Schellenberg Wittmer shook up the Swiss market for international arbitration some 14 years ago. In 1996, a partner on the Geneva side of the firm - Laurent Lévy - persuaded others to invest in building an arbitration team that, he later explained to a reporter, was too big for the firm. The idea, he said, was for a Swiss team to pitch for international cases, thereby introducing new clients to the firm. Lévy recruited a second partner, Gabrielle Kaufmann-Kohler, laterally, and together they built a group that blended Swiss and non-Swiss lawyers. It could also, they made sure, hold its own in oral advocacy, then becoming far more important as a skill.
- No. of pending cases:
- Value of all claims:
- US$3.2 billion
- No. of appearances in Who’s Who Legal:
- No. of treaty cases:
- No. of arbitrator appointments (no. as chair or sole):
Today the two founders have gone full-time as arbitrators - at a different firm. The practice they founded, however, Schellenberg Wittmer, remains at the top of the game - if anything more competitive some say, for having freed itself of the conflict problems that its two in-house arbitrators were creating. Things had reached a point, older and younger lawyers at the time agreed, where parting was in everbody’s interests. The separation took place a few years ago, and is, most agree, no longer much of a discussion point. The group has continued to follow the same pattern that made it successful - recruiting a mixture of lawyers, encouraging them to sit as arbitrators when able, and also to pursue parallel academic careers. Upholding the leadership role for advocacy, a Schellenberg partner created the Foundation for International Arbitration Advocacy a few years ago, which now runs residential courses on the shores of Lake Geneva. Meanwhile, rivals around Switzerland have paid the practice the ultimate compliment: copying its mixed-nationality model without - some would say - quite catching up.
As for the business model, the firm recently noted - with some pride - that it has worked on arbitrations in English law with a London seat, in Polish law with a German seat, in Filipino law in Manila, and Cameroonian law with a Dutch seat in recent times, indicating that the plan Mr Levy devised works.
The current firm is the product of a merger in 2000 between Geneva and Zurich firms, both of which were known for dispute resolution. As a result the current prctice has weight in both cities. From the arbitration standpoint, it’s viewed as unusual because it has near-equal strength - in terms not only of number but also individuals of high-status - in both the French and German parts of the country.
Within the firm’s matrix of nationalities, one partner is common-law trained: David Roney, a Canadian barrister and solicitor earlier in his career. He works from Geneva, and set up the advocacy foundation.
Who uses the firm?
Looking at a few longer-running cases from the past two years, the retentions came from an automotive firm, a pharmaceutical firm, a foreign bank, an industrialist and an oil company. In some, the amount at stake was approaching a billion dollars, or for another reason the matter was an eight or above on the scale of seriousness, according to the information supplied by the firm.
It’s rare, researchers note, for Swiss firms to be able to point to simple, outright wins for claimants: the Swiss legal market has strict rules on revealing clients. On top of that, Swiss arbitrators are adept at engineering late settlements.
Against that backdrop, Schellenberg Wittmer won an award in 2009 worth as much as $100 million to Watson Pharmaceuticals that is a matter of public record. A tribunal ruled the company could continue selling Ferrlecit, an iron-deficiency treatment, in the US for the remainder of 2009. Its share price jumped 42 cents on the news (1.4 per cent). In 2008, the drug generated US revenues of $148 million. The firm also reported a win of lower value but possibly greater reputational importance in a sensitive case about air-traffic rights. The dispute arose following a mid-air collision. The tribunal reinstated the contract and awarded damages. It also helped an engineering firm minimise the damage to its reputation and its pocket after it walked away from a tram project. The tribunal rejected a potentially devastating claim of wrongful termination. Researchers did not enquire about big wins from earlier in the group’s history.
The firm appears at or near the top of current rankings for disputes work in Switzerland. Beyond that, things get a little complicated. In one book it is top-ranked with six other firms in an undifferentiated dispute resolution list. In a rival book it is top-ranked in litigation but placed in tier two for arbitration, a little below three other Swiss firms.
Outside Switzerland, Schellenberg Wittmer features in a Europe-wide list, mid-to-lower table, and is one of two Swiss firms selected for that with Lalive. It is not, however picked for a global arbitration list, whereas Lalive is.
Researchers said they could see a case for giving an improved Europe-wide ranking to Schellenberg Wittmer, and thought it probably also deserved inclusion in any current global ranking. The inclusion in a Europe-wide list reflected their impression of the firm’s business. Given it extends to Asia and Africa, there is a case for a place in a global ranking. Regarding Switzerland, they noted that some eminent non-Swiss lawyers have said, in public, that the French-speaking part of Switzerland handles international arbitration more sympathetically - and is “better” - than the German part. Since Lalive and Schellenberg appear to be the biggest in terms of headcount in Geneva, rankings that put others on a par above them should perhaps be queried. (Schellenberg is probably the biggest in headcount for arbitration nationally, they added.) On the other hand, one of those rankings mirrors which firms have held the presidency of the ASA (picking Lalive and Bär & Karrer high). In that regard the recent election of a Schellenberg Wittmer partner as vice president of ASA should bode well.
The firm added two additional US-trained lawyers to its lower ranks in 2009. Several partners cited committee work at the ICC as among their personal highlights of the year. Nathalie Voser served as a member of the drafting subcommittee that’s been updating the ICC Rules; David Roney saw the ICC task force he’s been chairing - on the New York Convention - produce its report. In September, Elliott Geisinger became a vice president of the ASA. The firm also said retentions on matters with no real connection to Swiss law have continued to increase.
Lawyers to know:
- Geneva: Elliott Geisinger, David Roney and Anne Véronique Schläpfer;
- Zurich: Martin Bernet, Peter Burckhardt, Alexander Jolles and Manuel Liatowitsch; and
- Andrea Mondini (especially for IP matters), Georg von Segesser and Nathalie Voser.
Schellenberg Wittmer’s International Arbitration Group is composed of leading specialists with the experience and expertise necessary to provide representation at the highest level in a broad range of complex commercial cases.
We are recognised as one of the pre-eminent arbitration groups in Switzerland and among the top arbitration practices globally.
Our partners have acted as counsel and arbitrator in disputes involving parties from around the world and places of arbitration from Europe to the Middle East, Asia and North America. We have dealt with arbitrations under all major institutional rules. With lawyers from both civil law and common law traditions, we conduct cases governed by a wide range of national laws and provide common law advocacy skills.
As a result of our diverse backgrounds and international experience, we understand the complex issues that arise in global business.
When sitting as arbitrator, we therefore grasp both the legal intricacies of the case and also the business challenges facing each party.
When acting as counsel, we know how to find solutions that meet our clients’ strategic objectives. This enables our International Arbitration Group to provide creative and result-oriented advocacy, from critical pre-arbitration injunctions through to effective enforcement strategies.
Schellenberg Wittmer is one of the leading business law firms in Switzerland. Over 110 specialized attorneys in Zurich and Geneva advise domestic and international clients on all aspects of business law. Our areas of advice include: banking and finance, competition and antitrust, dispute resolution and international arbitration, intellectual property/information technology, mergers & acquisitions, private equity and venture capital, private clients, trusts & estates, foundations, real estate and construction, restructuring and insolvency, taxation, white-collar crime and compliance.