Written by Rachel Julia Myers, JD/ MA in Russian and East European Area Studies.
As a first-year law student also pursing an MA in Russian and East European Area Studies, I am interested in studying the legal profession both in the United States and in Russia. In my class on legal professions at Indiana University Maurer School of Law this semester, we talked a great deal about legal education and how it shapes the behavior of lawyers. Prosecutors and defense attorneys may have different attitudes and priorities, and lawyers across the profession have many varying conceptions of their roles and responsibilities. These same differences are present in the Russian legal community, but there are many nuances and not much research has been done on the attitudes of professionals in the Russian legal field regarding their careers, and especially how these attitudes may change over time. One of Kathryn Hendley’s latest research endeavors is changing that.
Previous research has indicated some of the attitudes held by Russian legal actors at isolated points in their careers, but what we don’t know is when those attitudes form. Do Russian students leave law school with different perceptions about the legal field and their roles than they ultimately profess later in their careers? If attitudes don’t remain consistent, what factors influence these legal professionals? Hendley’s new data set seeks to answer these questions by surveying a group of over 2,000 students, first at the cusp of graduation with their legal degrees (note that law is an undergraduate degree in Russia) and then revisiting these same students again periodically through their careers. Hendley hopes the data will provide insights into the way actors in the Russian legal profession see their roles and how these conceptions and expectations change as their careers progress. Identifying the timing of such shifts may also help point to the factors influencing them.
Hendley asks whether Russian law students experience unifying socialization in the course of their legal studies. Russian law students and legal professionals can be broken into certain categories. Hendley invites challenges to the traditional breakdowns of these groups and posits whether rethinking the categories makes sense. Can we study the Russian legal profession as a whole? (The encompassing, general term for members of the legal profession in Russian is юристы.) One division among Russian law students where we might expect differences is between students studying law at Russian universities in person and those studying by correspondence, or remotely, (called заочники). We can also compare students pursuing different professional tracks. Hendley’s initial survey suggests that along many lines there is not much difference between these groups. The survey suggests there may be greater consistency among Russian students of law overall than might have been predicted. For example, Russian law students predominantly have faith in the legal system. Across categories, they are not believers in “telephone law” (the belief that judges make decisions based on a phone call from someone in power) or legal nihilism. They predominantly believe in the independence of the judiciary. They accept as true what their law text books teach them about how judges doctrinally make decisions. The later surveys will be able to tell us whether the realities of legal practice change this perception and at what point in the respondents’ careers that occurs. At the outset, the data suggests that we can talk about law students as a group with a view of the law that is predominantly consistent and positive.
Patterns that have emerged in the survey responses will be interesting to watch as subsequent data is collected. Take, for example, the questions about students’ motivations for pursing their studies. Among the reasons students profess to want to study law is to change society. Hendley commented on a common conception about these individuals: that they are society’s reformers, often on the outside of the establishment. Interestingly, the survey results showed that the group of Russian law students who say they want to change society are predominantly the pro establishment, pro-Putin group. Another factor to analyze is institutional buy-in. Those who express trust in institutions are more likely to want to work for them. The later surveys could tell us whether this faith persists once they are in the system. Hendley also observed that students expressing interest in working for the state were more receptive to the outcomes in politicized cases such as those against Pussy Riot (involving a musical and pro-feminist group whose members were arrested following a public protest performance in a famous Moscow cathedral), Navalny (a leader of the Russian political opposition who has been repeatedly arrested for alleged financial crimes), and Khordorkovsky (a Russian oligarch who was imprisoned in the early 2000s allegedly for criminal activity relating to his businesses, but likely for political reasons). This suggests a willingness among these students to accept what is necessary in order to serve their role as public servants.
Another interesting area to watch in the Russian legal profession is the emergence of unregulated litigators (Hendley calls them non-адвокаты litigators). Адвокаты used to be the only group of lawyers in the Russian legal profession who were litigators. When others without this title, training, or corresponding regulation entered the practice of litigation, the Russian Constitutional Court was faced with the question of whether the specialized group should have exclusive ability to work as litigators. The court decided that the regulated group should not have a monopoly outside of criminal cases. This has left a large group of non-criminal litigators now practicing without the regulations and rules that apply to those who traditionally filled the role. Unregulated litigators put those in need of legal services in a position vulnerable to abuses that the Russian legal system currently has no system to remedy, and thus go unchecked.
The questions posed by Hendley’s data and presentation left me drawing many parallels to my legal professions class. The U.S. legal community is rife with debates about the differing attitudes of lawyers who play different roles and about whether legal actors are regulated enough (or, conversely, too regulated). New and useful insights might be drawn by looking comparatively at the data on U.S. and Russian legal actors and drawing conclusions and lessons from both cases. Sometimes looking at another country points in directions of inquiry about our own that we otherwise never would have considered. I will anxiously await the results of the next survey round to see what new questions can be answered, and what new questions will inevitably emerge.