A founding father of the practice retired but there was a big win against Croatia
|People in Who’s Who Legal||6|
|Pending cases as counsel||32|
|Value of pending counsel work||US$7.3 billion|
|Current arbitrator appointments||105 (of which 62 are as sole or chair)|
|Lawyers sitting as arbitrator||14|
Created in 2000 through the merger of Schellenberg & Haissly in Zurich and Brunschwig Wittmer in Geneva, Schellenberg Wittmer married two firms already in sync when it came to thinking about international arbitration.
In Geneva, Laurent Lévy and Gabrielle Kaufmann-Kohler began building a team that they hoped would have sufficient horsepower to compete for non-Swiss work. Meanwhile, in Zurich, Georg von Segesser and colleagues thought that diversity and more international work was the way to go. When the two firms merged, the result was a team with unusual equipoise between Zurich and Geneva, a mixture of foreign-trained and Swiss lawyers and an emphasis on oral advocacy – not a skill set Swiss firms traditionally sought.
Nowadays, Lévy and Kaufmann-Kohler are successful independent arbitrators at their own shop, while von Segesser retired from the firm at the end of 2016 to focus on his arbitrator practice.
However, two more generations of lawyers continue to pursue the founders’ vision of a diverse team tackling non-Swiss arbitration work. The team has taken part in cases governed by English, Polish, Czech, UAE, Thai, Senegalese, Philippine and Cameroonian law, none of which were heard in Switzerland.
The practice was co-chaired by partners Nathalie Voser in Zurich and Anne Véronique Schlaepfer in Geneva, but after Schlaepfer’s departure to White & Case in 2015, there was a reshuffle. Now Geneva-based partner Elliott Geisinger leads the practice, with partners Christophe Boog and Philippe Bärtsch as vice heads.
Geisinger is the president of the Swiss Arbitration Association (ASA), and other members of the firm are also active in the wider life of the arbitral community.
The firm is one of the few Swiss arbitration practices held in equal regard in the French and German-speaking parts of the country, with offices in Zurich and Geneva. In 2014, it made its first expansion into Asia, opening an office in Singapore.
Who uses it?
Clients from the pharmaceuticals, construction and oil and gas sectors are common, the firm says. Bayer Pharma, Ceylan, GE, Gucci, Johnson & Johnson, MOL, Procter & Gamble, Siemens, SGS, Watson Pharmaceuticals, Merck and Orange/France Télécom are recent examples.
The firm also acts for states and state-owned entities including Hungary and Algeria’s national oil and gas company Sonatrach.
One of the firm’s biggest victories to date was for Hungarian oil and gas producer MOL in a billion-dollar contractual claim brought by Croatia that ended in late 2016. As co-counsel with Dechert, Weil Gotshal & Manges and Wolf Theiss, it persuaded an UNCITRAL tribunal to reject allegations that a shareholders’ agreement had been procured through bribes paid to the Croatian former prime minister Ivo Sanader.
The firm acted for a major pharmaceutical in a US$210 million ICC dispute over non-conforming drug products. The client won on the merits and was awarded a significant part of the damages claimed, plus costs. Another case for Watson Pharmaceuticals ended in 2009 with a US$100 million win.
It led another client to victory in 2015 in a Dubai-seated ICC arbitration under Saudi law, obtaining a US$47 award and the dismissal of all counterclaims.
The team has had a string of successes defending awards in set-aside proceedings before the Swiss Supreme Court. For example, it ensured the preservation of a €220 million award in favour of Orange/France Télécom and an ICC award in favour of US company Hasbro.
Getting an award set aside by the Swiss courts is traditionally much harder than defending one – fewer than 7 per cent of award challenges succeed. But the firm has achieved this also.
The firm emphasises that a significant number of its cases end in settlement before arbitration or early in the proceedings – but “if there is a fight, the gloves come off”.
One such settlement was in 2013 for Merck in a US$2 billion dispute with a major US drug-maker over patents for one of the world’s bestselling pharmaceutical products. Another in the same year was for Técnicas Reunidas in a US$100 million ICC arbitration relating to the development of energy projects in the Middle East.
Besides the great results for MOL, the firm represented Sonatrach before the Swiss Federal Supreme Court – obtaining a ruling that an arbitration with Paris-based Medex Petroleum did not need to begin afresh following a failed conciliation. An UNCITRAL tribunal went on to rule that Sonatrach had validly terminated contracts for two oil fields. (Quinn Emanuel is acting for the state oil company in the arbitration.)
New instructions came from a state and state-owned entity in a €500 million dispute over one of the largest construction projects in the world; and from a Middle Eastern construction company in a US$200 million ICC case concerning an international airport.
It emerged that Voser is sitting as arbitrator in a US$500 million UNCITRAL case against Jordan, brought by US and Turkish-owned investors in a water pipeline project. Three weeks of hearings took place in early 2017.
The big news in terms of personnel changes was the departure of partner Georg von Segesser after 35 years with the firm, who has set up his own practice in Zurich together with his son.
Stefan Leimgruber and Urs Hoffmann-Nowotny were promoted to the partnership in Zurich, where Anne-Carole Cremades and Isabelle Berger-Steiner were also promoted to counsel. Julie Raneda was also made counsel as she relocated from Zurich to Singapore.
Another counsel in Zurich, James Menz, left to take up a two-year post at the German Institution of Arbitration (DIS) as deputy secretary general and head of case management.
Geisinger was re-elected as president of ASA for a second term. Christopher Boog became a member of the Arbitration Court of the Swiss Chambers' Arbitration Institution.
Michael Barry of IMAR Trading & Contracting in Qatar used the firm for a multimillion-dollar arbitration over a large construction project in Abu Dhabi. He praises Philippe Bärtsch for providing “great leadership” and Anne-Carole Cremades for ensuring the accuracy and relevancy of the final arguments.
Ümit Yamantürk, deputy general manager of Turkish contractor Güris, hired a team led by Geisinger in a crucial dispute for his company. “We needed to regroup the line of defence at an advanced stage, and this was understood and executed very efficiently,” he said.
He adds that the firm has “a very good experience of our business” and that its lawyers are “imaginative in their defence strategy and very thorough – we have not been disappointed so far”.