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Immigrant song

Immigrant song
Cristina Stamatescu All pics: Cian Redmond

Cristina Stamatescu – an Irish solicitor from Romania

Cristina Stamatescu speaks to Mary Hallissey about the challenges of working as an Irish solicitor from Romania, dealing with aggressive clients, and the loneliness of the long-distance sole practitioner.

Romanian-born, Irish-trained solicitor Cristina Stamatescu has worked hard on her self-esteem. Being the first Romanian lawyer ever to qualify as a solicitor in Ireland (in March 2014) has not been without significant challenges.

Immigrant song

Immigrant song

While Cristina often receives positive and motivating feedback for her work in immigration law, she sometimes has to deal with a backlash after failed applications. In order to continue doing the work, and to help her cope with the verbal abuse she has been subjected to, Cristina needed to attend regular therapy sessions. She says that the counselling only worked because she attended weekly meetings and diligently did her ‘homework’.

“I took this as a challenge. I worked very hard on getting outside my comfort zone, trusting my therapist, and believing in the work I was doing,” she explains. Cristina says that the rewards are priceless.

“I am still in contact with this amazing spiritual mother of mine, and am forever grateful to her for believing in me and bringing me on the correct path to the best version of myself,” she says.

How many more times

The disrespect that Cristina experienced was usually upfront, but sometimes unspoken, and generally related to her Romanian heritage.

Her nationality isn’t immediately obvious from her accent, and some acquaintances initially advised her “in good faith” not to disclose her Romanian origins.

“That’s what I experienced, in my first few weeks and months in Ireland,” she recalls. “It’s not an issue that I have, but it’s the reaction of people when I say I’m from Romania. There are so many good Romanians in Ireland and all over the world, but people don’t get to know them,” she points out.

“I’ve learnt to be able to say, ‘I’m from Romania!’ with pride, but it’s been a journey of teaching myself to accept me as I am, and not to allow others to put me down based on their discriminatory apprehensions.”

Family members, friends, acquaintances, clients, and even translators have, at times, disrespected her, but she has learned to confront that and say ‘please don’t speak to me like that’, or ‘I will not allow you to treat me like this (anymore)’.”

Communication breakdown

Cristina has also had to halt consultations with translators when it was evident that her words were not being conveyed correctly to clients. Some translators have become aggressive, rude, abusive and defensive when any such interjection has been made.

“It is difficult, as all of this happens in the presence of the client, who often does not fully understand what is happening,” Cristina explains. She has often been brought to tears at the treatment. In one case, neighbouring office colleagues came to her aid after an onslaught from a highly aggressive translator.

Cristina has security in the building of her office to protect her and the staff in her Smithfield, Dublin 7, premises.

“We are front-liners, but many lawyers will not wish, or cannot afford, to show their vulnerability, as the nature of the job obliges us to be strong,” Cristina says. “I’ve learned that incidents like these are part of the job. I’ve done the work on myself to be able to deal with these situations. It’s tough dealing with abusive clients and not a lot of people talk about this. For me, it’s part of my life and I’ve learned to deal with it. It’s also a cultural difference.

“It is very hard, when working with a lot of people from all over the world, to be a female young person telling someone they have to get certain documents or proofs, in order to strengthen their case. Or giving clients legal advice that they may prefer not to hear or pursue, or to tell them that they don’t have a case, or to demand from a translator to properly translate what you are saying. It’s tough as a female to deal with people with different values and cultures – to be the boss, to be in charge.”

The battle of evermore

Cristina often hears ‘amazing’ background stories in her immigration law client consultations, which are not then followed through with the required support documents. “I have noticed a misunderstanding of our solicitor role, where a client engages legal services and believes that’s all that is required at their end, with no need to do anything else and no need to provide up-to-date instructions, or even to attend court.

“As a result, the application is likely to fail, and you get an upset client that might take a personal vendetta against you as the lawyer and express such grudges by emails, phones, texts, social media, unfounded complaints, and so on. We have to learn to deal with such occasional aggression.

“I can deal with what’s in front of me. I take cases based on what is presented to me and whether I believe that clients have an arguable claim. But sometimes it’s out of my hands.

“I take cases I believe in, on the premise that the client is honest with me and gives me all the information. I always emphasise, and strongly advise how important it is, that the client is providing me with the truth, and through me, the different departments where the application is processed, or the court.

“I don’t think we can change people or change the world, but it’s a battle within ourselves to be ready and prepared in ourselves to deal with unpleasant and challenging things.”

Achilles last stand

“I have Romanian clients who say: ‘I’m just coming to you for a consultation – I need advice about this or that. But I’m going to go to an Irish solicitor’. And I tell them, ‘I am an Irish solicitor!’ I always get the same reply, ‘But you know what I mean, one of theirs’.”

New clients have even gestured to a male member of Cristina’s support staff and said: ‘I want an appointment with him!’

“I can’t put on a moustache and start wearing male clothes,” Cristina laughs. “It’s absolutely not from everyone, or the majority, but it happens.”

Despite all of this, Cristina has a strong connection with both the Romanian Embassy and the Romanian community in Ireland.

Most of her work comes through word-of-mouth referrals. She has represented clients of all nationalities, successfully, and at all jurisdiction levels, including two successful cases that came before the European Court of Justice: Eugen Bogatu v Department of Social Protection and Neculai Tarola v Department of Social Protection.

Around half of Cristina’s work is in international protection, immigration, human rights law and judicial review, with many cases involving EU law and constitutionality challenges, children’s rights and vulnerable people’s rights.

It can be arduous, with often a four or even five-year delay between taking on a case and her fees being discharged. Sometimes there is lost contact, with clients leaving the State during the processing of their case, and Cristina is left unpaid, despite extensive work on their files.

Cristina came to Ireland in 2008, just before the financial crash. She was in her early 20s, a law graduate who came top of her class, and a fully qualified lawyer under Romania’s civil-law system, which has no case law and no precedents.

In Romania, Cristina once considered a career as a journalist. She produced and presented a weekly radio show about accomplished managers and a TV discussion programme on legal developments.

She says, however, that she never felt ‘at home’ in Romania, but instantly so in Ireland, where she discovered a calmer way of living: “I found peace the minute I came to Ireland, the minute I stepped out of the airport. There’s a calmness and a silence, even the weather is more peaceful.

“In Romania, I felt I had done everything I could have, professionally, and I wasn’t happy – something was missing. So, I packed up my life.”

Over the hills and far away

So why Ireland, rather than any other EU country?

“First of all, it was an English-speaking country. Secondly, it was not too far and not too close,” Cristina explains. “Ultimately, it was a choice between Ireland and England.”

What swung the decision towards Dublin was a live webcam at that time on O’Connell Street, which Cristina watched from afar with fascination. “That webcam was my first experience and knowledge of Ireland. It was the ‘life’ part, that you don’t read in a magazine,” she says. “That, and a YouTube video with images of a sunny Ireland and U2’s Beautiful Day as soundtrack!”

As an only child, it was tough for her to move away from her roots, but her gut instinct prompted her to push ahead.

Now married to an Irishman (Derek, whom she met at a speed-dating lunch) with whom she has a 15-month-old daughter, Cristina realises the enormity of her decision on her family to migrate.

“I’m terrified at the thought that our daughter might choose to do the same,” she says wryly.

When the levee breaks

Cristina is also conscious of lacking the deep roots and network that come from living and working in one’s own country. She is upfront about the enormous challenge of running her own practice, while having no childcare due to the closure of creches and no family support nearby.

At the onset of the pandemic, Cristina attended High Court hearings remotely while breastfeeding her baby of a couple of weeks. “We just had to adapt. What I thought was going to be the beginning of my maternity leave turned into more than the normal day of work. We survived. I can work at night. Also, when the baby is sleeping during the day, I can also write my letters and do consultations. I thought sole practice was tough before I had the baby. Now it is really tough!”

Cristina must fit a demanding work schedule in between the non-stop needs of a toddler running around the house. “How many times I wished I had a job where I could call in sick if I needed to! I don’t have that option. I never had it, and I don’t see how any person who runs their own business, in terms of a small or medium-sized firm, has that option,” she says.

“No matter how much you are told it’s going to be tough, I don’t think anyone can actually understand it, or pre-empt how tough it’s going to be. I’m not pulling the foreign card, but not having family support changes the whole dynamic of living.”

Your time is gonna come

Cristina ended up in sole practice eight years ago because she found it difficult to get reasonable employment, despite her impressive qualifications. She also had to study for her Law Society Qualified Lawyers Transfer Test, which she took over a period of three years, and was admitted to the Roll of Solicitors four-and-a-half years after her arrival in Ireland.

“When I came to Ireland in 2008, I still needed a work permit, so I ended up registering as self-employed, as Romania was a part member of the EU at the time, joining fully in 2012.”

She gravitated towards immigration, asylum, human rights, EU law, and personal injury. As a Romanian-born lawyer with an Irish qualification, she had a niche appeal and a steady stream of inquiries.

It was tough, however, to find an insurer to take on a newly qualified sole practitioner. A lot of hard work, plus a loan from her parents, solved the question of how to get insurance to set up her own business, and pay for her first practising certificate.

“I felt that I could do it. It was one of those times where I had to make the call. There was no easy way. My gut told me ‘do this’. It turned out to be the right thing to do.”

It’s hard, hard work to make a living, especially waiting between three and five years for payment in most of the cases she takes. And since the pandemic, business has very much decreased, in part because fewer people are coming into the country. Also, with people staying at home, and not getting into accidents, little new business has come in in terms of personal-injury work. “In a way, that’s great, because people don’t need a lawyer anymore because they don’t have problems. I don’t know how I will be in a year or two, based on the work that’s coming in,” Cristina reflects.

Though she has scaled back the size of her office, she is proud to be still in business, and has great hopes of getting back to the busy times, pre-COVID – and even expanding one day in the future.

Read and print a PDF of this article here.

Mary Hallissey is a journalist with the Law Society Gazette