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Mikolaj Pietrzak, Dean of the Warsaw Bar: Our duty is to protect rights and freedoms, not seek public acceptance

19 iulie 2023 | Alina MATEI
Alina Matei

Alina Matei

Mikołaj Pietrzak

Mikołaj Pietrzak

Alina Matei: Thank you, esteemed lawyer Mikolaj Pietrzak, Dean of the Warsaw Bar, for landing your time to our readers. I also thank my fellow colleague, lawyer Mr. Adrian Şandru, without whose support this interview would not have been possible. We’ve made a habit of asking legal professionals why they decided to attend law school, so I’m going to ask you to the same. What made you choose this area of practice?

Mikolaj Pietrzak: When my generation was finishing secondary school and considering what to study, communism had just fallen and the times in Poland were exciting and unsure. But we were all full of hope. At that time advocates, such as Edward Wende, Aniela Steinsbergowa, Jan Olszewski, Maciej Bednarkiewicz who – during the communist regime – had courageously defended members of Solidarity, underground democratic political opposition, repressed workers and students, were held in great public esteem. Advocates enjoyed great trust and moral authority. This inspired many of us. We wanted to be like them. These now historical figures continue to inspire me today.

That being said, some the girls I adored had decided to study law. This made the choice pretty easy.

Alina Matei: How many members does the Warsaw Bar have?

Mikolaj Pietrzak: In 2023 our Bar has approximately 8.000 registered advocates and just under 1.500 trainee advocates. But this is somewhat misleading because in Poland we have two legal professions, two separate bars. So if You include radcowie prawni, not just advocates, there are about 24.000 professional registered lawyers and 2.500 trainee lawyers in the Warsaw area.

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Alina Matei: How are lawyers perceived in Warsaw and even in Poland?

Mikolaj Pietrzak: As I mentioned before, advocates were held in extremely high esteem at the downfall of communism. But as they embraced the new capitalist economy, both their reputation and the public trust they had enjoyed slowly deteriorated. This deterioration culminated in a scandal involving leading figures in our bar, who had allegedly been involved in illegal reprivatisation of property. This was a great crisis for our community. However, when the attacks on the Rule of Law and the independence of the judiciary took place over the past years, it was once again the advocates who were the most supportive of the repressed judges and stood courageously in defense of the constitution and the entire system of protection of rights and freedoms. I believe this let us significantly rebuild the public trust in our profession.

Alina Matei: Regardless of the country, the voice of lawyers is the voice of rights, the defense of people from abuse. Always in action, always on the offensive. How does this voice of Polish lawyers connect with society?

Mikolaj Pietrzak: As in many societies there is a distance between legal professionals and the rest of the population. This is in part because we tend to speak in a complicated, legal and technical jargon. This makes it difficult to build understanding with civil society. I think this is one of the most important lessons we learned over the past years, when faced with a populist government acting to undermine the Rule of Law and weaken the system or protection of rights and freedoms. We have to start speaking about very basic legal concepts such as the Rule of Law and the independence of the judiciary in a more approachable way. We wanted to reach out and get our message and our values across. So lawyers became much more involved with NGO’s, participating in educational programs in schools and at civic events. Lawyers, independent judges and prosecutors now regularly appear at music festivals and other public gatherings to conduct legal workshops in an approachable language. We are also much more visible on social media. I think this shift in thinking was necessary in order to counter the anticonstitutional, anti-EU, anti human rights propaganda our society faced from the governing party.

Alina Matei: What challenges has the lawyers faced in the last 5 years in Poland?

Mikolaj Pietrzak: The past years have unfortunately proven very difficult for Polish society. The legal community in particular has faced challenges to the values and that lie at the foundation of our professions.

We have seen a systemic subjugation of the courts to the executive and legislative powers. Those judges who resisted these changes were faced with obstructions and repressions, including abusive and instrumental disciplinary or criminal proceedings. We have faced extreme human rights violations and push-backs in violation of the non-refoulement principle at the Polish – Belarusian border. Most recently our society – including the lawyers – had to face a massive influx of people escaping the terrible war waged by Russia against the Ukrainian people I am proud to say the our community rose up to many of these challenges.

So many lawyers became involved in defending prosecutors and judges who faced governmental repressions. Many of our advocates personally travelled to the Belarusian border to provide onsite legal assistance to refugees seeking protection in Poland. Finally, when the war broke out, many lawyers – just like other Polish citizens – opened their hearts and homes to people fleeing the War. Our Bar also set up a special legal assistance system to help out the Ukrainians who had found themselves unexpectedly in Poland and had to address all kinds of complicated transnational legal issues as a result.

Alina Matei: Subjects like migration, organized crime and artificial intelligence are just a few topics that make the front page. Are those challenges espacially for lawyers or are they signs of recent crises?

Mikolaj Pietrzak: I think these topics are common to lawyers throughout the world. Certainly the challenges we face with regard to use of artificial intelligence are still underappreciated. I believe they will significantly change the way we perform our duties withing the next several years.

As I mentioned before, migration issues have become particularly relevant in Poland in light of the push-backs on the Belarusian border and the flood of refugees from Ukraine. This has put a special onus on advocates to provide legal protection to these very vulnerable people, even when such assistance goes against public opinion. Our duty is to protect rights and freedoms, not seek public acceptance at all costs.

Alina Matei: What would be the biggest threat to lawyers?

Mikolaj Pietrzak: There are many threats faced by the Polish legal community. I feel some of them are similar in other EU countries.

The independence of the bar associations and autonomy of advocates’ disciplinary proceedings is constantly under question. People fail to see that without an independent bar, there can be no truly independent lawyers. And without independent lawyers, there can be no real access to and independent court, no real protection of rights and freedoms. We are already facing an application to the politically controlled Constitutional Tribunal to overturn obligatory participation in the Bar as a regulatory body. This is an extremely underappreciated threat to rights and freedoms.

We are observing a consistent rise in attempts to violate client lawyer confidentiality by state authorities. This is sometimes an attempt to interview a lawyer with regard to information about their client, this is sometimes a search of the lawyer’s offices, sometimes seizure of their files or computers. We have even seen examples of wiretapping of lawyers or use of the Pegasus surveillance program to covertly access confidential information held by advocates. This threat is certainly on the rise and requires extreme vigilance, not only on the part of our legal community, but on the part of civil society. After all, client lawyer privilege does not serve the lawyers themselves. It ultimately serves society, our clients.

Alina Matei: What should the relationship between a lawyer and the rule of law look like?

Mikolaj Pietrzak: The Rule of Law is a value which is the very core of our profession. As lawyers, we serve to protect rights and freedoms. There can be no protection of rights and freedoms in a state in which arbitrary political power takes priority over the law. The Rule of Law is at the centre of our professional axiology and it is our ethical duty to defend it when it is threatened.

Alina Matei: Is the lawyer sometimes seen as a wizard? My question is inspired by the series „The Witcher” by the Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski, which underpins the Netflix series „The Witcher”.

Mikolaj Pietrzak: I remember staying up all night just to read through the most recent volume of the Witcher saga and then being half asleep at lectures during my studies. But I couldn’t stop myself. I remain a great fan of Sapkowski’s saga. But I remember his portrayal of lawyers in the persons of Codringher and Fenn as being built on terrible stereotypes: lawyers and conniving and manipulating agents of intrigue. I think I would prefer the comparison to a wizard, possesing a mystical knowledge of democracy, rule of law and human rights.

Alina Matei: During the period of June 15-16, 2023, the Warsaw Bar Association organized Modern Bar Association: New Legaltech Challenges – LegalTech in Europe. Lawyers from Romania also participated – the Cluj Bar Association accepted your invitation. Will artificial intelligence accompany people or replace them?

Mikolaj Pietrzak: This was an excellent event organised by our sister bar, representing not the advocates, but the radcowie prawni (attorneys-at-law). I have no doubt that artificial intelligence should not replace humans in the legal professions but should serve as a tool. Justice and fairness are ultimately human phenomena. Artificial intelligence may help us as a tool to serve these goals. But in the end it should not replace the human decision at the end of the legal process.

Alina Matei: What is the last book you bought?

Mikolaj Pietrzak: The last one I read was Kajś  by Zbigniew Rokita, about upper Silesia, a history of a region and people changing hands between states and struggling to retain their culture and identity. A very telling European story. The last book I actually purchased myself? Galatea by Madeline Miller.

Alina Matei: A message, please, for JURIDICE readers and those who make JURIDICE.

Mikolaj Pietrzak: Accept my expressions of professional solidarity. Take heed of our Polish case study. We are an example demonstrating how critical it is for lawyers to remain vigilant and react against the first signs of democratic backsliding and violations of basic constitutional principles. Please remember, that now matter what our specialisation as advocates, we are all ultimately human rights lawyers and share a common set of legal values, based on the Rule of Law.

Alina Matei: Thank you for your time!

Mikolaj Pietrzak: It was a great pleasure! Thank You!

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