George Zlati is an Associate Lawyer at Sergiu Bogdan & Associates, an Adjunct Assistant Professor on Criminal Law at Babeș-Bolyai University`s Faculty of Law and the Chief Editor for Penalmente Relevant Journal. His education includes an LL.B. in law and an LL.M. in Criminal Science and Forensics from the Babeș-Bolyai University (BBU); currently, he is working on his PhD in cybercrime at BBU. Apart from his great experience in the criminal law field, he has also published many articles and contributed to many books on this topic, and he is particularly interested in cybercrime and digital forensics.
Lawyr.it: Some students have great difficulties in choosing a field of law to specialise in, while others know the answer from the very beginning. When did you realise that criminal law was your call and why criminal law of them all?
GZ: I do not think that criminal law is ‘my call’. This is what I do at the moment. I shall see what the future holds for me. You cannot know from the very beginning what you want or what you need. What is ‘the very beginning’ anyway? This is a very naive way of thinking. If you do not taste it, you cannot know for sure if you like it. And if you do not taste it long enough, you cannot know if the chemistry is good or you are allergic. I think I could have been a great lawyer no matter the field of law. For me it was about freedom. Some say that doctors do not save lives. They only prolong it. But a lawyer can have a direct input in regard to the freedom of an individual. Yes. It is true. In a perfect world you would not need lawyers. A judge would suffice. But we do not live in such a world, do we?
Lawyr.it: Do you think that one needs some specific qualities to be a lawyer who practices criminal law, and what are those qualities?
GZ: This is a tough question taking into consideration that I do not practice at all in other fields of law. I think that the core qualities of a lawyer must be the same, no matter the field of law in question. I would say that criminal law has the potential to wake you up in the middle of the night for an extraordinary criminal procedure so it is important to be able to handle such an event in a professional way. But I also believe that such extraordinary situations could also arise in a non-criminal case. One of my colleagues is always saying that criminal law is 80% psychology and 20% law. You need to understand that judges and prosecutors are also human beings just like you. They also have ‘bad days at the office’. You must understand this and act properly. There is also the big part of handling your client. Even if you do not think it is necessary, you need to earn the trust of your client. In the context of a criminal trial the psychological pressure placed on your client is not at all negligible, and it is your role to counterbalance with patience, understanding and positivity. But there is a dangerous line between positivity and naivety. I think that you must show signs of positivity, yet still keep a reasonable reserved attitude towards the possible outcome of the trial. If you do not find the right balance, at some point you could lose the trust of your client or even worse. And this part of the equation is not learned in law school.
Lawyr.it: Could you tell us the three most important things that you learned from working as a lawyer so far?
GZ: Using pigeons to send messages instead of ‘traditional’ channels of communication. And yes, that was a joke. An inside joke for lawyers. I think that if you are a lawyer, a judge or a prosecutor, you gain some knowledge about different aspects regarding our judicial system that is not part of the public domain. In this context I do believe that a criminal lawyer, a prosecutor or a criminal judge has a more in-depth knowledge regarding such issues. Maybe the analogy with the dark or deep web works in this context. But if you want me to point out three things that I have learned as a lawyer in the past few years I could emphasise the following: ONE. The real name of the in dubio pro reo principle is more likely ‘in dubio pro prosecution’. And I think this is the sad truth not only in regard to our national legal system. There is a saying that ‘the bigger the crime, the smaller the chance of a fair trial’. Is that a fair assessment? No. It is not. But I think it is true. TWO. There is no private life in the open sea of metadata and mass surveillance. I heard a lot in these couple of years that ‘metadata is not content… it is just metadata’ from people who do not know how you can use metadata in such a way that you do not longer need content. And I heard a lot that ‘if you do not have anything to hide, you do not need to be afraid’ in order to justify some controversial pieces of legislation in a world in which we do not like our neighbour because of his sexual orientation, religion, beliefs, or even the way he walks or talks. So yes. Maybe you do not need to be afraid of anything. If you live in a cave on a deserted island. THREE. Judges, prosecutors and lawyers are all human beings and because of that they all have preconceptions and are randomly biased. I think that it is important to realise that most of the time we are wrong about people. And I am talking here about the everyday life. You think that you are in an honest relationship with your life partner, but he has seven other wives in three different countries. You think you know what the other desires, but you always buy the most horrendous gifts for Christmas. You think that someone is less intelligent just because the way he talks or dresses. And if you are a man, there is a certain possibility that you are full of misogyny even if you always say that you love your (emphasise here) women – which almost proves the point. I think the same applies in a criminal case. If the accused one does not make a statement, he is hiding something even if you do not know the fact that maybe it is not his option but instead the strategy of his lawyer. If the accused one is a politician, he has a bonus of 60% guiltiness no matter what. Because almost all politicians are bad. Just like humans in general, but you do not like it when you in particular are being placed in the same basket. Because it is wrong to generalise, right?
Lawyr.it: What raised your interest in cybercrime?
GZ: Simply put, the fact that Romania is 20 years behind in this field, so I thought that I could make an impact. Therefore, I found a niche and I started to invest time, money and energy in order to expand my knowledge. But I am not only interested in cybercrime. For the past few years I have invested a lot of time in digital forensics, another niche that can have a connection or none at all with cybercrime. However, there is a preconception about cybercrime in Romania. As I said. We are 20 years behind. Besides that, I think it is an extremely interesting topic from a research point of view. You cannot get bored studying cybercrime. It is a vast and complex domain that is in a perpetual change. I think that learning new aspects in a domain in which you feel extremely confident is extremely fulfilling.
Lawyr.it: We know that you teach criminal law seminars at Babeș-Bolyai University`s Faculty of Law and that you are one of our favourite teachers. What`s the best part of teaching and how did it influence your life?
GZ: It did not influence my life and I do not think that I made a real impact on the life of any student in general. It made me a little bit more tired because I try to take it seriously and that affects your stamina without doubt. But I think that you get some and you lose some, right? I always say that I take part in the academic process in order to keep my foot on the gas in regard to a part of the criminal law which is absent from my professional life at the moment. Until now I had only one homicide case. I actually think it was one of my first cases as a defence lawyer. But it is an interesting subject and I feel the need to keep up with the constant developments in the field. From this point of view, teaching helps me maintain a good level of knowledge. And honestly, it is interesting to interact with new students every year. It is definitely a treat.
Lawyr.it: You have a very full schedule: being a lawyer, a teacher, and a chief editor. Students are always stunned by how many things their teachers do. So, how do you manage to do everything?
GZ: Like clubbing, binging on Netflix, going to places in order to take selfies and put them on social media does not affect a student`s ‘free’ time. I think that you make your time the same way you make your bed. Every day of the week. If you read 15 pages every day, in almost three months you will basically read 1500 pages. I think that I waste a lot of time. I sleep more than I should. And maybe I watch more movies than my doctor would prescribe. But I still manage to get a lot of things done. Mostly because I only do things that I enjoy doing. You should try this recipe. It works.
Lawyr.it: The general outside image of a lawyer is that of a cold-blooded shark, dressed in a custom-made suit, who charges his/her batteries using the clients` bank accounts. But we know better, so tell us how a lawyer really is in his/her daily life, what your hobbies are and how you overcome that general image.
GZ: Lawyers are human beings and human beings are not a work of art in general. Some are hypocrites, some are just an empty shell, a suit without substance, and some are snakes. In a biblical sense. But in spite of all these things, you can still find good and interesting people who call themselves lawyers. Returning to your challenge, if we know a particular individual and analyse his Instagram account, we can conclude that perception is not reality. Same applies to lawyers, prosecutors, judges or law practitioners in general. Most of us play a role and at the end of the day we become mortals again. And yes. You can read between the lines. But what I cannot do is explain how the life of a lawyer is in general. I do not know. I think it’s mostly boring, like life usually is. And repetitive. As in the Matrix script kind of way.
What I can say is that I do not like to wear suits. So maybe I am a deviant lawyer from the start. Sometimes I practice law even during the night or in the weekends. But when I am not a lawyer, I do not think that I am a different person. I like to think that I brought myself into the law office or the courtroom and not the lawyer into my private life. This is why I do not wear suits. I do not need one to be myself. And because I answered your challenge by not answering your challenge, just as a lawyer would do, I will say that I enjoy movies and everything related to them. As many as possible. I think my personal record is 35 movies in six days at Transylvania International Film Festival (TIFF). I also enjoy books and comic books. Even if practicing law drastically affects your pleasure of reading. As a lawyer you read all day long. Case files, jurisprudence and legal literature. And even if some would say that part of it is even more fictional than Orwell’s ‘1984’, at the end of the day when you go home and see letters in front of your eyes, your first instinct is to turn your brain offline. I also enjoy doing Room Escapes. I started doing at least one Room Escape in each country/city I visit and I shall continue to do so until I die in one of them. I could say that I also enjoy to travel but I do not think that people should include such an activity in the hobbies category. You need to travel in order to experience new things in different places and realise that people are stupid no matter the geographical coordinates. As a hobby I would also say board games. I am not yet at Dungeons and Dragons level but I have played a lot of boardgames and I think I will grow old playing them.
Lawyr.it: Why did you decide to study comparative law in Strasbourg and what did you learn from that experience?
GZ: It was just an opportunity I had at some point in my life. And if there is an opportunity, I cannot say no. It is not in my character. I think that it is very important to read a lot of foreign legal literature and experience as much as possible different legal cultures. This is the only way to truly evolve. It was not the most intensive program you can enrol in. Not even close. But I learned some new things, I met some new people interested in law and saw the way they think. And if you go through such an experience one or more than once, you realise that you are not little just because you are from Romania or Eastern Europe. There is not such a big difference between us and the rest of the Europe. We just feel inferior because most of us do not leave our cave. We prefer to stay in the dark. And this is not a reference to Star Wars by the way.
Lawyr.it: If you had the chance to practice law in another country, would you take it or would you stay in Romania?
GZ: Would I stay or would I go? This is not a law related question. And the answer is the same. There is no heaven, there is no hell. I enjoy foreign countries as much as foreigners enjoy our ‘sarmale’ when they visit our country for a short time. It is easy to fantasise about your future self in a different country, but from a law perspective I am not naive. I have always had a weakness for common law, yet I know part of the chaos from the UK or USA criminal legal system and I do not think I would prefer to give cancer for another terminal disease. So, the answer is no, thanks. I would prefer a legal system where you can actually have great debates on controversial, still important issues. As a lawyer I think this is your ultimate desire, to be part in such debates and be successful. But I do not think that Romania is lacking in these perspectives. Currently, we have no real legal debates. And this is unfortunate. But our legal system is full of controversies, so all we need is a bunch of crazy people eager to engage in a real legal debate and some open-minded judges willing to decide in one way or the other.
Lawyr.it: Do you believe that it is enough for lawyers to have very good knowledge of their field only or should they also be good in as many fields as possible? In short, would you rather be a Jack of all trades or a master of one?
GZ: I thought at some point that if you find a niche you can master it, be successful and forget that there is anything else beside it. I was wrong. You cannot be a master of one in a world in which everything is interconnected. You could say that you are a criminal lawyer and you are not interested in tax law, insolvency law, civil law, administrative law, European law or whatever else. Tax evasion as a criminal offence without tax law is the premise for a disaster. And this example is not an exception. European law is extremely important in the context of criminal law but the majority of lawyers are neglecting this. There is a lot of jurisprudence from the European Court of Justice regarding ne bis in idem, data retention, individual rights and freedoms with a direct impact on criminal law. But still, there is a lack of understanding. Criminal judges are mostly discouraged to ask the European Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling on sensitive issues that could have an impact on the national criminal law legislation. In civil cases there is no such problem. Not at this level anyway. And the main factor is that civil judges are more accustomed with such a procedure. So, the answer is no. Definitely. You need to find a balance and evolve constantly. You cannot know everything. This is why teamwork is very important in a law firm. But you cannot limit your knowledge to a particular niche, offence or field of law. Instead of being master of one you will become a master of none.
Lawyr.it: Do you think that criminality will change in the future? Will that change lawyers as well? Do you believe that lawyers will actually be replaced by AI as many predict or do you think that the human lawyer still stands a chance?
GZ: I do not think lawyers will disappear. Not in every field of law anyway. You will still pay a lawyer even if the lawyer uses AI to practice law. It will take generations to even accept the possibility that a machine can understand your feelings and desires in a legal custody battle or a criminal case. But AI will be part of our life. That is for sure. And the judicial system will also be changed in time by AI. I do not agree that a machine should decide the amount of the penalty you will receive if you are convicted of a crime. But it appears that this is the way forward in some jurisdictions. Yet the reality is that the world is changing and we must accept that. Accepting the reality does not equal surrender. There will be legal debates regarding such issues. We shall see how the future will unfold. But lawyers will never disappear. From this point of view, we are not sharks.
Lawyr.it: If you were to be a lawyer in another time, what period would you pick and do you think you would manage without the technologies that we depend on so much nowadays?
GZ: Firstly, of course I could manage without technologies. There are a lot of situations in which I use only a pen and paper. I hate it, but I can manage it. Technology is part of our daily life. It is just like at a wedding – technology promises to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. And most of the time it is a lie. But you enjoy the lie because at least you do not feel alone or there are some situations when you see some benefits. You just need to get the best from everything. Technology included.
I would like to be part of the defence in the O.J. trial. I think it is the best example which shows that there are flaws in every legal system. Some of them benefits the accused one and some of them take your in dubio pro reo and gives it away to the prosecution.
Lawyr.it: And the last question is a tradition of Lawyr.it. What is your advice for law students?
GZ: Be a bartender. Be something else. Law is interesting on paper. So, if you think you are in love with the law, it is better to read a book or see the movie. Or else you will be disappointed at least five days a week. Joking aside, do whatever you think is best for you. Take advice only from your lawyer or your doctor. No pun intended.
By Oana Bahnean
This material was published in Lawyr.it Vol. 6 Ed. 2, April 2019.