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Elizaveta the First

Elizaveta the First
Elizaveta Donnery ALL PICS: Cian Redmond

The first Russian-educated solicitor in Ireland

Elizaveta Donnery is a Dublin-based sole practitioner with a niche Russian-language practice.

A high achiever all her life, 43-year-old Russian native Elizaveta Donnery is a sole practitioner with a busy and successful legal practice in Clontarf on Dublin’s north side. Behind that singular achievement though, lies a story of extremely hard work, rigorous discipline and 16-hour days, far away from family and motherland.

Elizaveta has been living in Ireland since 2000, a decision she made “on instinct”. “My friend went to Ireland, and she had a great time and said it was a lovely country. This was all by chance, so I started to do some research.”

Elizaveta the First

Elizaveta the First

An adventurous spirit led her to Ireland on a visitor visa after she finished university. Despite having no lawyers in her family, Elizaveta had decided on a legal degree at the age of 14.

At 16, she began a demanding five-year degree and emerged, aged 21, top of her class at Krasnodar University, qualifying as both a solicitor and barrister under the Russian civil law system.

Through Russia

She had an attractive job offer with an international firm in Moscow, but gradually realised she didn’t feel passionate about that idea. She acknowledges her mother’s selflessness in encouraging her to follow her dream of travelling and working abroad.

Culturally, Elizaveta wanted to remain in Europe, and to be a short flight away from her parents, now in their 70s, whom she reveres. Her father is a renowned scientist and her mother was a university lecturer.

She now realises that her mother protected her children from the realities of food shortages and empty shelves in Boris Yeltsin’s post-Soviet Russia.

A tale of two cities

The middle class is not a large spectrum of society in Russia, Elizaveta observes, but her family was part of it. Most people in Russia continue to be either poor or very rich.

When she arrived first in Ireland, she travelled around the country and spoke to a lot of Irish people, determined to mix with everyone, and not just Russian speakers. She attended English classes and generally enjoyed herself.

“I was in Dublin on a bus tour and, back then, you could go inside the Four Courts, with no security. I really liked the architecture and the building.”

Though she was young and carefree, and enjoying her early 20s, that visit to the Four Courts sparked an ambition.

Crime and punishment

Elizaveta felt drawn by what she described as the “happy buzz” inside the beautiful building and began to wonder if she, too, could have a legal career in Ireland.

“People are so approachable in Ireland, and I thought I would really like to do what they are doing – work in the law. I spoke to some of the people working in the Four Courts.

“Then I went to the Law Society and told them I was a Russian-qualified lawyer and asked what I could do with my credentials. Though they were very kind, they told me I could not do a transfer, and I had to start the whole process again.”

Elizaveta got encouragement and support but, despite her Russian law degree, there was nothing for it but to sit all the FE-1 entrance exams. In addition, she had to pass written and spoken exams in the Irish language – from scratch – despite not yet being fully fluent in English.

In her early 20s, she was undaunted and took on the massive workload, with 16-hour days of study, stopping only to eat and go for a half-hour run.

“I’m an impatient person. When I was younger, I wanted things fast – and that can be both a positive and negative. But I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone to do so many hours of study. It was just fierce, and it’s not healthy,” she reflects now. “I was very determined, and I believed that it would work in the end, because I wanted it to work. I was idealistic.”

The master and Margarita

Elizaveta believes she is the only Russian-educated lawyer in practice in this country. She pays tribute to the Amiens Street, Dublin 1-based solicitor David Walley, who gave her a start in his office: “He was very good to me and I learned a lot. I did court work and things I never thought I would have the responsibility to do.”

After she passed her FE-1s, sitting them over a couple of years, she applied to Matheson, not even realising she could have applied before taking the exams: “They never had anyone from Russia before. The interview was intimidating, of course, with no connections and not knowing many people in Ireland.”

Elizaveta recalls a Matheson partner saying: “We don’t really know much about you, but we understand you’ve done a huge amount of work to be here and we appreciate that.”

She praises the quality of training she received at the firm. After completing her PPC courses in Blackhall, Elizaveta was offered a job in commercial property with Matheson.

“While it sounded good, the timing was all wrong,” says Elizaveta. She received her parchment in 2008, just as Ireland was entering recession. “I always wanted to have my own practice, and the collapse in commercial property made me speed up the process of getting it,” she explains.

What is to be done?

In 2010, she set up in business, about five years ahead of her planned schedule, with a web page flagging her dual-language service. She always wanted to use her native language as a lawyer, and was anxious to attract Russian-speaking clients, including Ukrainians, Moldovans and Latvians.

“The recession happened, but I started getting the clients straight away. I didn’t have a huge marketing plan.”

Clontarf in Dublin 3 was chosen for its proximity to the south side, the city centre, and the courts.

“I learned a lot about immigration and became quite good in that area. I did a lot of family law with mixed marriages, as well as work on immigration investment schemes,” she says. “I never wanted to have a big practice and, at a certain stage, I only took cases I wanted to take and could handle.”

Elizaveta’s service on Russian community committees also brought work to her office. She had clients travelling from all over Ireland to access her dual-language services – even from as far away as Kerry.

She realised that location was not as important as she had perceived. “Clients will travel if they want your service,” she notes.

War and peace

She finds Irish people more approachable, but Russian people more direct. “Irish people are bad at complaining up front, but they will tell ten different people if they are dissatisfied with your service,” she says.

“I just wish there was more business between Ireland and Russia – but we are trying to develop links. There is a strong market there for Irish dairy produce and potatoes. Irish farmers also travel to rural Russia, and they lease land for stock and crops. The margin they get over there for their produce is much higher.”

Ireland has a more practical legal education system, Elizaveta observes. “In Russia, you do the theory of law, jurisprudence, Latin, philosophy – which is extremely interesting, but you are maybe not well prepared for real clients,” she says.

“If you come out of Blackhall, you are equipped to meet the client,” she says, adding that a combination of Russian and Irish systems would make for a very strong legal education.

Looking back, she realises she was very young leaving university in Russia, and too young to begin practising law.

She finds the Irish common law system offers more interesting work and places more responsibility with the solicitor.

“The precedent law recognises the solicitor and barrister as much more important, where in Russia, even though you do all the work both as a barrister and a solicitor, you are relying only on certain sections of the law, so it’s less creative.

“I liked everything about Blackhall, and I made friends for life. I also tutored there in business law.”

And quiet flows the Don

Elizaveta says that she has always maintained a positive attitude towards Ireland, principally because she made the decision to live here. “My position when I came here was, I will not be criticising things.

“It’s very easy to notice negatives, such as the medical system, but if you want to stay in the country, you have to concentrate on the positives.”

She also observes that, as a lawyer in Ireland, she feels more needed: “It’s easier to access the law and justice in Ireland, though in Russia there is quicker access to the courts, but you are not as protected as a human. In Russia, there is theory ... and there is practice.

“Even during coronavirus, we were protected here in Ireland, in a certain way. In Russia, in theory, they were protected, but it was very difficult to access state funds; and if you are an employer, you still have to cover wages. Here, we got it straight away – maybe there is a little less bureaucracy.

“Both countries have a lot of soul – and both are poetic,” she says.

Before COVID, Elizaveta travelled frequently to Russia. She has clients there and often stayed for a month, keeping in touch by email with the Dublin office.

“But would I go back for good? Probably not. I’m very happy with my decision. When you like something, you feel like you are at home, even though you are missing what is your home. I just feel very good here.”