Oana Schiopoaei is one of the new breed of attorneys in Romania. She is young, confident, and speaks Romanian, French, and English. She is part of the new generation of lawyers shaping a profession that has been reinvented since the fall of communism in 1989. A legal jack-of-all-trades, she practices in all areas of law, from criminal, to intellectual property, to pro bono work for women and orphans.
Like many American female attorneys, their Romanian counterparts grapple with issues such as breaking the “glass ceiling,” balancing work and family, and meeting societal expectations. But Ms. Schiopoaei and others practice law in a country where laws change on a daily basis and what was possible one day may be forbidden the next.
Ms. Schiopoaei’s career trajectory was unimaginable just over a decade ago. During communist rule, there were few areas in which to practice, primarily family law or criminal law. The practice of civil law was limited because there was no private industry or property ownership. In addition, the government imposed a maximum income on attorneys and any income generated beyond that salary cap had to be dispersed among other colleagues, which resulted in a great deal of shared cases and referral of work, with little competition.
In post-communist Romania, the practice of law changed dramatically. Many young people viewed the legal profession as a way to obtain big bucks. Law schools experienced a high increase in students, and the market became saturated with young attorneys. Less than five years ago, the Romanian Bar Association instituted the bar exam and the requirement that all those who pass the bar are given “trainee” status and must acquire a “maestro” or mentor to oversee his or her work for at least a year and a half. The trainee is permitted to draft documents and appear in court under the supervision of the maestro. These requirements were implemented to control the number of attorneys, and they have impaired the abilities of many law school graduates to enter the profession.
Ms. Schiopoaei was among the small percentage of law school graduates to become a practicing attorney. She received her law degree in 1999 from the American University-Law in Bucharest. Immediately following law school, she passed the bar exam and found a much coveted maestro, Mr. Dorin Suciu, Dean of the Sibiu Bar Association, to supervise her trainee period. Mr. Suciu invited Oana to work with his firm in Sibiu, a city in the Transylvania region in Romania. After a year and a half, Ms. Schiopoaei was elevated from trainee status to permanent lawyer status. “I am very grateful to Mr. Suciu,” explained Ms. Schiopoaei. “He took a chance with me and has given me great opportunities to grow professionally, and advised me in many areas of my career.”
In the beginning, Ms. Schiopoaei handled mostly criminal cases. When defendants cannot afford representation, the courts distribute their cases to young attorneys to hone their trial skills. Going straight from law school to the courtroom was an eye-opening experience. “There is a big difference between learning theory and actually practicing.” She still handles many criminal matters now, but her practice has expanded to include commercial law, property law, family law, and some intellectual property work. Her ultimate goal is to work in international law, specifically with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Ms. Schiopoaei likes researching issues, finding support for her arguments, and dealing with all different types of personalities in very high-intensity situations.
But most of all, she enjoys the thrill from arguing cases in court. “In a burglary case I handled, where the defendant had pled guilty to the crime, I was able to persuade the court to give a lesser sentence. Afterwards, I was so moved when the family thanked me and said how they were impressed with my argument.” Helping her clients and making a difference in their lives, regardless of how small or large the case, is something she finds very satisfying and rewarding. She also makes time in her hectic schedule to do pro bono work in the local community, which is a new concept in Romania that few attorneys practice.
Ms. Schiopoaei says the downside is the stress level. “I am afraid I will become old before my time.” The most frustrating part for her and most attorneys, as well as clients, in Romania is that the law is very unpredictable. They are constantly changing on a daily basis. There are some online programs that are updated regularly, but they aren’t always reliable, and the printed books of regulations are almost obsolete. “Possibly, when Romania is accepted into the European Union the laws will stabilize,” says Schiopoaei.
Similar to the United States, the upper echelons of the legal profession in Romania are male-dominated. Although 80 percent of Ms. Schiopoaei’s class consisted of women, only about 10 percent are actually practicing. The remaining opted for other law-related areas that require less working hours so they can be home by 3:00 pm. “It’s difficult because women are still expected to take care of the house and it’s hard to balance that with the demanding hours required by this profession.” Additionally, many clients don’t feel comfortable going to a woman attorney, nor do they trust her opinion. “Women are not perceived as an equal but rather as an ornament, and women aren’t viewed as being as tough as a man,” says Schiopoaei. Also, the social settings, where deals are made, usually involve going to clubs or bars and this is not viewed as appropriate behavior for women. “These mentalities account for the small numbers of highly successful women attorneys, but attitudes are changing, just slowly,” says Schiopoaei.
Along with changing attitudes, new trends in practice are happening. New areas such as banking and finance law are blossoming. Intellectual property is an expanding area and is relatively new because the laws have been recently drafted to meet today’s complicated issues. Another hot area will be insurance law with the recent growth in that industry and the introduction of third-party liability coverage, especially in terms of medical claims. “Insurance will definitely lead to a rise in litigation.” However, once the laws stabilize, more and more lawyers will move into counseling and advisory positions for clients. “Not every- one is cut out to be a litigator,” says Schiopoaei.
Unfortunately, Romania is no different than the rest of the world when it comes to opinions on lawyers. “I guess lawyers have it bad everywhere!” says Schiopoaei. When asked what advice she would give to a recent female law graduate, Ms. Schiopoaei modestly chuckled and said, “Since I haven’t been practicing that long, I guess I would tell her the same thing I tell myself everyday, ‘You must be very determined and keep a positive attitude and be ready to work hard. Have a lot of patience, be ambitious and always be an optimist and look for the bright side. Don’t be intimidated by the stifling mentalities toward women attorneys. Take all challenges, no matter how difficult or time consuming because that’s where you’ll learn and gain respect, and put in a lot of energy. In other words, just go for it!'”
Vicki M. Richardson is a former practicing attorney from Washington, D.C. She is currently serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Romania doing community economic development work.
From the March/April 2003 issue of Diversity & The Bar®