Some people hate lawyers. Shakespeare's Henry VI wanted to "kill all the lawyers," and Vladimir Lenin advised clients to give their lawyers "hell" and denounce them as scoundrels. In the United States, even children recite anti-lawyer jokes like: "Why won't a shark attack a lawyer? Professional courtesy."
Given such attitudes, we lawyers are delighted to see that Russia is bucking the trend. Serious steps are being taken to increase respect for lawyers and even honor them. President Dmitry Medvedev, himself a lawyer, has frequently spoken about the importance of a sound legal system for the country's future development. Presumably, he expects lawyers to help lead the fight against "legal nihilism" and promote the rule of law.
Last month, the president gave lawyers a special boost, signing an executive order to create an annual Lawyer of the Year prize. It will be awarded on the legal profession's national day, Dec. 3.
The private sector is doing its part as well. On Friday, a special ceremony was held in Moscow to grant the Corporate Lawyer magazine awards to the best company legal departments in Russia.
These actions make good sense. Russia competes for jobs, contracts and investments with the many countries suffering from the global credit crunch, including Brazil, India and China. To win this competition, Russia must quickly modernize its economy, streamline its overwhelming state bureaucracy and encourage investments in technology and training. Russia's lawyers should play a key role in these efforts.
Why are lawyers essential for national success? In brief, healthy societies require a level playing field, where the most talented individuals and best companies are able to succeed on merit and the same laws apply to all. This is the real meaning of the often-used expression "rule of law." Lawyers can facilitate the development of such a society, by helping individuals and companies to protect their property and human rights and ensure fair and equal treatment.
So why are lawyers so often disliked? Some lawyers are overzealous in promoting the interests of their clients. Others are all too willing to bend the rules to win a case for their clients. In business transactions, they raise meaningless objections and "over-lawyer" the documents. Such actions cause nonlawyers to lose faith in the legal system, and they damage the reputation of the legal profession.
Clients as well as lawyers are to blame. The American comedian W.C. Fields once said that if someone asked him for a loan, he would first seek advice from a lawyer, and if he did not like the lawyer's advice he would find another lawyer. Such attitudes are common.
Lawyers are also used as battering rams to beat up the other side and advance selfish interests rather than to achieve a fair result.
At present, Russia has a good chance of overcoming many of these problems with its relatively new legal system. Substantial progress has been achieved. In less than two decades, the country has adopted a wide range of rules and regulations appropriate to a 21st-century economy.
While the legislative reform process continues, attention should focus on a new goal: winning the hearts and minds of officials, civil servants the business community and ordinary citizens. All of these groups need to embrace the rule of law for Russia to benefit and to overcome the many well-publicized obstacles, such as continuing corruption, remaining gaps in legislation and the like.
Good lawyers can play a key role in this process by doing excellent legal work, setting examples for others, helping to educate the public about legal matters and properly training our own colleagues and personnel.
Having spent more than 20 years working on legal matters in the Soviet Union and Russia, I am proud of the many young Russian lawyers who have worked in my firm. I am confident that they will contribute to the future development of their country. In this context, the president's Lawyer of the Year award and the other programs being developed to encourage lawyers are welcome and appropriate incentives.
Brian L. Zimbler is the managing partner at Dewey & LeBoeuf, an international law firm in Moscow.
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