Market Trends in Switzerland
Discover recent legal trends in the Swiss legal market and find out how law firms are handling topics such as gender diversity and corporate social responsibility.
Gender diversity and corporate social responsibility
At the beginning of June I spoke with partners from five leading Swiss law firms to get an insight into recent trends in the market and to find out how their firms are handling topics such as gender diversity and corporate social responsibility. Caroline Clemetson and Philippe Bärtsch of Schellenberg Wittmer, Thierry Calame of Lenz & Staehelin, Susanne Schreiber of Bär & Karrer, Flavio Romerio and Claudio Bazzani of Homburger and Philipp Haas of Niederer Kraft Frey were all generous enough to give up their time to discuss these topics.
What have been the most recent trends in the market?
Everyone agreed that 2021 had been a strong year in Switzerland, particularly in the field of M&A transactions. However, the conflict in the Ukraine has led to a downturn in this area recently. Although advising on sanctions has been an important area for Swiss lawyers previously, this has usually been as a result of advising multinational clients based in Switzerland on the impact of sanctions imposed by the US authorities.
However, the adoption by the Swiss authorities of EU sanctions on Russia in light of the conflict has led to an increase of work in this area, though of course it remains to be seen whether this will be a long-term growth area or merely a short-term increase. While Switzerland has so far not been too adversely affected by the current inflation caused by the Ukraine crisis, the prospect of an economic downturn was frequently mentioned, which may lead to an increase in contentious work.
Chambers currently has separate rankings for law firms and lawyers specialising in Litigation and Arbitration, and new regulations allowing setting aside proceedings to be filed in English will further cement Switzerland as a hub for international arbitration. While the current uncertainty has led to a slight reduction in the number of M&A and Capital Markets transactions, there remains the prospect that some companies may be forced into a “fire sale”, that would lead to a resurgence in activity for Corporate/M&A lawyers.
The adoption of the MiFID regulations means that asset managers will have to obtain authorisation from the Swiss regulator, FINMA, which may keep Investment Funds lawyers busy for the rest of this year.
Another area that some law firms felt was likely to remain active was Competition, with an increase in the number of investigations being carried out.
Corporate Social Responsibility
With gender diversity and CSR becoming increasingly key topics for clients, how are the law firms in Switzerland responding? There appears to be a strong trend for law firms to try to become carbon neutral, with Niederer Kraft Frey getting all of the energy used in the law firm’s office from green sources, while Schellenberg Wittmer is offsetting its carbon emissions by supporting a solar power plant in the Dominican Republic and a biogas plant in India and Bär & Karrer pursues a broad range of initiatives, including conservations efforts with rare plants and species on the firm’s rooftop.
Bär & Karrer also mentioned setting up a round table meeting with clients to discuss ESG criteria when choosing a law firm, in particular how the criteria might differ in Switzerland compared to other countries, and Niederer Kraft Frey is planning to launch an alternative legal supplier to help clients with ESG screening and compliance. Lenz & Staehelin has recently invested in some e-bikes that will be available for free use by members of its Geneva office.
Steps towards gender equality
With only 16% of the ranked lawyers in Switzerland in the latest edition of Chambers Europe being female, this is clearly an area that needs to be focused on. The law firms have certainly made some steps towards more gender equality – Schellenberg Wittmer has increased its proportion of female equity partners from 4% in 2016 to 20% this year, the female partner ratio at Bär & Karrer is currently 21%, three of the six partners appointed by Niederer Kraft & Frey this year are women and Homburger plans to have women making up 25% of its partners within 18 months.
When asked about specific initiatives to improve gender diversity, Schellenberg Wittmer and Bär & Karrer both talked about mentoring schemes that were primarily aimed at helping young female lawyers to reach partner level but were also proving popular with young male lawyers, while Lenz & Staehelin has a mentoring scheme targeted at students. All of the firms have internal groups to promote diversity, with both Homburger’s and Niederer Kraft Frey’s also organising events with female general counsels.
Return to the office
Another key topic recently has been the return to the office, with all law firms highlighting the importance of younger lawyers coming into the office in order to learn and facilitate the transfer of knowledge. With this in mind both Schellenberg Wittmer and Niederer Kraft Frey expect their more junior lawyers to be in the office more frequently than their senior colleagues (at Schellenberg Wittmer junior lawyers can work from home one day a week and more senior lawyers for two days a week, while at Niederer Kraft Frey the senior lawyers can work from home for 50% of the time). Lenz & Staehelin also offered its employees the option of two days per week working from home, while Homburger appeared to offer the greatest freedom of choice to employees and did not have a fixed number of days that employees were expected to be in the office. Bär & Karrer also offers individually tailored options for its more senior lawyers, while expecting more junior team members to be present in the office more regularly.
Are there any new areas Chambers and Partners should look to cover?
For the most part, the consensus was that the current coverage of the Swiss legal market is not missing any key practice areas, though there were suggestions to place greater emphasis on Data Protection and Corporate Investigations (which currently form part of the TMT and White-Collar Crime rankings respectively).
An interesting distinction in the Swiss legal market is the language regions, which appear to be more distinct than in Belgium for example. While some firms felt that it would be useful to provide separate rankings for the law firms based in Zurich and in Geneva, others felt that this was less necessary as it remains a national market. Given these differing views, it is unlikely that we will introduce separate tables for each language region in the near future, though it is something that we may attempt to highlight in other ways since it may be beneficial for clients to know which region the law firm they are choosing is based in.
Another area that law firms had differing views on was Public Law, with some law firms feeling that a table dedicated to government regulations would be beneficial, while others felt that the majority of the regulatory work was already covered in existing tables.
One other trend that was highlighted is a growth in climate change litigation, including a case that is currently before the European Court of Human Rights. As our Energy ranking in Switzerland is currently comparatively small, this may offer a possible way to expand the scope of this table, or enable us to include a greater focus on energy sector disputes within our existing contentious tables.