Regulation & Law

Guy Vermeil & Stefan Bretenstein (Lenz & Staehelin): “The key to the sustainability lies in younger lawyers”

What are the secrets behind the success of this landmark Swiss law firm? Managing partners Stefan Bretenstein and Guy Vermeil, delve into the firm’s history and discuss its development.

What are the secrets behind the success of this landmark Swiss law firm? Managing partners Stefan Bretenstein and Guy Vermeil, delve into the firm’s history and discuss its development.

Leaders League. Lenz & Staehelin just celebrated its centenary. What are the reasons behind your longevity?


Stefan Bretenstein & Guy Vermeil. The reasons are entrepreneurship and a focus on client need and high-quality service.


It was a courageous decision by Conrad Staehelin to open a law office in Zurich in 1917. The real development of the law firm started, however, when his son Willy Staehelin joined. With his entrepreneurial spirit and American law background he was ideally positioned to serve American and other international companies that invested in Switzerland and expanded in Europe and across the world. Almost simultaneously, Raoul Lenz formed his law firm in Geneva in 1951 and was similarly focusing on international clients who were particularly attracted by his tax expertise, which was quite unique at the time.


A further key reason for the longevity of the firm was the decision taken to merge the Zurich based law firm Staehelin, Hafter, Jagmetti, Lutz & Partner and the Geneva based law firm Lenz, Schluep, Briner & de Coulon which precipitated the formation of Lenz & Staehelin on January 1st 1991. The firm therefore became the very first to have a national scope, and the first Swiss firm consisting of practice groups. The founders were true visionary leaders. Since then, the firm has continued to grow and remains Switzerland's largest independent law firm. We have never been a closed shop and encourage talent, with the promotion of new partners taking place almost every year.


Present in both Zurich and Geneva, how do you handle the specificities of the market?


With a strong presence in both legal centers, the firm is ideally placed to serve international and domestic clients for all Swiss matters. It also enables the firm to deal with language and cultural differences within Switzerland.


With the early merger, Lenz & Staehelin were able to establish a national presence many years before its Swiss competitors. And the firm’s practice groups do correspond to the economic reality of both cities. In other words, while Zurich is more focused on industry, Geneva is more geared to finance, with a broader banking group than Zurich.


Based on your experience, how should a law firm cope with changes in technology?


Technological development will greatly change the legal profession in the next five to ten years. Smart contracts and intelligent software will primarily affect the in-house legal services of companies and those law firms providing commodity services. IT will enable those players in the legal market to more efficiently deal with the wave of regulations that has come in the wake of the financial crisis.


Our firm pays close attention to developments in technology and is currently reviewing such new products with a view to possible implementation at our firm. This is key to our business and significant investments are being made. We are already using cutting edge software for our investigations mandates. However, new technology must pass a cost-benefit test. It’s vital to consider that Switzerland has a trilingual legal culture and is a relatively small jurisdiction. With these limitations, it's more costly and time-consuming to develop cost-efficient legal tech products. We primarily see new technology as an instrument for a law firm like ours to work more efficiently, which means faster and at lower cost for clients. Our focus will remain on the needs of clients and quality of legal services.


In a few words, how would you describe the firm's philosophy?


As mentioned earlier, we focus first on client need, quality of service and entrepreneurial thinking. We believe the key lies with younger lawyers. This is the reason why we pay attention to training: we organize internal training per practice group, a key subject is addressed every time and we concentrate on the scientific aspects, so as to stay at the cutting edge of matters dealt. Each partner does both training and pro bono work. It shows social responsibility. A law firm of our level requires a lot of work from the young associates: we also insist on their well-being, and indeed on the well-being of all employees. In this regard, we have started to organize high performance sports and outdoor activities.


We try our best to be attentive to the needs of the younger generation: this is one of the vital elements to remain ahead.



Read the full Special Report: Switzerland: Decentralized but Robust

Small, stable and diverse, with Geneva and Zurich serving as hubs for various industries and thus law practices, the Swiss legal market reflects the country’s situation. The banking paradise that served as a safe haven for private clients is changing: some international law firms are trying to establish themselves in this market dominated by local law firms, while local law firms compete for recognition in international commercial arbitration.
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