fivehundred magazine > > Interview with… Philippe Bärtsch, Schellenberg Wittmer

Interview with… Philippe Bärtsch, Schellenberg Wittmer

Career timeline

2019 

Managing Partner at Schellenberg Wittmer 

2015 

Member of Schellenberg Wittmer’s Management Committee 

2012 

Partner at Schellenberg Wittmer 

2006 

Foreign Associate in a leading US firm in New York 

2003 

Associate at Schellenberg Wittmer 

2004 

LL.M., Harvard Law School 

2002 

Bar Admission in Switzerland

What are the main differences between French and German-speaking Switzerland?

One would think that it would be easy to identify differences between the French and the German-speaking part of Switzerland, especially for someone like me, who has Swiss-German parents, but who grew up in the French part and now splits his time between Geneva and Zurich. While there are indeed cultural differences, they are subtler than one would think. I believe we essentially all share the same roots, the same values, and the same business-friendly approach, but with different sensitivities on some topics.

At Schellenberg Wittmer, which is one of the very few fully-integrated law firms in Switzerland with offices of approximately the same size in Geneva and Zurich, we have learned how to handle these different sensitivities and have, over the years, created a very healthy balance. I am proud to say that the cohesion among partners and across offices is excellent: we all share the same vision, the same team-spirit and work on many cases across offices. Working together is the best way to foster cohesion.

In terms of markets, they main types of industries present in the French and German-speaking may be a little bit different. For example, the pharma industry is more present in the Swiss German part. But all in all, the markets are nevertheless very similar.

Which recent change of the legislation has impacted the market noticeably? 

As an arbitration lawyer, I will mention the revision of Chapter 12 of the Swiss Private International Law Act, which governs international arbitrations seated in Switzerland. The revision was adopted in 2020 and has entered into force on 1 January 2021. Switzerland has always been one of the most popular seats for international arbitration proceedings. Swiss arbitration law has indeed proven itself over the years to be very modern and arbitration-friendly. But it did not mean that it could not be improved in some areas. The recent light revisions of the law have made Switzerland even more attractive for international arbitrations. The revised law increases legal certainty, integrates modernized features of arbitration while maintaining what made it a success over the years: it is short, pragmatic and liberal.

Which is value-adding legal tech tools you developed to offer your clients?

Technology and innovation are paramount to the firm’s long and short-term strategic objectives. In the past years, we have significantly invested in the expansion of our digital and innovations team.

Some examples from 2020 include:

The implementation of an exhibit management solution that expedites and partly automates the management, citation, bundling and stamping of exhibits for legal submissions in arbitration and court proceedings;

Broadening the use and expertise of FlexLaw by Schellenberg Wittmer, a subsidiary that combines consulting, staffing, project management and technology expertise to provide efficient and flexible e-discovery and legal support services;

Cooperating with CourtQuant to assess the potential of AI-based case outcome prediction solutions for the Swiss market;

A new e-billing solution to deal with bespoke client requirements;

As lead counsel in a multi-jurisdictional matter involving multiple court proceedings and settlements with several thousand case parties, we developed a bespoke online platform based on Relativity® that provides legal and other experts with centralized access to relevant information, documents, and analytics. The development was made possible by the unique combination of the firm’s legal, data and technology know-how and its close cooperation with an established technology partner of the firm.

Since Switzerland is known to be a safe and stable country, do you think there could will be an increased interest from investors in the future due to the uncertainty the COVID-19 pandemic has brought?

I think so. Switzerland has always been a safe, stable and attractive market for international investors. I see no reason why this would change. On the contrary, I think many investors will look for the safest places to invest, probably more than ever in these uncertain and difficult times, and Switzerland remains one of the safest places in the world for investors.

What are the main challenges for female partners in their law career and how do you tackle those in your firm? 

Historically, women have been underrepresented at partner-level and in senior management positions in law firms, especially in Switzerland, probably due to stereotypes/biases, inflexible workplace structures and inadequate access to mentoring, to name just a few obstacles.

We at Schellenberg Wittmer have been committed to breaking away from those past realities. We believe that gender diversity, equal opportunity and inclusion are key to the firm’s on-going success, strategy, growth and vision.

To tackle the challenges female lawyers face in their careers and foster diversity and inclusion, we have, a few years ago, set up a dedicated task force and since then implemented a number of measures, including: training within the firm and at partner-level on diversity and on unconscious biases, specific mentoring and networking programs for female lawyers, more flexible working and parenthood policies, including at partner level, to name just a few.

Tangible results have already occurred. While we are still not where we should be, we have one of the highest ratios of female partners in the Swiss market and are one of the very few large Swiss firms with a female partner in its management committee.

What would you single out as the key distinguishments of your firm? 

Unlike most of the Swiss firms of our size, we operate in a truly integrated manner across our Zurich, Geneva and Singapore offices. This brings added value to our clients and has created a distinctive working atmosphere, which we call our “SW Spirit” – it is a true testament of the importance we give to teamwork, collaboration, friendship, diversity and innovation. And I believe we are of the most diverse Swiss firms.

Switzerland can showcase a booming fin- and medtech industry; what do you think will be sectors which provide opportunities for investors in the next two to three years?

I think that the pharma and life sciences industry will be growing and provide opportunities for investors. Another obvious sector is artificial intelligence.

What does innovation mean to you and how can firms be better at it?

Innovation is key. As a law firm, we always need to innovate, to think out of the box and to improve ourselves. I think the last few months have confirmed that we cannot take anything for granted and that we need to be agile. Agility is probably key to any strategy nowadays and is linked to innovation. Innovation in technology. Innovation in capability building. Innovation in our offerings to clients.

Since becoming managing partner, what’s surprised you most about running a firm?

I cannot say it was a surprise, because I knew it, but running a law firm which is a partnership is different from running a corporation. A partnership is a special framework. You cannot simply decide and implement your decisions, like in many other corporations. You need to spend time listening to your partners, understand their concerns and priorities, to then find a balanced consensus. And whatever you decide, you need to think about the cohesion amongst partners and across offices. It sometimes takes more time than you think, but it is worth it. You always need to put people first, because our people are our strongest asset – for us and for clients.

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