A&O’s secondees support refugees fleeing Ukraine with pro bono legal advice | Allen & Overy LLP

In the months following the invasion of Ukraine, a group of law firms and NGOs worked together to mobilise a collaborative pro bono response to assist Ukrainian refugees in Poland. The outcome was the joint secondment programme with Safe Passage International (SPI) and European Lawyers in Lesvos (ELIL), in which A&O and several other firms* are taking part.

In the months following the invasion of Ukraine, a group of law firms and NGOs worked together to mobilise a collaborative pro bono response to assist Ukrainian refugees in Poland. The outcome was the joint secondment programme with Safe Passage International (SPI) and European Lawyers in Lesvos (ELIL), in which A&O and several other firms* are taking part. The programmes give the firms’ lawyers the opportunity to gain valuable experience around supporting refugees in Poland; experiencing the reality of the stresses and emotions that displaced Ukrainian families are going through, while providing essential guidance to help them with the many legal requirements they face on their journeys.

For Elizabeth Shorland, volunteering to be a secondee was an easy decision. Her family had been hosts to a Ukrainian woman the same age as Elizabeth since April 2022, shortly after the conflict began, and so early on, Elizabeth had a first-hand insight into the reality of the war and the impact on its people. She became the first A&O London secondee with SPI to travel to Poland.

Elizabeth said, “At the time of my secondment we were only present in two centres for refugees, one of which was a huge residential hall. There were no private rooms so finding a place where we could advise was a challenge. The Blue Dot Centre in central Warsaw had a different layout, with spaces where UNHCR workers could assess refugees’ requirements and help them understand which services they were entitled to. There was also support for children, as well as mother and baby classes. In both locations, it was a question of making the most of the space that we had.”

At the time of my secondment we were only present in two centres for refugees, one of which was a huge residential hall. There were no private rooms so finding a place where we could advise was a challenge.

Elizabeth Shorland

A&O’s partnership with SPI connected new secondees with more experienced lawyers as well as translators, to supervise the work. Many of the issues were around eligibility for specific schemes to relocate to the UK and to assist with application processing. There was a lot to learn in a two-week secondment before handing over to a fresh cohort.

For Jakub Zabraniak, who was seconded to ELIL, working with the refugees was an emotional as much as a legal challenge. “People who had just arrived from Ukraine into Warsaw shared their stories – they’d had no one to listen to them. And you kept thinking about these stories and wanted to help as much as you could.”

Jakub was the first secondee from the A&O Warsaw office, firstly advising the refugees during his two-week secondment and then collaborating with the pro bono team to spread the news about the programme and the legal support available. Looking back on his experience, Jakub said, “It was great to share my experience to help with on-boarding other A&O lawyers to the project. Their response was incredible.”

The initial pilot phase of the secondment programme, which was meant to last three months, has now been extended to twelve. Secondees can choose to work with ELIL for three months, with two days each week dedicated to the secondment, or for two weeks where they work every day. Jakub admits that while both options are viable, he generally recommends the latter one, since otherwise it could be tricky to balance the day-to-day work with secondment commitment. It is also better for ELIL to have the consistency of the same secondee for a full two weeks.

Safe Passage and ELIL provide comprehensive training for the secondments together with a dedicated joint project co-ordinator to help secondees find their feet, manage workloads and understand the many different processes involved. Questions from refugee clients could be very specific, particularly where families were separated and trying to establish a life in Poland, even if temporarily.

During a two-week secondment, a lawyer could expect to see over 100 people and answer around 400 questions. Over the course of the conflict, the questions have changed. In the early days, people wanted to know how to legalise their stay in the short-term, but what the team is seeing now, is a move towards questions directed at how to organise a long-term stay. The war in Ukraine is evolving all the time, and the questions and challenges for refugees are reflective of the changes they are experiencing as time goes on.

What does it take to be a secondee for these programmes at A&O?

“You need a strong will to get stuck in and participate,” said Jakub. “It’s hard work, but incredibly rewarding. I am proud and happy to have had the chance to help.”