savchenko did not pass the certification, and three more attorneys (N. Bogdanova, A. Gaponenko, T. Lukyanova) are also no longer listed in the Rechitsa office. It is important to note that in November 2023, in Rechitsa and the Rechitsa district, at least 6 persons were detained on suspicion of distributing "extremist" materials and subscribing to corresponding websites and social networks. "Repentant" videos of the detainees were published by a telegram channel close to the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption, in which human rights defenders identified Pavel Kulazhenko, an attorney whose license was revoked in September 2022.

What is the situation with legal advice offices where there are no attorneys or where there is only 1 specialist:
Previously, we have already drawn your attention to the problem of the increasing number of legal advice offices with only one attorney or without them at all. By the beginning of 2024, the following changes have occurred. Composition of the Grodno office remained unchanged, as with Minsk Region office. In the Brest Bar, the number of legal advice offices with one attorney decreased by one, and in Gomel, due to the influx of new attorneys, the Buda-Koshelovsky office left the list of offices with only one specialist.

Mogilev Bar remains the leader in the number of legal consultations with only one attorney. A year ago, in February 2023, there were 13 offices with one attorney in the Mogilev region, in September, there were 15. As of today, there are 14 such offices. The number of legal consultations without specialists has remained unchanged; there is still one such office.

In the Vitebsk Bar, there were 9 offices with one attorney a year ago. In September, the number increased to 11. Today this number is even higher: in February 2024, there are 13 legal consultations where only one specialist works.

Overall, it can be seen that the territorial Bars of problematic regions (Mogilev and Vitebsk) are extremely inefficient in attracting new personnel. Despite the dismal figures for the number of legal offices with one attorney and without them, only 3 attorneys were attracted to the Vitebsk bar and 5 to the Mogilev bar over the year. Moreover, at least 3 experienced attorneys were excluded from the Vitebsk regional Bar during the first half of 2023 due to repressive measures. In other words, the number of newly admitted attorneys does not cover the number of attorneys who were subjected to repression, not to mention the retirement of attorneys and other processes leading to voluntary withdrawal from advocacy.
Looking at the numbers overall, the rate of decline (the first derivative, speaking mathematically) still decreases: in 2021, the advocacy "lost" 200 attorneys, in 2022 - 182, in 2023 - 89 (there are currently 1602 attorneys). But the decline continues. Moreover, if the largest impact on the decline in 2021 was due to changes in legislation regarding the bar, significantly strengthening the dependence of attorneys on the state, destroying alternative forms of legal activity, and reducing advocacy just to the level of a department of the Ministry of Justice, in 2022 those who waited for changes decided to leave the bar, and then in 2023, the thing is evident: many attorneys no longer want to be ones. It should be understood that here only the absolute decrease values are mentioned. To determine the total number of attorneys who have ceased to be ones, the absolute number must be added to the number of those admitted. For 2023, this will be 139 attorneys who left the legal profession.

One can interact a lot with universities, make changes to legislation to facilitate the transition to the legal profession from relevant bodies, but this does not eliminate the key problem - the function of advocacy in Belarus is distorted and does not correspond to the way it works in a civilized world. An attorney is not a procedurally strong figure; currently, they must participate in propaganda speeches, lay flowers at monuments on holidays, and take photos at polling stations. Hardly anyone seriously thinks that this is what one should strive for, what one should get a diploma for. An attorney who disagrees with something very quickly ceases to be a lawyer. This unsightly state of affairs is also evident to investigators, prosecutors, and judges — today they have complete power over an attorney, can initiate the drafting of a fabricated protocol for disobedience, and in 15 days the attorney loses his profession. Why would such a judge, investigator, or prosecutor transition to become an attorney, and thus — the same target they were shooting at just yesterday?

Forecasting further developments, however, we believe that the rate of decline in the number of attorneys will continue to slow down. Time passes, events fade away, and apparently, repressions will further concern not the events of 2020, but rather the non-compliance of some attorneys with the new realities, in which an attorney is a person belonging to a state, who must perform a state function, participate in propaganda, and legitimize even illegal laws.

Overall, without changing the role of attorneys, without restoring the role of advocacy as a mechanism aimed at ensuring the protection of clients and defending the attorney's right to work without the threat of persecution, the advocacy won't become a desirable place of work that the entire legal elite will strive for.
What else we discovered during our research
To our great surprise, during our research, we found that a vast number of attorneys continue to use Russian email services and even the t*t.by mail. Russian services have an extremely questionable reputation regarding the provision of information upon requests from the law enforcement agencies of Belarus and Russia. As to why and how attorneys should master their digital security, you can read the following materials (written in Russian): 1, 2, 3, 4. It is important to understand that an attorney risks not only their own information but also the confidentiality entrusted to them by clients.

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