What Is Going on in Belarusian Bar After the “Reform”

Published on June 7, 2022
On May 10, 2022 BelTA (Belarusian Telegraph Agency) released an interview (link to the text in Russian) with Vera Oreshko under the heading “Accessibility of the Legal Aid Did Not Suffer. Chairman of the Minsk City Bar Association on Reform”. In the interview, the Chairman outlined the results of the reform of the bar, the results of the elimination (quoted from the original publication) of law firms and individual attorneys’ practice, as well as about the improvements in the functioning of the bar.
The editorial board of the project “Right to Defense” has decided to challenge the Chairman’s words and conducted an independent examination of the changes in the bar, relying predominantly on objective factors. Unfortunately, the interview did not contain a single figure, not a single fact, only value judgements and opinions, so we had to arm ourselves with statistics diligently.
Amendments of the legislation on the Bar in brief:
We remind you that at the end of November 2021, extremely odious amendments to the legislation on the bar came into force, further increasing its dependence and controllability by state bodies (for more information, see the materials “Access to the Profession: Commentary on Changes to the Legislation on the Bar”, “Certification and Recertification of Lawyers: New (or Old) Features in the Legislation on Advocacy”, “Expansion of the Powers of the Ministry of Justice: Changes in the Legislation on the Bar”, “Appointment of Self-governing Professional Associations by the Ministry of Justice: Commentary on Changes of the Legislation on the Bar”). The key legislative amendments can be boiled down to the following:
  • One can become an attorney only upon the consent of the Ministry of Justice, issued according to a non-transparent and arbitrary procedure;
  • Extremely broad powers of the Ministry of Justice to interfere in the activities of the bar;
  • the Ministry of Justice appoints absolutely all heads and members of professional associations;
  • Elimination of such forms of activities for attorneys as working within a law firm, as well as individual practice;
  • Expansion of mechanisms for regular and extraordinary recertification of attorneys, which is used as a mechanism for reprisals against unwanted professionals;
  • The mandate of subjecting attorneys to disciplinary responsibility is practically concentrated solely in the hands of professional bodies, whose members are appointed by the Ministry of Justice;
  • Elimination of key powers of the bodies of attorneys’ representation (conference or lawyers’ congress) in favor of professional bodies appointed by the Ministry of Justice;
  • Approval of the Rules of Professional Ethics for Attorneys by the Ministry of Justice alone.
These changes were received extremely negatively by the legal community, many were going to leave the profession, since not everyone was ready to carry out professional activities within the legal advise offices, and not everyone was ready for such restrictions of the profession; it was difficult to see the possibility of providing high-quality legal assistance in a situation of dependence and state control.
The Bar in numbers:
Interviewer:
In connection with the reform, will the availability of legal aid suffer? Will clients feel the consequences of the reorganization?

V. Oreshko:
Lawyers have been operating in accordance with the new rules for five months already. Therefore, it is safe to say that the accessibility of legal aid has not been affected. Clients probably did not notice the reforms. The only additional procedure that they had to go through was to renegotiate the contract for the provision of legal aid in connection with the change in the organizational form of the attorney’s activity. Everything else for the clients has remained unchanged.

Firstly, in order to identify if the clients were affected and the changes, indeed, have gone unnoticed, we have to analyze the changes that have occurred in the composition of the Bar. So, there were 2,031 attorneys in Belarus as at October 27, 2021 (the date of the latest update of the attorneys’ list on the eve of entry into force of the amendments eliminating law firms and individual practice as forms of professional activity). As of writing (the end of April, 2022), 1815 attorneys are left.
So the first figure is that in a little more than six months the absolute number of attorneys in Belarus has decreased by 216, or 11%. That is, every tenth attorney has ceased to be one. And if we consider that 15 persons were admitted to the bar during this period, then the “losses” from the previous list amount to 232 attorneys. Again, these changes have taken place from 27 October, 2021 to April 2022. It is extremely difficult to restore the entire dynamics of the passage of the process now, but it is known that the decrease in the number of lawyers from 27 October, 2021 to 12 November, 2021 (when the ban on the existence of law firms and individual practice has already entered into force) was 78. You can read more about the first changes in the legal profession after the entry into force of the prohibitions in our material “Interim Results of the Liquidation of Law Firms and Disbarment of Individual Attorneys”.
Law firms and attorneys practicing individually as a source of difficulties
Interviewer:

According to the reform of the bar introduced in 2021, law firms and individually practicing attorneys were eliminated. Advocacy is carried out only through legal advice offices, which are shaped by bar associations in coordination with the Ministry of Justice. How many lawyers of the Minsk City Bar Association have been affected by the reform? What are the advantages of the reform?
V. Oreshko:
In connection with the implementation of amendments to the Law “On Advocacy and Advocate Activity in the Republic of Belarus” in 2021, 9 new legal advice offices were created, welcoming attorneys who had previously carried out professional activities individually and within law firms.
The obvious advantage of the reform is the uniformity of approaches to the provision of legal assistance, which takes place in legal advice offices. Fee policy and formats of legal assistance used to differ quite a lot when there were law firms and individual attorneys, which gave rise to quite understandable dissatisfaction of clients.
Now we should analyze at whose expense these changes were carried out, which categories of attorneys were affected, and to what extent the measures undertaken represent the desire to “get rid of” attorneys practicing within more liberal and independent structures (as have been law firms and individual practice) – as well as to verify if the declared goals – to ensure the uniformity of approaches by transferring all lawyers to legal advice offices – were achieved.

So, out of 353 lawyers who practiced within law firms in October 2021, by April 2022, 263 lawyers retained their licenses – that is, 90 persons, or 25% retired. Out of 269 lawyers who carried out their activities individually, 233 retained their licenses – that is, 36 persons, or 13%, ceased to be lawyers. Accordingly, the number of “ordinary” attorneys who have ceased to be ones is 106 persons, or 7.5%.
Thus, the percentage of “departure” of lawyers from law firms and from among lawyers engaged in individual practice is twice as much as the percentage of “departure” of lawyers from legal advice offices. Apparently, it can be concluded that in one way or another, a certain ousting of individuals and law firms attorneys from the profession has taken place. The method of such ousting – be it a simple non–admission to legal advice offices or the creation of conditions under which it is pointless to continue practicing law - does not matter much. We are talking about specific figures and results.

Moreover, taking into account objective data on the admission of new attorneys, namely, that 15 persons were admitted for the period from 5 November, 2021 to 28 March, 2022 (4.5 months), it apparently has to take 70 months, or 6 years, to achieve the previous figures of the provision of population and businesses of legal assistance – let alone the ordinary departure processes, like retirement, etc.
It should be noted that the current leadership of the Minsk City Bar Association and the Minsk Regional Bar Association come from law firms. Vera Oreshko was a lawyer at the Princeps-Consult law firm, and the Chairman of the Minsk Regional Bar Association Maxim Tereshkov was a managing partner at his law firm.
Who’s gone?
Interviewer:
According to the reform of the bar introduced in 2021, law firms and individually practicing attorneys were eliminated. Advocacy is carried out only through legal advice offices, which are shaped by bar associations in coordination with the Ministry of Justice. How many lawyers of the Minsk City Bar Association have been affected by the reform? What are the advantages of the reform?
V. Oreshko:
In connection with the implementation of amendments to the Law “On Advocacy and Advocate Activity in the Republic of Belarus” in 2021, 9 new legal advice offices were created, welcoming attorneys who had previously carried out professional activities individually and within law firms.
The obvious advantage of the reform is the uniformity of approaches to the provision of legal assistance, which takes place in legal advice offices. Fee policy and formats of legal assistance used to differ quite a lot when there were law firms and individual attorneys, which gave rise to quite understandable dissatisfaction of clients.

We can also pay attention to the following statistics: which specific law firms have “lost” the most attorneys, and which ones have lost the least. The word “lost” here denotes a certain number of attorneys from the bureau's list of professionals who ceased to be ones by April 2022.
In Belarus there were 7 law firms with 8 or more attorneys. Of these, one firm, “Vlasova, Mikhel & Partners” (8 lawyers), has completely “lost” all its attorneys. We remind that this law firm is a permanent participant of various international rankings, and, as a rule, occupies the first and second places in such.
Other frequenters of international legal rankings have lost more than 70% of their staff: those are law firms “Stepanovski, Papakul and Partners” (the largest one, 13 out of 17 attorneys left), “Borovtsov & Salei” (6 out of 8 attorneys left), “Revera” (8 out of 11 attorneys left).

Among the well-known large firms marked in international rankings and focused on working with business, the firm “Sysouev, Bondar and Partners (SBH Law Offices)” has suffered smaller losses – 1 attorney out of 9. Two other offices, which were created not on the basis of law firms after the 2013 legislative amendments, but were formed by “traditional” attorneys, expectedly “lost” a negligible number of specialists. Thus, one attorney out of 11 was “lost” by the law firm “Petrashevich and Partners” and none was “lost” by the Princeps-Consult firm (10 attorneys), where the current Chairman of the Minsk City Bar Association Vera Oreshko has worked.
Other law firms, known for their participation in international rankings – that is, business-oriented, engaged in large projects, shaped as corporations on the models of Western legal business, as a result of the reform ended up with the following:
Verkhovodko & Partners– 2 out of 6 attorneys left;
Sorainen” – 3 out of 4;
Egorov, Puginsky, Afanasiev & Partners” – 2 out of 4;
Arzinger Law Offices” – 2 of 3;
Law firm “Goretsky & Partners” has retained all three attorneys.
Besides the above-mentioned “Vlasova, Mikhel & Partners”, some other firms have completely lost all their attorneys, those are: “Business Attorney”, “Konon and Partners”, “De Jure Consult”, “Legal Edge”, “Prokhorenko Maria and Partners”, “PARADA & Partners” (total 17 attorneys).
The “reform” did not affect 60 law firms, 49 of which comprise small teams – up to 3 attorneys inclusive. A full list of law firms with an indication of the number of attorneys who have ceased to be ones can be viewed at the link (the info is provided in Russian).

A little explanation should be made. In any case, no law firms exist anymore. When we write about losses or retention, it is only about whether specific persons, specific attorneys, have remained in the legal profession. It is impossible to say whether there are any organizational structures left after law firms that could provide legal assistance to clients at the same level of expertise, team management. That is, there are no forecasts in this material as to the correlation between the retention of certain attorneys from legal firms and changes in the provision of services by specific legal brands. We’re addressing precisely the fact that certain carriers of expertise, organizational structures, accumulated connections and credit leave the legal profession. Business-oriented law firms have retained their competencies within the framework of law offices and continue to function. However, we must understand that this situation is an unfavorable one and deteriorates the clients’ positions. You can read more about it in this material [Interim Results of the Liquidation of Law Firms and Disbarment of Individual Attorneys].
Now a little about the economy
V. Oreshko:
At the same time, the role of district legal advice offices remains a priority, providing legal assistance to the population and business of the relevant administrative units in Minsk. Here the most important and pressing problems of citizens and legal entities are promptly solved. Creating optimal comfortable conditions for obtaining timely, affordable and high-quality legal assistance is a task that is constantly on the agenda.
The editorial office has 2020 and 2021 reports prepared by the Belarusian National Bar Association. The interviewed representatives of the bar expressed doubts that such reports, due to the specifics of the drafting process, in principle, can reflect reality; nevertheless, these figures correlate with the above data on changes in the number of the members of the bar, including changes that have taken place since 2020, after the beginning of crackdowns.
According to the report, the difference in the number of attorneys on 1 January, 2021 and 1 January, 2022 comprises 171 persons. At the same time, Minsk legal advice office has “lost” 75 attorneys, Minsk regional office – 39, Brest office – 23. The other regions – about 10 persons each. “Losses” of the Mogilev Regional advice office comprise only 4 lawyers.
This data is followed by quite interesting figures. In total, during the year, attorneys have managed to deal with 287,368 assignments, which is 19,129 less than a previous year (a drop of 6%). The lion's share of the “decline” is on the Minsk City Bar Association – 14,472. A year earlier (2020 compared to 2019), the increase amounted to 825 assignments, which is about 0.2% (“assignment” is a common name for all types of legal assistance).
If we consider different categories of cases, then in 2020 there was an inexplicable “drop” in the number of assignments in criminal ones. Thus, the drop in the number of assignments executed under Article 46 of the Criminal Procedure Code (pro bono cases) amounted to 4,091 (11%), defense under the concluded contracts - 7,989 (13%). Next year (2021), some of these indicators almost returned to their original values. The increase in assignments under Article 46 of the Criminal Procedure Code amounted to 2,188, and in other criminal cases – to 4,850.
At the same time, according to Belstat statistics, which refers to the data of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Belarus, 87,696 crimes were registered in the country in 2021. For comparison, 95,478 crimes were registered in 2020 (an increase of about 7 thousand as compared with the previous year, while the number of lawyer's assignments in criminal cases was significantly less than in the previous year), in 2019 – 88,378, in 2018 - 83,813. That is, in the protest-covid 2020, the number of crimes has increased, but the number of assignments executed by lawyers in criminal cases has fallen. It is challenging to find any explanation for this.
It’s important to note that the volume of such services depends very little on attorneys, it is dictated solely by the crime rate – the bigger is the amount of crimes committed (or the amount of crimes people are accused of committing), the more lawyers deal with these cases.
But for other types of pro bono assistance, there is a drop: oral consultations (a drop of 1.5 times, a year earlier there was an increase of 30%), drafting legal documents (a drop of 20%, a year earlier – an increase of 5%), handling civil and administrative cases (a drop of 2 times, a year earlier there was a doubling increase, but, apparently, the protest cases of 2020 have affected the situation). Again, it is extremely speculative, but there is every reason to believe that the drop in the volume of pro bono assistance (which is not, in general, such a binding duty as defense in criminal cases), is not due to a decrease in the number of appeals (in November 2021, even the legislative amendments took place, expanding the scope of legal assistance that shall be provided free of charge), but is rather connected with the amount of work that lawyers have been capable to deal with, taking into account the decrease in their number and the increase in engagement in mandatory types of assistance.
A more illustrative picture of civil cases and business contracts. The drop in the number of civil cases in the interests of citizens and legal entities amounted to 8% (a year earlier, a drop amounted to 1%), a drop in the number of contracts for maintenance of business entities amounted to 17% (half of this indicator was on Minsk City Bar Association. A year earlier, the drop was 0.2%). But the number of events devoted to legal education of the population has almost doubled!
In general, it can be seen that the figures of internal statistics correlate with a decrease in the number of attorneys. Why is it so important to compare the data, and how does it affect the availability of legal aid? The thing is, large swings in the number of macroeconomic indicators (such as the demand for legal aid) are totally atypical for them, since the society is the same
And if we do not agree with the idea that 10% of all businesses and citizens have left the country, then the reduction in the volume of legal aid has the most logical explanation – someone did not manage to find their lawyer, their executor, did not receive their service or received it elsewhere, in a different way. In any case, these are figures that show the failure of the reform and the failure to achieve its goals.
A bit of subjectivity to conclude
At the beginning of the article, we promised to rely on objective data and statistics. However, we decided to ask (on condition of anonymity) to tell us how appropriate it is to talk about the ideal organization of work in legal advice offices compared to law firms or individual practice.

Attorney No. 1
“In the legal advice office, where I had worked for 6 years, the team in its main part was quite close-knit, and almost no one refused to help or share their experience. Everything was fine with mutual assistance, too; if colleagues were not busy with other things, then they, as a rule, agreed to substitute for someone in the process or at the investigation. But during the 3 years of my work in the law firm, lawyers constantly discussed cases among themselves and, if necessary, replaced each other in the processes as well.
The difference was that in a legal advice office I had to explain to my colleagues the whole situation in order to get advice; that is, in fact, I consulted them myself. In the law firm, due to the fact that we cooperated more closely with each other, and the situation in the main cases was known to everyone, all lawyers had a greater degree of involvement in the discussion, and at the same time it was not necessary to retell the same circumstances a few times.
The issues of replacing a lawyer at a trial in the law firm were solved with the same success as in a legal advice office. The main problem with replacements is not the size of the team, but the fact that in many cases you simply cannot be replaced without prejudice to the client: there is too much information that the new lawyer will not be able to grasp in a short time; or it is too difficult to anticipate the course of the process, and the new lawyer won’t be ready for all the actions that may be required of him. If replacement cannot be avoided, then it is necessary to at least minimize the negative consequences. In a way, it was easier with this in the law firm, since you were handing over the client not to a random person, but to someone who was already familiar with the case to a certain extent.
Since I have experience of working in only one legal advice office, I cannot say that what I’ve stated is typical for all of them. As I know, in some offices, internal relationships, on the contrary, are minimized or take place only in separate small groups. This is, of course, a question of personalities, and not a general principle of the arrangement of legal advice offices. As for the law firms, some of them, as to my observations, simply adopted the way of organization from legal advice offices and did not try to change its format. But those who wanted and knew how, practiced other approaches.”

Attorney No. 2
“It is absurd to talk about some special level of mutual assistance and partnership when it comes to a team that is formed without any consideration for the opinions of its members. In law firms, unlike legal advice offices, the team was formed by the members themselves, they had the opportunity to build a truly team of specialists, close in spirit, capable of mutual assistance. In legal consultations, the formation of such a team is the exception rather than the rule, there is a considerable disunity.
It is also worth noting that assistance, from the point of view of providing advice, was always much more real in the firm, where the problem of one attorney at the same time represents the problem of the firm with which the client had a contract. In a sense, such reasoning is appropriate for comparing legal advice offices with individual practice, but it is important to note that it was always a lawyer's choice whether to go into individual practice, which means he deliberately decided that he wanted to work alone, without a team. And it should be noted that many people, by virtue of their nature, really prefer to work alone, their professionalism and productivity hardly suffer from it.”

Attorney No. 3
“If we talk about such a phenomenon as lawyers’ mutual consultation, assistance with advice, then in legal advice offices it is a common thing to ask colleagues who have conducted or are conducting some category of cases, as to what the practice is in this category, how to act and what to look into. As a rule, lawyers are willing to share their experience if being asked to, since everyone may need such advice, and these conversations are constantly being conducted. They also often refer clients to a lawyer who is better versed in a particular issue. It is unlikely that the level of mutual assistance or complementarity depends on the organizational form. In legal advice offices, there are always lawyers who often or constantly cooperate with each other, trust each other more, and there are also those who do not cooperate or do not consider it possible to transfer a particular case (due to lack of experience, another specialization or non-acceptance of approaches and attitudes to work).
Regarding the possibility to provide better opportunities for replacing lawyers in overlapping processes within legal advice offices, I should note the following. Replacing a lawyer in a case under a contract is a matter of the lawyers themselves and the consent of the clients. Criminal cases are closely related to the personality of the lawyer and the issue of trust, so replacing a lawyer in such a case is a sensitive issue, and substitutions are not the rule. Then the question arises as to the candidacy of the substitute, whom do you trust? Usually, these issues are resolved, if not within the office, then with other colleagues with whom you usually cooperate. To cases under Art. 46 of the Criminal Procedure Code, theoretically, there should be the same approach (since the quality of assistance should not depend on the grounds on which it is provided). But in practice, if the lawyer providing assistance under Art. 46 is engaged in another process or is ill, then the head of the legal advice office deals with the issue. By the way, law firms have no problems with providing assistance under Article 46 of the Criminal Procedure Code, because they do not undertake such cases (or extremely rarely when there are not enough lawyers in legal advice offices), which has always struck me as odd, since lawyers within legal advice offices and the law firms are equal in status, in principle. It's just that lawyers who are provided with work under contracts gather in the law firm (those are only large cities), and in legal advice offices (especially in the regions) some lawyers work only (or in the majority of cases) under Article 46 (this, by the way, is a tough job – if you take into account the categories of cases and duties, including, night ones – and low-paid).”
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