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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pro Bono Picking Up Across the Country

MTIrina Lukyanova, right, conducting a lesson on pro bono legal counselling for future lawyers at the Academy of State and Law.
Some say the best things in life are free; others maintain there's no such thing as a free lunch.

But despite encountering some entrenched resistance in the legal profession to the idea for working for nothing, a small group of like-minded people with the Legal Services Advisory Board is trying to make the provision of free services a part of the Russian legal culture.

Widespread in the West, such "pro bono" community legal work only appeared in Russia recently.

International law firms together with the International Bureau of Advocates created LSAB in 1999, aiming to match needy organizations with legal experts who want to help -- and at the same time foster a more responsible legal culture and instill values in young lawyers.

Sandra Hilton-Kodalashvili, a member of the LSAB and a lawyer with White & Case LLC, said Russian lawyers interested in pro bono work tend to work in international law firms -- "predominantly because they've got a tradition in their own country," she said.

"But through the Legal Services Advisory Board, we are seeing more interest coming from Russian law firms who are becoming more familiar with the idea of pro bono," she said.

However, it's not just a question of familiarity. Many Russian lawyers who are familiar with the concept do not like it because they are already forced to provide services to the needy without receiving what they consider fair payment. According to the law on advocacy and the criminal code, certain categories of citizens have the right to free counsel, including minors, people with physical or mental problems who cannot defend themselves in court and those facing life imprisonment. Advocates say they are too often asked to provide free counsel without fair compensation from the state.

The law is unclear on the amounts that should be paid, but advocates say they tend to receive a token sum of about 50 rubles a day.

"The problem is their time is money, very literally," Hilton-Kodalashvili said. "Most advocates are working on a freelance basis, or they're working in a small group of advocates. These people are not earning a lot of money in the first place, so I think there is a definite tension -- their financial, not even well-being, but financial survival."

Irina Lukyanova runs one of Moscow's free community legal clinics at the Academy of State and Law, training students to provide legal counsel to members of the public who come in off the street. She said part of the problem with pro bono work is that advocates are already over-worked and legal firms have waiting lists.

"They can't work for free on 10 or 20 cases a year, and when they do, they just don't provide quality services," she said.

Lukyanova said the clinic is trying to give students experience, but at the same time, instill in them a tradition of helping society that they can pass on when they become professional lawyers.

The cramped halls of the clinic, teeming with enthusiastic students and every type of citizen looking for advice, are humble but efficient. Thanks to a grant from the Ford Foundation, the clinic was able to buy computers just last week.

Hilton-Kodalashvili said the LSAB helped set up the clinic.

"The legal clinic concept is one of the most encouraging signs of pro bono activity because there is a legal clinic network throughout the whole of Russia," she said.

There are 90 legal clinics throughout the country, the biggest of which are in St. Petersburg, Tver, Petrozavodsk, Arkhangelsk and Stavropol.

"If we can educate law students, right at the beginning of their legal career, that this is something that's important, then maybe there's a chance that they will carry that through themselves once they do start practicing as lawyers," Hilton-Kodalashvili said.

The academy's clinic has helped 52 clients since it opened its doors to the public last year. Lukyanova said most clients are seeking help with housing issues and inheritance.

Some lawyers argue that there is already plenty of free legal aid available for those who really need it.

Vladimir Entin, an advocate with the Klishin and Partners law firm, also heads the Center of the Legal Defense of Intellectual Property, a pro bono project to help people protect copyrights.

"If a person has a cause important enough to seek legal advice, he will find it, there are organizations that will help," Entin said.

But Entin believes that pro bono legal services could be made more widely available. "There could be two ways of regulating pro bono work: One would be to have law firms dedicate a certain percentage of their budgets to free legal service, and another would be to set quotas for working hours with pro bono clients," he said.

Olga Khokhlova, a fifth-year student at Moscow State University and an intern at White & Case, has worked on pro bono projects through the firm, including helping various charity organizations in Moscow such as Medecins Sans Frontieres or Doctors Without Borders. She said pro bono legal advice should be voluntary and that making legal aid obligatory might not have the desired effect.

"I frequently hear about legislative projects that would write into law free legal aid, but you can't use administrative and legislative measures to force qualified specialists to provide quality services," Khokhlova said.