From Policy Lab to Policy Land

SLS Students Research and Advocate for Stronger Regulation of Lawyer-Enablers of Russian Sanctions Evasion

From Policy Lab to Policy Land
Bryce Tuttle, JD ’26 (BA ’20), Kyrylo Korol, JD ’25, Sarah Manney, JD ’24 (BA ’18), Erik Jensen, and Max (Tengqin) Han, JD ’24 in Washington, DC

Many of us go to law school interested in public policy as well as in law, but it is a rare opportunity when students get to do legal research, write a policy report—and present that report to decision-makers in Washington, D.C. For those of us enrolled in Policy Practicum: Regulating Legal Enablers of Russia’s War on Ukraine, our experience went beyond learning theory and skills. The research class provided a platform to support the fight for justice globally and to reiterate the importance of lawyers in safeguarding democracy. And for one of us, it was also the opportunity to aid his own country, Ukraine, and its people in an existential war and to ensure that the voices of people from afar are heard and considered.

As Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine dragged into its third year, we were part of a group of Stanford Law School students researching how U.S.-based policy solutions could contribute to Ukraine’s war effort. In the policy lab, Professor Erik Jensen led students through two quarters of work to develop a policy report on the problem of legal professionals helping to evade sanctions (lawyer-enablers) in the context of the war in Ukraine. The policy lab’s client was the International Working Group on Russian Sanctions at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, led by Professor Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia.

The International Working Group was looking for ways to boost the legal argument for a more effective enforcement of U.S. sanctions. We researched the extent to which lawyers, often and not always unwittingly, have helped Russian oligarchs and other bad actors avoid sanctions and enter the U.S. financial system. Our research spanned many different areas of law, from sanctions and money-laundering law to the legal ethics implications of various solutions. We interviewed experts ranging from advocacy group members to academics to federal government officials, and we compared the legal regimes regulating lawyers’ conduct across a variety of world legal systems to develop a set of solutions. Our collaboration exemplified the best of SLS.

We learned much more than elaborate acronyms pertaining to the anti-money-laundering world, such as DNFBP (category of non-financial professionals) or PCMLTFA (Canada’s anti-money laundering legislation). What struck us profoundly was the lawyers’ misuse of the sacrosanct attorney-client privilege and confidentiality—codes of conduct that are intended to uphold justice but are sometimes manipulated to shield corruption.

For example, lawyers, often acting as financial advisors and holders of funds, do not have to report suspicious transactions in the same way that other industries do. We were disappointed to find that, in fact, the law does not even require lawyers in the United States to try to identify the “real” client, allowing some lawyers to remain willfully blind to their client’s status and to operate under a “wink-wink” arrangement. It was difficult to imagine that, in a situation where there is undisputed evidence that oligarchs are fueling the ferocious war in Ukraine by fulfilling military contracts and funding the war effort for Russia’s regime, some legal professionals (we want to stress professionals who are subject to rigorous ethical obligations) are helping to facilitate transactions that enrich themselves and oligarchs who are contributing to the death toll and suffering of the Ukrainian people.

In our report, we recommended stronger regulation of lawyers’ conduct, with regulation carefully crafted to maximize protections for civil and criminal representation, attorney-client privilege, and confidentiality. We focused on implementation, which was a massive undertaking given the authorities of multiple agencies— from Congress and the Treasury to the American Bar Association and state bar associations. We also used regulation of lawyers in other jurisdictions in our advocacy to show it is possible to regulate lawyers more closely without damage to the profession.

We then faced the challenging task of condensing our research and recommendations into a report that would be useful to the International Working Group and to policymakers in Washington. Writing the report was a labor of love and a bonding experience for our cohort. We reviewed draft after draft, checking each other’s work and debating how to best organize all we had learned. A late-night pizza party to finish blue-booking and line-editing brought our report across the finish line just in time for stage two of the project: taking our report to meetings with people from federal agencies, advocacy groups, and think tanks, as well as congressional staffers in D.C.

Our time in Washington revealed that many on the Hill were already concerned with the issue of lawyer-enablers and they appreciated our report. Others became increasingly concerned with the issue after we shared our findings. Even though our suggestions have broad implications for money laundering and drug trafficking generally, we focus specifically on Ukraine—a country that may be battered but, in the words of our report, is “down but not out.” Feedback on our findings was sometimes surprising, with discussions spanning concerns not just about attorney-client privilege and confidentiality, but also how our proposals might impact small businesses, including solo practitioners. Our discussions also addressed the broad implications for various financial providers, such as cryptocurrency platforms.

Engaging with representatives, regulators, and advocates provided insights that no textbook or online resource could offer. We also learned how nonprofits and advocacy groups collaborate to advocate for legislative changes such as those we propose, and we came to appreciate how critical it is for these groups to have legal professionals help them navigate the complexities of laws and regulations and strategic decision-making. Our trip to Washington provided a capstone that reinforced our research on how lawyers are indispensable in policymaking.

The policy lab also brought us a renewed sense of purpose and determination to use our legal education for good. In a world that sometimes feels like it is crumbling, where the peaceful day-to-day lives of people around the world are forever altered by constant threats, insecurity, and lives lost, we felt it was important to do research in a cool-headed manner, weigh all pros and cons, and arrive at reasonable conclusions and effective solutions that hopefully would not only aid Ukraine in its fight against a war of aggression thousands of miles away from Stanford, but also deal with existential threats to the integrity of the legal profession at home. Our research goal is to deter the lawyers who abuse their privileges and neglect the profession’s values at an important moment in history, when now more than ever we need lawyers to uphold their ethical oaths and codes of professional honor. SL

Katherine Viti, JD ’24, spent her 1L summer clerking at the Supreme Court of Rwanda and is planning to do international trade work after graduation. Kyrylo Korol, JD ’25, is from Ukraine, and was a lawyer in Ukraine working in the anti-corruption court. He plans to do international work on economic sanctions and criminal enforcement and to strengthen the U.S.-Ukraine cooperation on legal and other reforms.