Law and disorder: Corrupt practices by lawyers in Russia

Posted: January 18, 2012 at 2:54 pm, Last Updated: September 7, 2012 at 1:55 am

Author: Aaron Beitman, PhD Student,  University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Department of Political Science

Corruption, according to many sources, can be understood as the abuse of public office for private gain.  Despite the good intentions of politicians, government employees, the private sector, and civil society, corruption has remained frustratingly resilient in many countries.  In Russia, corruption is widely acknowledged as endemic.  Near the end of his second term in office, former (and future) Russian president Vladimir Putin remarked that the inability to make significant progress in the battle against corruption was one of the greatest failures of his administration.  Despite the unveiling of a much-heralded anti-corruption program in 2008, Dmitry Medvedev, currently Russia’s president, appears to have made about as much progress as his political mentor.

In Russia, as in many countries, corruption takes many forms and impacts nearly every state agency and sector of the economy.  One under-studied topic is that of corruption by lawyers within Russia’s judicial system.  A TraCCC researcher has conducted extensive research on this topic after regularly encountering it during his professional activities.  Given the sensitivity of his work, we have decided not to reveal the researcher’s identity.

Corruption among lawyers 

During the course of his work, the TraCCC researcher repeatedly observed what he deems as “quasi-corrupt” relations between lawyers and officials from law enforcement or the security services.  These “quasi-corrupt” relations often begin when a lawyer orients himself toward work “by appointment,” understood otherwise as legal defense work financed by the state.  The system for this type of legal work remains incomplete, which had led to regular abuses.  For one, a lawyer working “by appointment” often receives a salary from the very state agencies prosecuting the “appointed” lawyer’s client.  In such situations, it is unsurprising if conflicts of interest exist.  In addition, the process by which a lawyer receives work “by appointment” is incomplete.  Until recently, for example, investigators in certain jurisdictions were able to select the same lawyer for all cases.  These types of arrangements likely led to illegal collusion or the development of corrupt relations.

After the initiation of “quasi-corrupt” relations, a lawyer may move to what the TraCCC researcher refers to as “backhanded corruption.”  In these instances, a lawyer merely goes about the formal aspects of his or her work.  Instead of actually providing assistance to his client, the lawyer simply fills out the minimum amount of paperwork to qualify for payment from the state.  A lawyer engaged in “backhanded corruption” has basically sold himself or herself to law enforcement or security services and has ceased to fullfill his or her importance function as a defense lawyer and civil society check on state power.

The TraCCC researcher demonstrates that lawyers already engaged in “backhanded corruption” will move to the next stage, “direct corruption.”  Lawyers involved in “direct corruption” have become “useful” to law enforcement and the security services and can be trusted to “do the right thing.”  At this point, a lawyer has become an active agent of the state.

 Corruption:  a Russian lawyer’s biggest competition

In the course of his work, the TraCCC researcher analyzed research and data from the Information Science for Democracy Foundation (INDEM), a Russian NGO supported by the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE).  Research by INDEM shows that corrupt bureaucrats must maintain the resources and create opportunities to engage in corrupt dealings.  In other words, the corrupt bureaucrat increasingly becomes the initiator and organizer of corrupt dealings.

This systematic, organized bureaucratic corruption is the main “competition” to the development of the legal profession in Russia.  When a Russian citizen encounters legal or administrative problems, what recourse do they have for resolution?  A citizen has two choices:  either obtain the services of a lawyer or pay a bribe.  The first way is legal, but time consuming.  Furthermore, the structure of the legal system does not permit a well-intentioned lawyer to guarantee a client’s desired result, even if the client is clearly innocent.

As a result, citizens prefer to give bribes because it is believed that bribery will lead to the desired result in a short period of time.  In such schemes, the lawyer is simply superfluous.  Once corrupt practices have become entrenched in the economic and political system, general market principles begin to apply, such as eliminating any unncessary middlemen, like lawyers.

*For more analysis and information, please visit TraCCC’s research publications on corruption page.

Write to traccc at