Legal downshifting: from law firms to non-profit organizations

1. The law firm

In 2016, I had been working in legal consulting. Small and ambitious. On the Moscow-City tower’ fiftieth floor, with a red leather sofa at the entrance and expensive furniture.

The beauty of legal consulting is the opportunity to try oneself in everything: courts, international arbitration, and deals. Studying different branches of law and realizing that I was mastering Civil law, which troubled me since the university, had captivated me for three years.


The inspiration from the work began vanishing when the partners of the firm decided to make an M&A (transactions) lawyer from me. You need a special mindset for transactions: mindfulness of an eagle and perseverance of a lynx. But the lynx has an advantage – she needs perseverance only for a couple of hours a day. And then it turns to other things. An M&A lawyer works monotonously eight to twelve hours five days a week. This working regime will tire even the most diligent lynx.


There was another issue that troubled me. An important principle in the work of a lawyer and one of my main values is the search for justice. But deals... Deals are deals.

2. The key deal

A non-profit organization could have been an option. They pursue justice. However, there were two “buts” that stopped me.

Firstly, reputation. At that time, NGOs were massively attacked. On state channels, NGOs were mixed with everything. They were portrayed as extremists, and radicals, and almost terrorists. I understood that the state channels were quite liars, but at the same, it felt terrible.

Secondly, financial issues. I was not born with a golden spoon in my mouth, and my parents did not give me a Moscow apartment. Money should have been earned on my own.

So, possibly, I would still not have decided to change my career and to join an NGO, if not for one case - negotiations on buying a vodka company.

The opposing side lawyer was showing off with smart words from an experienced pieceworker’s perspective, which I could hardly digest. Contemplating his expensive suit and golden watch, I suddenly saw myself in it in ten years, if I stay working in M&A. Sleek and arrogant. And empty.

For some reason, I imagined my funeral and the deathly silence of the people who came and had nothing to say about me. They would not remember that I closed five hundred deals, would they?

3. New territory

 “If you want to seriously go into human rights, let me know,” Ivan Lischina said to me six months before. Then he was my ex-colleague at the law firm, and now he is a Ukraine agent to the ECHR.

After a meeting with the “golden” lawyer, I came home and wrote to Ivan. I had no idea what would be next. Sometimes it happens to me – I sent a request to the Universe, and be that as it may!

“I have sent your CV. Wait for an answer,” Ivan texted.

Soon it turned out that after traveling through several people my resume landed at “Memorial”.

Memorial is the oldest and most famous non-profit organization in Russia. It is known for having numerous human rights cases in the European Court of Human Rights.

A special credit belongs to the Memorial due to the case of the Beslan terrorist attack. It was discovered that the intelligence services had been aware of the terrorist attack preparation, and neither prevented nor worried much when the terrorists bombed the hostages. Memorial is associated with winning cases on numerous kidnappings and the lack of a proper investigation. The list is endless.

 4. Temptation

During the job interview, I have instantly figured out that extremists and terrorists do not work in this organization. But I still have to solve the financial issues. Especially urgent, it felt that when I had received my first salary and realized that I had to live on it and pay the mortgage.

 “Have you complained about the bad salary?” my friend texted me, “We have an interesting vacancy. We need a lawyer with a solid command of French and English. Come to an interview.”

I passed the interview. They offered me such the salary that it would be enough for yet another mortgage.

“Let’s start with that,” I was told, “we will see.”

That job had many advantages. And one major disadvantage was to defend the Russian government in the cases in which the government was absolutely wrong according to my inner feeling of justice. It was a serious test: money or the desire for doing what I think is really significant and right.

 When I am faced with a difficult choice, I act like Steve Jobs. He said that when he had met his future wife and had doubted whether to invite her to dinner (he had a scheduled business meeting for that day), he had asked himself, “If I died tomorrow, what would I regret?”

Asking myself what I would regret the most, I quickly answered the question of where I would work. In “Memorial”.


5. Through hardships to the stars

The hardest challenge I have faced through my work at “Memorial” is the sense of helplessness.

The Russian judicial system works somehow in ordinary economic cases: when a single person with no connections suing another with no connections. In these cases, the chance that the court will make a decision “in accordance with the law” is high.

But as soon as some new element appears in the abovementioned scheme, for example, there is a case examination with respect to a peaceful march participant, or the investigation’s inaction in person’s disappearance cases is challenged, it becomes unbearably complicated.

It is complicated both with a court and a client. The judges do not want to listen and to hear. The clients are intimidated by the police and the Federal Security Service. In these cases, even a by-law-decision is rather uncommon.

In every story, there should be a magic potion or at least a fairy. Unfortunately, I don’t know fairies and I have no magic potions except for persistence. Therefore, together with the clients with slow steps through the desert of defeats and rare victories oases, we are heading to the future of Russian rule of law. Where not only the law as a set of rules but also the law as a set of fundamental freedoms prevails. The law is the art of goodness and equity.


Will we ever get there?