Access to law is a critical resource for authoritarian regimes. Russia in the Putin era has exemplified this fact. It has used sophisticated legal know-how to build the influence of its companies in international markets, empowering oligarchs with close ties to the regime, and creating economic interdependence that is now being used as strategic leverage against Russia’s adversaries. Indeed, one reason Putin may have been emboldened to attack was a misplaced confidence that the global community would not risk coordinated resistance due to the economic fallout of disrupting this intricate web of legal relationships.
Over the past two decades, elite law firms from the United States and United Kingdom have supplied the legal resources to weave this web. Nearly twenty AmLaw 100 firms had offices in Russia at the time of the invasion, as did four UK Magic Circle firms. From their perches in Moscow—or from their offices in the U.S. or the U.K.—some of these firms helped Russian state-owned or -controlled businesses and their leaders access foreign capital, gain political access, and circumvent financial regulation. Other law firms have worked with private Russian companies to structure billions of dollars in deals that have proven essential to Russia’s global economic integration.
It may have been possible to justify this work before the invasion. But no more. Some firms have accepted that fact and shown leadership by pledging to cease all Russian legal work. According to a list of AmLaw 100 firms compiled by researchers at Stanford, Harvard, and Yale, Gowling WLG, Morrison & Foerster, and Crowell & Moring are disengaging from Russian clients and have vowed to decline any new work from individuals or entities based in Russia.
The majority of firms, however, have remained silent. These include firms that rank in the top five in revenues per lawyer such as Wachtell ($3,645,000), Sullivan & Cromwell ($1,925,00), and Kirkland ($1,772,000). According to the market data platform Pitchbook, some on the list of silent firms, such as Orrick, have recently performed work involving Russian entities. Another group of firms—including Norton Rose Fulbright and Reed Smith—have made less categorical commitments than the group which has reportedly disengaged fully, according to the Stanford, Yale, and Harvard researchers, promising only to “decline new work for (a) the Russian government, (b) state-owned or state-controlled firms, and (c) sanctioned entities or individuals,” and to withdraw from current such engagements. Other new reports reveal further dithering, with firms making vague promises to act in accord with their “values.”
These firms have consistently cited the ethical rules governing lawyer conduct as imposing limits on how far they can go to cut Russian ties. Some firms have promised to withdraw from existing Russian clients only to the extent “not prohibited by legal ethics,” while others have suggested that those rules may actually prevent them from ceasing work for clients not under sanction.
Although firms may desire to continue making money representing Russian clients, they should not hide behind the veneer of ethical compliance to justify their decisions to do so. To the contrary, lawyers covered by U.S. ethics rules have a professional responsibility to cut ties with Russian clients, sanctioned or not, that enable the Putin regime.
Under the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct—the rules that, with some variation and subject to certain exceptions, govern lawyers licensed in the United States—it is clear that law firms are free to halt retention of new Russian clients. It is also clear that firms can donate all proceeds they generate from Russian clients to support those in Ukraine or the millions of refugees who have fled the horrific Russian onslaught in their home country.
The propriety of withdrawing from current clients, though less obvious, is no less justified. While there are limits on lawyers’ ability to withdraw, such as needing the consent of court in pending litigation, the U.S. ethics rules permit—and even require—withdrawal in certain situations. Crucially, the rules mandate withdrawal when continued representation would cause a lawyer to violate professional rules or other laws, and they demand withdrawal from any representation that would involve the lawyer in “conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice.” These rules clearly require lawyers to discontinue work for Russian state-owned and -controlled entities and to cease work for other entities and individuals that would violate, or attempt to skirt, American, EU, and UK sanctions.
Sanction rules leave exceptions for legal representation on matters that do not facilitate sanctioned conduct and, of course, there are still many Russian companies not on the sanctions list. Nevertheless, even in these situations, law firms may still have discretion to withdraw. Specifically, ethics rules permit withdrawal where “the client insists upon taking action that the lawyer considers repugnant,” where the client takes action with which the “lawyer has a fundamental disagreement,” or where other “good cause exists.” Even when sanctions are not implicated, law firms should seek to execute such permissive withdrawals from legal work that indirectly aids the Russian regime. This could include severing ties with corporate clients owned in part by sanctioned individuals or non-sanctioned companies in sectors like energy that are of strategic value to the regime.
As lawyers equivocate, many companies doing business in Russia have rushed to the exits. Corporations from McDonalds to Starbucks to Shell have paused operations, closed stores, and ceased sales. These businesses are taking clear steps—and incurring real costs—in order to send a message of resistance, and they are listening to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has implored “[a]ll American companies” to “leave Russia,” because, he says, “their market … is flooded with our blood.”
Law firms must follow this example—and heed Zelensky’s call. In doing so, they should continue legal work on behalf of individuals and organizations that resist the Russian state. However, they cannot hide behind the fig leaf of “professional duties” as justification for continuing to represent clients that provide sustenance to Putin.
As the ethics rules make clear, American lawyers are not simply client agents, but “public citizen[s] having special responsibility for the quality of justice,” duty-bound to promote “confidence in the rule of law.” At this pivotal movement—with ordinary Ukrainians risking their lives to valiantly protect democracy under siege—lawyers must prioritize principle over profit and stop supplying fuel to the Russian war machine.
(Update, April 2: Here’s a link to the full March 7 statement from Norton Rose Fulbright, which the firm sent to Slate after the piece was published.)