Jews — Russian Lawyers
The judicial reform of Emperor Alexander II instituted the Russian legal profession as a free profession.
A lawyer (barrister) was placed by the law in a position completely independent of the executive power. This gave him possibilities of action, of course within the framework of the law, to initiate legal procedural changes and to maintain the expedience, justice and mercy of Russian courts.
Speeches delivered in court by barristers were not subject, on the strength of the Royal Decree to the Governmental Senate, to any limitations of censorship, even during the existence of preliminary censorship. Owing to this, it was possible to print them fully in the periodical press, even in those cases, when there were thoughts and words in the speeches which could not have been printed had they not been pronounced in court. Having such an advantage, barristers with oppositionist tendencies often inserted elements critical of the existing order and social system into their speeches.
On the other hand, a lawyer himself would arrange his own fees with his client. Whereas the client had to choose his lawyer according to his own discretion, he chose the one whom he considered to be most adroit and able to defend his interests. However, the interests of people who used to turn to lawyers were not always in harmony with norms of law and morality.
The independent legal profession, newly created in Russia, opened wide opportunities for persons with the juristic education which was required in order to be admitted to the bar. Opportunities for success in life were in no way smaller, perhaps even greater, than in the civil service.
Young educated jurists, regardless of their religion, racial or national origin, rushed into the legal profession. In this respect, there were no limitations for anyone during the first decades of the existence of the legal profession.
In the Sixties and Seventies of the last century the idealistic youth made up the first membership of the Russian bar and laid the foundation of that high morality which was characteristic of the whole Russian court, the judges, the prosecutors and the lawyers.
The Jews were not an exception. Because these were the decades when assimilationist tendencies among the educated Jews prevailed, they did not separate their future or the future of all Jewry from the future of Russia. The conflict of the beginning of the Eighties (in the last century) had not come yet.
The free profession of a lawyer, to a certain extent, is a profession of being an intermediary between two sides. And very frequently one or another court's decision depended on a clever and able intermediary. The very mediation of the two thousand years was the basic Jewish occupation, providing them with means of existence. It is in this sphere they reached perfection, feeling themselves in their own element. They rushed into the legal profession, preferring it to the civil service. At that time, there was no difficulty for Jews to enter legal professions.
A good example of this was when the prosecutor for the Odessa district court, a Jew, A. Passover, voluntarily refused a civil service position in favor of a legal profession. This incident took place in 1872, long before the appearance of real limitations for Jews in the civil service. Passover's case was not an exception. Many other Jews, upon entering the civil service, did the same thing.
Knowing this, it is impossible to believe the widely spread opinion that the Russian Government forced the Jewish jurists into the legal profession. It should be remembered that restrictive measures appeared only in the third decade after the reforms of 1864.
Besides these motives (they cannot be denied), there were also incentives of a different order, both idealistic and materialistic: a free lawyer was in a position to participate and influence political and social questions; also he was free to run his own life and to do better financially than in the civil service.
There were still two more motives, which did influence Jewish jurists, prompting them to prefer the legal profession to the civil service. Nothing was said or written about the motives, but their existence is undeniable. For a Jew, brought up in the private life of a Jewish environment, keeping up with all the numerous and complicated ceremonies of his religion, it was not easy psychologically to live in the Russian Orthodox environment, which was an environment of Russian officialdom. It was also not easy for an orthodox Jew to participate in the ceremonial parts of the Russian court, which was inseparably linked with Christianity.
Besides that, an overwhelming majority of them having grown up in the "Jewish Pale" and therefore well aware of the attitudes of the native populace towards the Jews, young Jewish jurists could not disregard these attitudes when choosing their careers. These Jews could not acquire, even in the cloak of the minister of justice, the due authority and respect at that time from the obscure masses of the semi-literate population, full of prejudices and bias against those, who, to their understanding, were "enemies of our Lord Jesus Christ". Subconsciously, they realized this and acted accordingly.
All this taken together pushed the Jews into the legal profession' which was continually filled with more Jews.
Entering into the legal profession, they understandably did not cease to be Jews, and therefore preserved that "inner aspect" which distinguishes them from all other nationalities. This did not remain unnoticed by their non-Jewish colleagues, although, as mentioned before, to raise this question in front of the jurists, was considered unethical and insulting to those of high principles, which were sacred for the Russian intelligentsia and which had been laid into the foundation of the Judicial Reform.
When in the Eighties the period of various limitations for Jews began, the majority of Russian jurists definitely disapproved of those measures which were introduced by the government, particularly those limiting the percentage quota for the Jewish lawyers. The same position was taken by an overwhelming majority of the Russian society and press.
Nevertheless the percentage quota of jurists was introduced: 15% for jurists of the Warsaw, Kiev and Odessa judicial districts; 10% for Petersburg and Moscow, and 5% for all the remaining districts of the Russian Empire.
These limitations were applied only to persons of the Judaic religion and did not extend to the Jews of Christian religion. This prompted quite a few Jews, who were indifferent to the religious question, to change to one of the Christian religions and to acquire immediately those rights from which they had been restricted while they remained in the Judaic religion.
The quota was introduced on the basis of the report by the Minister Manacein, approved by the Czar, and was considered "temporary", pending the conception and inauguration of the corresponding law.
The working-out of the permanent law concerning the Jews at the bar was entrusted to a special commission, comprising senators, judges, professors and representatives of lawyers.
This commission worked for several years (from 1894 to 1904), thoroughly studying and discussing this difficult question. The draft was presented only in 1904 to the State Council for approval, but was not approved owing to the situation on the eve of the first Russian revolution. The question of dealing with the Jewish percentage in the legal profession was until 1917 based on, as mentioned above, "temporary rights".
This question indeed was not easy. The opinions of individual members of the commission were quite divers. Some were against any sort of percentage quota; others were in favor of complete prohibition of Jews as barristers in Russian courts; and still others questioned the expediency and the logic in the established quota being guided exclusively by the Judaic faith.
To the latter faction belonged the well-known lawyer F. N. Plevko, who, when the commission passed the bill, reserved his opinion, which he stated in writing. "Limitations, based on religion", according to Plevko, "cannot be accepted as satisfactory, because morally unstable people can by-pass these limitations by means of baptism. Jews cannot possess the moral qualities inherent in Russian people, and therefore cannot be the bearers of Russian legal conscience. Acceptance into the ranks of barristers of certain categories must be based on nationality or belonging to a known people or tribe and not on religion. This is why, wrote Plevko, it is better to increase the Jewish percentage for the Jews of Judaic faith, up to 15 and even to 20%, but not to open the legal profession to the baptized Jews".
The opinion of Plevko was not approved by the majority of the commission. Thus right up to the Revolution of 1917 there existed in Russia some limitations for the Jews of""Judaic faith, but these did not apply to the baptized Jews.
Such was, in general, the condition of the Jewish barristers in Russian law-courts.
But besides the "barristers" there existed also the institution of the "assistant barristers" — jurists working for any rightful and competent barristers. Their number was not restricted and a great many Jews circumventing some of the limitations filled these ranks, which were actually the ranks of Russian lawyers.
The participation, the significance and the influence of Jews in the Russian legal profession was enormous and grew incessantly, in spite of all the limitations.