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GC Magazine



INTERVIEW: Emma Molvidson
general counsel Investment Bank and general counsel Switzerland, UBS AG

Emma Molvidson fills us in about life as a Swiss banking lawyer, the compliance landscape, and her thoughts on leading a successful in-house team.

G C     I N T E R V I E W

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Sara Mageit


GC: Why did you decide to become a lawyer?

Emma Molvidson (EM): I always wanted to work abroad, as I was brought up internationally. Sweden is my roots – I’m Swedish. Having parents who worked internationally and travelled a lot, I wanted to do the same, so it was really about trying to find a job that would allow me to see a lot of the world. Law and economics were, at the time, the two fields that would effectively allow that setup. So I decided to study both.

GC: How did you end up in the finance sector?

EM: I decide to move to London and I requalified: I’m a Swedish lawyer that requalified in the UK. I wanted to work in the corporate world; I always wanted to do that. I did a number of different practice areas within the law firm Norton Rose, in London. I settled in the end for corporate finance. It was the area I felt would most utilise my economic background as well as the law that I had been studying. I saw a variety of industries in that job.

After 10 years in London I decided to move internationally, because my husband and I thought that for family reasons Switzerland was a good option. More by chance than planning I ended up in the insurance industry, for a big insurance company called Swiss Re. Looking at it from a different perspective, it was very complementary with what I’d been doing in corporate finance at Norton Rose.

I subsequently moved into banking, with UBS in 2011. I’ve always worked with the financial sector on the legal side. Really that comes from my background having done economics and being interested in the business side of things.

GC: What sorts of challenges are you facing working for a company like UBS?

EM: There are lots of challenges, really. First of all the reality of today, with everything you read in newspapers about banks. I’m obviously at the receiving end of a lot of that. It will not be news to you that UBS has gone through a tough time, first with the crisis, then the aftermath of the crisis. We’ve had a few chunky legal problems that have hit our desks, and the aftermath from the public perception, the press, the media, the regulators constantly being on our case to improve our practices, procedures, our conduct and our behaviour, has been an absolutely tremendous challenge. It has led to a lot of regulatory initiatives, which the banks have to take on board and use to transform to make the business work.

With all that going on, I’ve also been asked to cut a lot of costs and find more creative ways to become more nimble, because we can’t survive with the current revenue development. We can’t survive on the cost base that we had ten years ago; we have had to make a dramatic shift to our cost line as well. So it’s about managing that equation of everything that’s coming at us from the outside world, but then from inside the bank we’re getting pressure on our cost. It’s a real challenge to balance that and not forget about why we’re here – which is to give good legal advice. That is the biggest challenge that we face, and that everyone in the industry in my position faces.

GC: What have been the high points of working for UBS?

EM: We have been effectively transforming ourselves for a few years now, especially the Investment Bank and that is now bearing fruits. We have gained momentum and there’s a real drive which I haven’t seen since I joined the bank.

We have effectively resolved many of the open issues that we had, like the big chunky cases, and the business on the investment banking side has gone through its transformation and has done extremely well in terms of results. We’ve had ten quarters of consistent outperformance. Add to that the fact that UBS obviously has an absolutely unique wealth management offering, so combining the wealth management side with the investment banking side makes it an incredibly well-placed player in the market. That has been overshadowed by our many problems in the past, but it is now winning press coverage, and also feedback we’re getting from investors.

We got together with the top 300 people in the bank worldwide at a senior management conference last week. The buzz that we felt – I haven’t felt that before, and I’ve been to a few of those conferences since I joined. People are hungry to grow, which is really nice for a change rather than (possibly) obsessing about the many problems that we face.

GC: What are the main challenges and opportunities for the legal department in Switzerland at the moment?

EM: The challenges that we face in the legal market are to make sure that our staff here in Switzerland are highly motivated, and that we as a legal department can deliver a stimulating working environment.

We do have quite a big legal team here – we’ve got over 200 lawyers in Switzerland, which is quite a lot more than the law firms do. We have extremely experienced people. In some fields we go to external experts, just like other players in the market do. It’s a very expensive working environment here – the highest in Europe; it’s a very high cost jurisdiction. Our challenge really is to try and manage that, and at the same time be conscious of the fact that this is the mothership, this is the heart of the bank, and try to find the right balance of experts internally that have a wealth of experience to support the front, but also be conscious that we can optimise our service model to make use of other service centres. UBS has service centres: closest to Switzerland is Krakow in Poland. If things can be done to achieve a better price offshore, we should make full use of that. We’re pretty good at that; we have been outsourcing for a number of years to the Krakow team, so this is not a new thing to us. But it’s just really building on that and making sure that we can continue driving opportunities, where we see them, where we can find a better balance.

GC: What are the main legal and compliance challenges for GCs operating across Switzerland?

EM: Swiss regulators and legislators are becoming very active in setting the rules and parameters for how to operate in this market. They are following what they have seen in the US and UK around regulatory initiatives, but now they’re also taking charge on their own with a number of regulatory initiatives that they have rolled out: they have new derivative legislation coming on board, they are looking at the G10 and the G30, they are becoming very active as well in terms of credential regulation and how banks are operating themselves in this market. This is having a knock-on effect on our international delivery model.

As you can imagine with all these different regulators and legislators in different jurisdictions, they are not all the same in terms of strategy, approach or even goals. We are facing a situation where we have an out trade between what the rules are in the various jurisdictions in which we operate. The rules are overlapping to quite a large extent but, critically, they are not overlapping 100%. Trying to stay abreast of all that and to manage operationally the implementation of all these new rules and procedures that we are effectively getting from our regulators and our legislators is a challenge. It is taking a tremendous amount of time for legal and compliance to just ensure that the business can be run as per normal.

GC: Do you have any tips for other GCs looking to operate in the region?

EM: I think it would be great if GCs could be a little closer in sharing challenges that we all face. We’ve all been a little bit too stretched to fully reach out to each other and draw benefit from each other’s experiences. I think everyone’s operating pretty much in a silo. We do have a fair amount of interaction with other GCs to be honest; however there’s not as much as there should be. There are areas we could potentially streamline across the industry.

As for tips for people coming from outside the market into Switzerland; I think Switzerland is a somewhat different legal model to the UK. In Switzerland you get a lot more experts internally than you do externally. We tend to use external counsel in Switzerland a lot less than we do in other locations. Every corporate player or bank in the industry has a very experienced legal team. That’s not to say that we don’t have a very experienced legal team in London, but the model is just different. Here we do most of the work in-house, whereas in London we do a lot of work in-house but we do also rely on outside counsel in a more active way than we do in this jurisdiction.

GC: What’s a typical day in the life for you?

EM: A fair amount of urgent regulatory matters, a few urgent transactional approvals, one or two committee meetings. And a lot of interaction with people, whether that is roundtables or one-on-one meetings. I do try to spend as little time as possible sitting in committee meetings. No day is the same. Every day seems to carry with it something that requires adrenaline and a sense of urgency, which makes the job fun – it’s never boring here.

I spend a lot of time with people – a mix across the board. I spend a lot of time with juniors, I spend a lot of time with my peer group and with seniors. My focus areas are a) clients and b) people in my team. I do have a lot of responsibilities outside of my day job in terms of being an ambassador and role model with people. So taking time with people is a big thing and a big part of what I do, to drive the culture from the top team forward.

GC: How big is your legal team?

EM: 200 lawyers in Switzerland and 200 lawyers in the Investment Bank, so about 400-odd lawyers.

GC: How would you describe your management style?

EM: I try to be inclusive, focused on execution, and fair. Being fair is something that requires experience, and having done this for a while, I think that is the most critical element. Having that interaction with people and being in a management position for so many years, you look at pros and cons and you decide based on the facts you have in front of you, working out what the reaction is going to be post-decision, and you see what the options are. You allow yourself to effectively see what the consequences of those decisions are going to be, and that’s how you strike a balance. There’s no magic to it, and it’s more an art than a science, because as soon as you’re dealing with people you have element of surprise. But I think that first and foremost it comes with experience of managing people for a long time.

GC: What do you think is the secret to being a good legal manager?

EM: Being focused on the future, being understanding of people’s needs and differences, having empathy. But also being quite organised and focused on execution. We tend be quite academic as lawyers. I think to be successful in a GC role you have to have an element of business acumen. If you don’t have a sense of business acumen coupled with good management skills – meaning being good with people – you’ll struggle. It really is different to a law firm, because in a law firm you don’t necessarily need to manage people. That is very different from a general counsel’s position. You have to have a good set of management skills and business acumen in addition to being a good solid lawyer.

GC: If you could go back in time and give your junior self some careers advice, what would you say?

EM: I would say (which I say to my juniors all the time): think about having a plan for yourself – it’s always good to have a plan. Think about where you want to be within three years, within five years and within 10 years. Be egoistic about what you want to achieve. Whether it’s geographical stability or subject matter expertise, mobility, it’s important to figure out what is it that you want to get out of your job. Thirdly, and most importantly, enjoy what you do. If you don’t, you’re doing the wrong thing. A job can’t be fun every day, but it needs to be fun most days.

I think one thing that is also important (I did it and many of the good Swiss lawyers do it) is having international experience before you settle on one particular job. It’s definitely something I would recommend. It’s a common practice in Switzerland to go and do an LLM abroad, or to go and try to do an internship abroad. It’s quite common these days. I think that’s very good experience. Switzerland is a small market and anyone’s who’s been outside Switzerland does have an advantage. It’s good to have seen the world outside Switzerland. It brings a wider perspective and an understanding for people having different parameters. Those are very important when you work in a large organisation. Not everyone thinks and acts Swiss. I think it’s also a very good for individuals to be challenged outside their comfort zone.

GC: If for some reason you weren’t going to be a lawyer anymore, what would you do instead?

EM: I would love to retrain to be a paediatrician so I could know whenever my kids were sick and figure out what’s wrong with them. I actually did think about doing medicine, but because medicine wasn’t going to give me that international experience I decided against it. I’ve thought about it many times. With my three kids I’ve become a bit of a layman paediatrician. But I would love to do that.

GC: What do you do in your spare time?

EM: Spend time with my kids. My spare time (of which I have relatively little) is spent on doing something active, so I run, I play golf, I play tennis and I swim. I stay active, but that involves the family. I have three kids, a dog, and a husband to keep happy! Our weekends are very active and spent as a family.