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From Policy Lab to Policy Land – Perspectives – Stanford Lawyer Magazine

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, D.C.

Many of us enter law school with an interest in public policy as well as law, but it’s rare for students to be able to conduct legal research, write a policy report, and present it to policymakers in Washington. For those of us enrolled in the Policy Practicum: Regulation of legal factors enabling Russia’s war with Ukraineour experience went beyond learning theory and skills. The research class provided a platform to support the fight for justice around the world and to reiterate the importance of lawyers in protecting democracy. And for one of us, it was also an opportunity to help his country, Ukraine, and its people in an existential war and ensure that the voices of people from far away were heard and taken into account.

As Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine dragged on into its third year, we were part of a group of Stanford law students exploring how U.S.-based policies could contribute to Ukraine’s war effort. In the Policy Lab, Professor Erik Jensen led the students through two quarters of work developing a policy brief on the problem of sanctions-evading lawyers (lawyer-assistant lawyers) 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 Spoglie Institute for International Studies, led by Professor Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia.

The International Working Group sought ways to strengthen the legal case for more effective enforcement of U.S. sanctions. We examined the extent to which lawyers, often and not always unwittingly, helped Russian oligarchs and other bad actors evade sanctions and enter the U.S. financial system. Our research covered a wide range of legal areas, from sanctions and money laundering law to the legal and ethical implications of different approaches. We interviewed experts ranging from members of advocacy groups to academics and federal officials, and compared the legal regimes governing lawyers’ conduct in different legal systems around the world to develop a set of solutions. Our collaboration exemplified the best of SLS.

We learned much more than fancy acronyms about the world of anti-money laundering, such as DNFBP (a category of non-financial professionals) or PCMLTFA (the Canadian Anti-Money Laundering Act). What struck us deeply was the misuse by lawyers of the sacred attorney-client privilege and confidentiality—codes of conduct that are supposed to serve justice but are sometimes manipulated to protect corruption.

For example, lawyers, often acting as financial advisors and funders, are not required to report suspicious transactions in the same way that other industries do. We were disappointed to discover that, in fact, the law does not even require lawyers in the United States to attempt to identify the “real” client, allowing some lawyers to remain deliberately blind to their client’s status and operate on a “blink of an eye.” It was hard to imagine that, when there is overwhelming evidence that oligarchs are fueling a brutal war in Ukraine by pursuing military contracts and funding the Russian regime’s war effort, some lawyers (we want to emphasize that these are professionals who are subject to rigorous ethical obligations) would help facilitate transactions that enrich themselves and the oligarchs who contribute to the loss of life and suffering of the Ukrainian people.

Our report recommended stronger regulations of lawyer conduct, with those regulations carefully crafted to maximize protections for civil and criminal representation, attorney-client privilege, and confidentiality. We focused on implementation, a formidable undertaking given the authority of multiple agencies—from Congress and the Treasury to the American Bar Association and state bar associations. In our advocacy work, we also used lawyer regulations in other jurisdictions to show that lawyers could be more tightly regulated without harming the profession.

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

Our time in Washington showed that many on Capitol Hill were already concerned about the attorney-client issue and appreciated our report. Others became increasingly concerned after we shared our findings. Although our suggestions have broad implications for money laundering and drug trafficking in general, we focus specifically on Ukraine—a country that may be affected but, as our report puts it, is “down but not out.” The feedback on our findings was at times surprising, and the discussions included concerns not only about attorney-client privilege and confidentiality but also about how our proposals might affect small businesses, including sole proprietors. Our discussions also covered the broad implications for various financial service providers, such as cryptocurrency platforms.

Working with representatives, regulators, and advocates has provided insights that no textbook or online resource can provide. We have also learned how nonprofits and advocacy groups work together to promote legislative changes like the ones we propose, and we have come to appreciate how important it is for these groups to have lawyers help them navigate the complexities of laws, regulations, and strategic decision-making. Our trip to Washington was a cornerstone that solidified our research on how lawyers are essential to the policymaking process.

The Policy Lab also gave us a renewed sense of purpose and determination to use our legal education for good. In a world that at times seems to be falling apart, where the peaceful daily lives of people around the world are being forever changed by constant threats, uncertainty, and loss of life, we felt it was important to conduct our research with a cool head, weigh the pros and cons, and come to sound conclusions and effective solutions that will hopefully not only help Ukraine fight a war of aggression thousands of miles away from Stanford, but also address existential threats to the integrity of the legal profession in the country. Our research goal is to deter lawyers who abuse their privileges and neglect the values ​​of the profession at an important moment in history, when now more than ever we need lawyers who will uphold their ethical oaths and codes of professional honor. SL

Katherine Viti, JD ’24, spent her first-year summer working as a law clerk at the Supreme Court of Rwanda and plans to pursue international trade after graduation. Kyrylo Korol, JD ’25, is from Ukraine and was a lawyer in Ukraine working in an anti-corruption court. He plans to pursue international work on economic sanctions and criminal law enforcement and strengthen U.S.-Ukraine cooperation on legal reform and other issues.