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- Eugen Hrushovets
Partner of Criminal Practice, Ario Law Firm
Wartime Legal Diary: How Our Team and Legal Market Survive in Russian Aggression
It should have been the traditional annual analysis of the development of the legal market and the situation in the criminal field. But Russian aggression adjusted these plans. Therefore, I will simply tell you how the Ario Law Firm team is experiencing the Russian invasion in the context of the general political situation and the legal market.
I present to you a kind of war diary from our team.
The Ario Law Firm team hasn’t entered the year 2022, but has broken into it with great optimism and ambitious plans. After all, we have closed 2021 with extremely positive indicators. This applies both to the work of Ario Law Firm in general, and to the practice of criminal law and White-Collar Crime in particular. In my department, I planned to carry out several promotions among existing employees and recruit new colleagues, because the number of projects in our practice and their quality were truly impressive.
It may sound immodest, but I believe that such rapid development wasn’t conditioned so much by external factors, such as the economic or political situation in the country, but by internal ones. In particular, the issue here is the quality of our services. In simple terms, the results provided by our team gave us the right not to think about how to retain a client or where to look for a new client.
The dynamics of the beginning of February 2022 generally continued the previous trends, despite alarm bells ringing about the possibility of a full-scale war with the Russian Federation. In January-February, a new partner, and two counsels joined Ario Law Firm, and we opened new practices and a new office in Lviv.
Frankly speaking, many did not believe right to the last in the possibility of a war on such a scale. I was among those people. In February, I made decisions that I definitely would not have made if I had known that there would be a full-scale invasion.
February 24 – March 2022
On February 24, my colleagues and I were supposed to fly to our client, Mikheil Saakashvili, in Georgia, but…
“It seems to have begun.” Our working chat began at around five o’clock in the morning on Thursday, February 24, from this message.
Some of the employees were taking their children to western Ukraine, some colleagues were going to sign up for the territorial defense, and some were actively volunteering. In the first weeks of the large-scale invasion, the work of the firm, as well as the entire Ukrainian economy, had almost all stopped.
Why do I say “almost”? Because there was one urgent matter in our criminal law practice. One of our clients was in a detention center during the war. In my deep conviction, this was completely unfair and illegal, because his case involved a commercial dispute, albeit one involving millions of dollars.
Unscrupulous opponents tried in every possible way to cause procedural sabotage. For example, an attempt was made on this man’s life while he was in the detention center, and on February 23, on the eve of Russia’s offensive on Kyiv, his elderly parents were searched by officers without a warrant from the investigating judge and with other numerous violations. And when the big war started, I simply had no choice but to release the client from custody.
From the very first day of this full-scale war, I did not stop trying to meet with the client at the detention center, where for obvious reasons no-one wanted to let me in. At the beginning of March, by all possible means of remote communication, our team “attacked” all the courts in Kyiv, right up to the High Anti-Corruption Court, with requests to change the preventive measure against the client (although our case does not come under the jurisdiction of the High Anti-Corruption Court). But we understand that, although officially the courts were supposed to be working at that time, in fact, this did not actually happen to a greater extent. We emphasized in every petition that a judge has no right to withdraw from his/her duties when the fate of people really depends on his/her decision. Sometimes it was too emotional, but we needed to hold this meeting so that the client would be free at this terrible and tragic time.
At the beginning of March, I still managed to get into the detention center where the client was held. To be honest, it was a shock, because I have never seen this place like this: there were snipers on the roof; the people who guard the detention center literally were living there all this time. Those of them who were not on duty were dressed not in uniform, but in civilian clothes.
Shortly after this trip, we still managed to reach our goal and in March, when fierce battles were raging right next to Kyiv, the Pechersky District Court of Kyiv City considered our petition and changed the preventive measure against the client. I remember that day very well: I got to the office at six o`clock in the morning to work on the documents in this case, at nine I had a meeting with one of our volunteer clients, and immediately after that I rushed to the court. That is, for several hours I did not read the news at all, and only 5 minutes before the court session did I learn that Kyiv was shelled that morning. Then I was sure that for these reasons the court session would not take place. But it turned out that both the judge and the secretary of the court session were present, and the prosecutor participated remotely from another court. Because the client wrote a statement that he wants to serve in the Armed Forces of Ukraine the judge released him from custody.
Immediately after the court session, I went to the detention center with the court decision and within an hour the client was already sitting in my car.
But the “adventures” did not end there. After driving literally one kilometer from the detention center we were stopped at a checkpoint and our documents were checked. The client’s passport was with the investigator, which is why we were detained by the military. For several hours we have been waiting for the arrival of representatives of the Foreign Intelligence Service of Ukraine. It was good that I had the materials for the criminal proceedings with me. As a result, it enabled us to prove to the intelligence officers that we weren’t an enemy-subversive intelligence group. This client is currently defending Ukraine in the ranks of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
By the way, that terrible and hot March was marked by another important victory for our team in another case regarding a mayor of a Ukrainian city. At our request, the Prosecutor-General’s Office finally closed proceedings in the case, which had been going on since 2015, due to the absence of a crime.
That is, I am leading to the fact that despite total chaos, the complete lack of understanding of the future not only on the part of the company but also the state in general, we tried to work.
In April, our team actively joined the volunteer project Lawyer of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, where our lawyers still provide legal assistance to military personnel. The main requests from Ukrainian military personnel are military service, financial issues, provision of medical services to persons participating in hostilities, obtaining the status of missing persons, etc. At the same time, we also receive many requests regarding criminal offenses. In particular, the issue here is the non-fulfillment of command orders, arbitrary abandonment of a unit, etc.
But it would be incorrect to say that the real active work of the Ario Law Firm’s criminal law practice team began in April when Russian occupying forces left the territory of Kyiv Region. In fact, there were not enough prerequisites for the resumption of activity at that time. Personally, I devoted more time to volunteering and aerial reconnaissance. In unison with our clients we bought drones, handed them over to the military, and sometimes even went to advanced positions ourselves to adjust our artillery. And here, I cannot help but mention our clients who, from the first day of the war, joined the army in helping both with donations and direct participation in hostilities.
As for legal activity, firstly we started recording activity sometime in mid-May when Kyiv began to revive, and people began to return from abroad and the western regions of Ukraine. For the first time since February 24, we began receiving inquiries from customers. If we talk about the issues that worried our clients at that time, to a greater extent these were proceedings investigated by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine before the war, as well as court cases. In addition, at this time, our criminal law practice team began to implement a pro bono project within the framework of which we assisted law-enforcement agencies to collect evidence of war crimes committed by russians on the territory of Ukraine. Our lawyers personally traveled to liberated towns like Bucha, Irpin, Hostomel, to record the crimes carried out by occupiers. It was probably one of the most difficult times for us.
It should also be mentioned how at that time I traveled thousands of kilometers through countries in the West to enlist support for Ukraine and maintain our client base. As I am the only one in our company who has the right to travel abroad (as a father of many children), I conducted all my meetings with clients who were in Europe at that time.
Summer is a new starting point for our firm and practice in this war. Client activity has increased many times, and in addition to clients who already exist, new ones have started contacting us. If you are interested in the topics of client requests, then the absolute majority of those who applied for legal assistance lost control over their own businesses due to the alleged ties of management to the aggressor country, the russian federation.
This is currently a very hot topic, which may later negatively affect the economy and image of Ukraine. Let me explain why. Our country currently has effective mechanisms for the confiscation of Russian assets in the form of the Law On Sanctions for example. However, our law-enforcement agencies have invented a more efficient, but much more dangerous way, in the form of the seizure of assets within the framework of criminal proceedings, which is not directly related to the sanctioning mechanism. Based on my experience of working in such cases, I can say that our law-enforcement system has developed a specific template for detecting the so-called “russian footprint” and all businesses can be included under this template, not only those that really contribute to russian aggression. To a greater extent, seized assets like corporate rights, property, accounts are transferred to the Agency for Search and Asset Management, about whose activities Ukrainian lawyers also have many questions. At the same time, our law-enforcement agencies do not particularly bother with the arguments for arrest and transfer assets to the Agency for Search and Asset Management. In our practice, there was a case when the assets of a client were seized due to alleged tax evasion, and the evidence of non-payment of taxes was (!!!) the alleged presence of a russian passport by the owner of the company. I am in no way on the side of businesses that really do have russian roots and directly or indirectly finance this war. I emphasize that mass, indiscriminate seizure of assets can backfire if the owners of the seized businesses are not sanctioned by a Presidential Decree, because everything that is happening now is a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. And accordingly, Ukraine can respond with taxpayer funds when the owners of the arrested businesses go to court, including international ones, and with a high probability that they will win.
That was a small “lyrical digression”, so we return to the main events of those stormy times.
In the summer, our team, except for those heroes who serve in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, finally returned to the office. Yes, at the beginning it was not yet a full working week, but even then, for the first time since February 24, we saw real prospects and opportunities for resuming fully-fledged activities. Sometime in July active, fully-fledged work began.
We still continue to record the positive dynamics of our business. Although, for the sake of fairness, it should be noted that we, just like the entire market, returned about five years ago.
At the same time, we understand the problems, but we also see real ways of solving them.
Assessment of the situation. Briefly.
- Personnel issues
A significant part of our employees now serves in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. In particular, one of our best criminal practice lawyers is now in the AFU. When I say, “one of the best,” I mean not just within the Ario Law Firm, but within the entire country. It is not easy for us without him, but we are infinitely proud of his choice to defend Ukraine on the front.
I cannot speak about my colleagues in the market, but I think that in general terms, the situation is similar for many. Quite a significant number of lawyers have joined the ranks of the AFU (which is a matter of pride for everyone), but from the personnel point of view, law firms are experiencing more difficulties because of this. There are days when I arrive at the office at seven o’clock in the morning and leave at two o’clock in the morning.
I would like to note that several employees of Ario Law Firm are currently serving in the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
- Logistical issues
Due to various circumstances, some of our employees cannot yet return to the office and work remotely. It also complicates certain customer processes.
- Cost of legal services
It is clear that the payment of wages to employees depends on this and, therefore, it is time to think about indexing the cost of legal services due to soaring inflation in Ukraine. However, this is a kind of moral barrier for us now. Due to the difficult economic situation, we have not yet raised rates for our customers.
- Redistribution of the legal services market
We are currently acquiring projects and clients that previously were under the monopoly of giants of the legal market. There are various reasons: some businesses refuse to work with legal companies that serve or have served russian businesses; some law firms could not survive the hottest phases of the war and actually left the market; some lawyers have moved on to other areas of business, etc.
Jurisprudence is an echo of the general political situation and the economy. Therefore, I expect that in the medium term we should expect lawyers specializing in criminal law and White-Collar Crime and see an increase in cases investigated by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau. In particular, this will relate to urgent issues of humanitarian aid, and the purchase of military weapons and equipment, because the lion’s share of the Ukrainian state budget is directed toward that. I think that military law and related areas will remain a priority over the next few years.