Dr. Dorothee Schramm in Portrait
"When you face complex life decisions, intellect is overrated and fear is the worst advisor – go with your gut feeling."
Dr. Dorothee Schramm, partner at Sidley Austin LLP, on challenges, values and work across cultures and disciplines.
Dear Dorothee, you are currently a partner in an American law firm in their Geneva office. Having grown up and studied in Germany, what brought you to Switzerland?
The beauty of the country and the challenge of pioneering work. I was part of the first team of research assistants that helped build the brand-new law school of the University of Lucerne, which opened in 2001 as the first Swiss law school to follow the Bologna system. I fell in love with Switzerland on my first visit to interview for the job. It was the best decision of my life to leave the small bubble I grew up in and to accept the challenge of moving abroad to pursue a project that could not have been more exciting and demanding. It was also in this context that I discovered the exciting world of international arbitration by coaching students for the Willem C. Vis Arbitration Moot in Vienna.
You obtained your PhD in the field of private international law and are now specialised in arbitration. What have the time and effort spent on your dissertation taught you that you would not want to miss?
Perseverance, deep analysis and attention to detail. Writing a PhD thesis can be lonely and sometimes frustrating, and it often seems less appealing than smaller projects that you pursue in parallel. You need to keep your eye on the long-term goal to resist the lure of quick wins, and to dig deep into your thesis again and again. Publishing a thesis also requires you to be consistent and pay attention to details. All of this laid the foundation for the legal work I am doing today.
At Sidley you are currently the European representative on the leadership team of Sidley’s global life sciences practice. What challenges does this entail?
The challenge of leaving your comfort zone of expertise. The global life sciences leadership role requires a perspective and vision that encompass the entirety of issues affecting this important industry, and that go far beyond the borders of my own practice. It also calls for sensitivity to the cultural and economic differences between Europe, the US and Asia. Last but not least, the role entails leading a diverse group of partners in different European offices and different practices, most of whom are more senior than me with deep expertise in life sciences law. These are demanding, but also very rewarding challenges.
You currently are also on the Executive Committee of the Swiss Arbitration Association. What was your role in the rebranding that resulted in the new Swiss Arbitration platform?
In 2020/2021, I led the working group that was in charge of rebranding the Swiss Arbitration Centre, as it is now known. What started as a simple renaming exercise developed into a branded-house concept under the leadership of the Swiss Arbitration Association that brought the entire Swiss arbitration jurisdiction on one platform, with one unified branding. The Swiss Arbitration platform is a global first, and you can see the result at www.swissarbitration.org.
You love technology, have created different arbitration tools, co-authored books that show legal concepts in pictures and schemes, and you adore combining different disciplines. What role does such interdisciplinary exchange play in today’s legal environment?
The world becomes more complex, and it is difficult to adequately address such complexity solely with the tools traditionally used by lawyers, in particular words. Clients need to make business decisions, and combining legal and economic analysis is more helpful than legal analysis alone. An increasingly complex world also calls for simplifications to make things more intuitive – you can’t unsee a picture. All of this requires combining different skillsets and disciplines, which is also a lot more fun than being limited to the traditional legal tools.
In response to the scandal around former USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar – now a convicted sex offender – the Gymnastics Ethics Foundation (GEF) was put into place. What does your role as a member of the Disciplinary Commission of the GEF consist of?
The role entails using my skillset as an arbitrator to fight abuse in sports. The GEF is a global body presided by a former President of Switzerland to uphold safety and fairness in gymnastics on a global level. In panels of three, the Disciplinary Commission of the GEF holds hearings and decides on sanctions against coaches and judges for abuse of gymnasts and other violations of ethical rules, while ensuring that the alleged abuser gets a fair process.
You represented Ms Caster Semenya, the multiple Olympic gold medalist, who challenged a regulation set by Word Athletics for female athletes if they have a genetic condition with higher natural testosterone levels and want to continue to participate in certain competitions. What have you learned defending her in relation to the media?
Representing Caster Semenya before the Swiss Federal Supreme Court was a profound and intense experience that went far beyond the practice of law. Ultimately, Caster’s cause must prevail in society – we all should feel empowered to decide that health and other fundamental human rights are more important than sporting interests. History will judge us tomorrow, and media play an important role in shaping public opinion today. Effectively communicating with media is completely different from making legal arguments, and needs to be learned and trained.
The rules in question only apply to women. How do you classify this aspect in relation to gender discrimination and human rights in general?
Many of the world’s most famous male athletes had genetic traits that were said to give them a competitive advantage. Can you imagine the outcry if one had required those male athletes to take drugs with serious health consequences to artificially slow them down? It would not have crossed anyone’s mind to do that, but these male athletes were celebrated as stars – and rightfully so. In reality, there is no such thing as a level playing field in sports, but Caster and other women are discriminated against and their human rights violated in an attempt to create the illusion of a level playing field.
Having lived in Switzerland as well as in Germany, how does the legal work culture differ from your point of view?
Germans tend to be much more direct than their Swiss counterparts and are not shy of open disagreement. That is a big cultural difference. From a legal perspective, German law is like a piece of engineering – beautiful but very complex. This is often reflected in the way German lawyers write and argue. By contrast, Swiss law is much more pragmatic, with the result that a German lawyer really must retrain when changing jurisdiction. This aspect is often underestimated.
You have work experience as an arbitrator and counsel in both Swiss and American law firms. What are the biggest differences between those two different work environments?
As a general proposition, Americans have a pronounced “can-do” approach, there is a lot of enthusiastic energy, and standing out is considered to be a good thing, which is not always the case in Switzerland. On the other hand, the Swiss work environment still tends to prefer more efficiency over longer working hours, and more quality of life over more money. In both cultures I appreciate the collegiality.
Not speaking much French at the time, you decided to accomplish part of your legal traineeship in Geneva. What role have your curiosity, sense of adventure and gut feeling played in your life?
A huge role! My natural curiosity and sense of adventure have allowed me to have the most unique and enriching experiences of my life, both personally and professionally. When you face complex life decisions, intellect is overrated and fear is the worst advisor – go with your gut feeling. The best decisions of my life were driven by instinct, despite the fact that fear and intellect pointed the other way. Follow your heart, but take your brain with you!
After only three years of joining Sidley and seven years after taking the bar you became a partner at Sidley, which is extremely quick for American law firm standards. Do you see any downsides of being at the top?
As long as you stay true to yourself and to your values, there are challenges, but no real downsides. The key thing is to connect with the right mentors who inspire you and share your values, and also to inspire the next generation of talent in return.
Working as a partner in a commercial law firm that has offices across different time zones and where being always reachable is the norm, what advice would you give young legal professionals when it comes to setting limits?
Set priorities and offer solutions. Nobody can always be available, and each person has different schedules and priorities. If you are unavailable as a result of your priorities, don’t explain and justify, but instead offer alternatives and solutions.
Which female legal professional would you nominate as a role model for breaking.through and why?
In the Swiss-German part: Esther Hauser, judge at the District Court Zurich, because she combines a rare intellect with equally rare depth of thought and human values.
In the Romandie: Elke Sauter, Legal Director EMEA at Firmenich SA, because she stands for diversity, dedication and excellence while remaining refreshingly human.
Thank you very much for this interview!
Geneva, 17 January 2022. Dr. Schramm conducted the interview in writing. The questions were prepared by Audrey Canova.
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