Hélène Weidmann, LL.M., in Portrait
"This little boy may have realized that lawyers managing a law firm are not always old men, who do not smile."
Hélène Weidmann, LL.M., partner at BianchiSchwald, on the importance of role models for little kids and the necessity to spread your wings.
Dear Mrs. Weidmann, you are a partner at BianchiSchwald working as a corporate M&A lawyer. What fascinates you about your work and the M&A world?
What fascinates me about my work is the role we have in people’s life or within corporate entities at this key moment where (i) either they are ready to purchase a new company, have endless dreams, projects and motivation and we are helping them finding out the most favorable structure for that; or (ii) they have worked hard during many years, made their project flourish and are now ready to sell it for various reasons.
I also love the technicalities of the agreements we draft. This might sound weird but I simply love drafting, reviewing and negotiating M&A agreements. I don’t see the time passing while doing that.
It is well known that there is a lack of female practitioners in M&A. What are the reasons for this in your view?
If I had to guess, I would say because there are only few female role models. This might consciously or unconsciously discourage some women from choosing this path. The second reason might be the kind of life you have when you are an M&A lawyer, i.e. often the lack of balance between professional and private life. Working on M&A transactions is stressful, the deadlines are always very tight, everything is for yesterday and you need to accept that during these very intense transaction periods, the personal life has to come second. When negotiating a share purchase agreement sometimes until 3 am, there is no room for dinner with friends and family, no room for holidays and the only place an M&A lawyer can be (physically and mentally) is in the conference room. This might discourage some women, who wish to prioritize their personal and private life over the professional one and/or need to have constantly a balance between both.
Did you always want to become a lawyer and did you have any role models in your family?
For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to become a lawyer. Therefore, I used to answer that it was a vocation.
However, I realized at one point that the vocation had been introduced in my mind by a very loving and caring mother. My mom is Ghanaian and my late father was Swiss. I have a sister living in Lausanne too. I was born in Lausanne but with a Ghanaian family background with strong female characters and role models through my mother, my late grandmother and my late great grandmother.
I realized a few years ago that my Ghanaian matriarchal family had, however, two male characters that everybody admired. The first one was the so-called “Papa Lawyer” wearing all the time a wig and a lawyer’s gown (even when he was not in court). I have heard about Papa Lawyer coming back from the court room for years but never made the link between my vocation and him.
I discovered a few years ago, while going on holidays to my mum’s village that the second uncle that was admired by all members of the family was “Papa Accountant”. This might not ring a bell for people, who do not know my family but it rang a huge bell to me since I am obviously a lawyer and… my sister is… an accountant… I realized, in this crowded bus going to my mum’s village that these two highly respected uncles had served as role models in my family, influenced my mum and indirectly influenced my sister and myself in the professional “choice”, we have made.
I asked my mom about it and she said very openly that she has been telling me since I was born that I would become a lawyer; she did the same with my sister with accountancy and it worked out pretty well!
I am very grateful to my mum. She did not have a chance to pursue higher studies, when she was a teenager. My grandfather (who was working in the army in Ghana and would have been wealthy enough to finance her studies) said that paying studies for a woman, was equivalent to throwing money into the garbage. He refused to finance her studies (although she was very talented in handball and had been awarded a partial scholarship), since he would not spend a penny for a woman’s studies.
My mother was revolted by her father’s decision, but she had no choice but to accept it. However, she promised herself that this would never happen to her children, should she have daughter(s). Consequently, the mojo in our family has always been: “the sky is the limit; not money”. She cumulated several jobs to allow me to study in Lausanne, Zurich, Geneva and New York. I will never stop thanking my mother for her trust and support.
After passing the Geneva bar, you spent a year at New York University (NYU) to do an LL.M. Why did you choose the US as your LL.M. destination and how would you describe this year in your life?
I have chosen the US because my dream was to study one year in New York. I had visited this city once before and told myself, I will be back one day and will study at NYU. That dream came true a few years later.
This was one of the best experiences of my life. This year was key in my career for the language skills, the experience and the network.
Often law firms desire applicants who already have work experience. Did you already have experience in the M&A corporate field, when you applied for the position at Lenz & Staehelin. What factors were decisive in getting the job?
I had no experience in the M&A corporate field when I applied at L&S.
Three factors where key: The first one is related to what I described above, my time at NYU and the NYU network. I met several people working for L&S at NYU without whom I may never have known about a new position opening up at L&S Lausanne.
The second one is the LL.M. program. It gave a clear advantage to my application: fluent in English, experience in the US, good network and additional skills.
The last one was being honest during the interview. I said bluntly and clearly that I had no experience whatsoever in the M&A field, that I had to google “public takeovers” before attending the interview, since I had no idea of what it meant. But I outlined that I was a hard worker and that I would be delighted to learn.
My former boss, Me Jacques Iffland, gave me this great opportunity and I am very grateful to him for his trust and intellectual generosity.
After your time at Lenz & Staehelin and Reymond & Associés, you joined BianchiSchwald as a partner. How was the work environment different in each law firm and why did you decide to move to BianchiSchwald?
BianchiSchwald and L&S are very similar in terms of organization with practice groups, integrated law firms in which every lawyer works mainly in the fields he or she masters the most.
I loved my job as an associate at L&S since it was very instructive and satisfying. I also love my current working environment at BianchiSchwald. My partners are great at a professional and personal level. We share the same values and I am happy to go to work every day to work on fascinating transactions and share know how and experiences with my partners and the associates of the firm.
The experience with Reymond & Associés was completely different. This was my first experience as a partner but in a non-integrated boutique law firm, in which I could unfortunately not spread my wings.
I am definitely happier now that I am back in an environment in which I can work only on corporate / M&A files, cooperate with partners and associates having complementary skills. Almost 80% of my work is in English.
While working at Lenz & Staehelin you had the opportunity to practice in both its Geneva and Zurich offices. How did you experience the notorious “Rösti-Graben”* – does really such a big different between people from the Romandie and the Swiss German part of Switzerland exist?
I would tend to say different but complementary. If I had to make a caricature of my L&S “Rösti-Graben” experience, I would say that the Zurich colleagues started earlier in the morning than in Geneva or Lausanne, that they were perfectly organized (they would never miss anything including any internal practice groups), had a more classic dress code and fewer aperitifs.
While the Geneva and Lausanne colleagues would start a little bit later in the morning, they did not hesitate to miss or postpone some practice groups, but would never miss an aperitif.
With BianchiSchwald we also have offices on both sides of the Rösti-Graben, which is a great advantage. I am happy to have also my Zurich and Bern colleagues on board, who are very talented and with whom I can share experiences and skills.
You are a dedicated mother to your six-year-old daughter and a busy partner in a law firm – what are the challenges and what is key for it all to work?
The challenges are the balance between private and professional life. The key for it all to work is asking for help and being surrounded by caring and trustworthy people.
I am a single mum but have a caring and trustworthy family on my side, which takes care of my daughter when I am stuck at work. I can then focus on my work with peace of mind knowing that when my daughter is not with me, she is with other caring and loving family members.
On the other hand, when I am with my daughter, I am 100% with her, enjoying quality time. I used to work part time (80%) when she was younger. But I came to the conclusion that I am happier working full-time (sometimes 150%) and having quality time with my daughter, when I am off, rather than working part time and spending the 20%, where I am supposed to be off, half with her and half calling clients and checking my emails.
You are a member of the organization “mod-elle” that tackles gender stereotypes. What projects does it pursue and what is your role?
Until roughly seven years old, children (boys and girls) think that they can become whatever they want, when they grow up. At the age of seven, everything changes based on stereotypes. The purpose of this association is to show children in public schools that women can become anything they want: pilot, firefighter, work with the NASA or manage a company, etc. The goal is that they can grow up with female role models to avoid that they start restricting their professional options. Stereotypes can be based on gender or other factors as economical background or ethnicity.
I am acting as a volunteer in this association and love going to these classes several times a year to meet these fascinating and curious children. I have two funny anecdotes about these events in class. The first one was with children that saw me in civil clothes and were convinced that I was either an actress or a singer (although they were provided with a list of professions in advance and neither actress nor singer were on the list). After the usual Q&A where they had to guess our profession, I went out of the room and came back wearing my lawyer’s gown and all the children said: “We were right!!!!! She is a singer!!!!” … I looked at my gown and realized that they thought I was a gospel singer and obviously not a lawyer.
The second anecdote was about a small boy that told me “You know what Hélène? I know that you are a lawyer, but you don’t look like a lawyer.” I asked him, why I did not look like a lawyer. His answer was so revealing; he said: “Because lawyers are old men that never smile and you, you smile all the time!”. Everything was said, and after my visit to this classroom, this little boy might have realized that lawyers managing a corporate law firm are not always old men, who do not smile, but this could be his sisters, his cousins or any of his girlfriends. It made my day!
You are a very successful female lawyer of color in a predominantly white profession. Was this topic present during your education and the development of your career?
For as long as I can remember this was not a topic in my education and the development of my career. However, my Swiss German family name Weidmann might have been helpful. When I was younger and had to apply for a position, LinkedIn and Facebook did not exist or where not as standard as they are today. I did, on purpose, never put a photo on my application and no recruiter would have imaged that I was partially afro descendant. At the interview level with the recruiters, my origins were never - at least openly – an issue and did not prevent me from getting the dream jobs I aspired to.
The memory can however be selective sometimes. One of my closest university friends reminded me recently that I had a completely different speech, when we studied together. I used to say that since I was not white, I had to aim at excellence, if I wanted to have a successful professional career. This led me to study a lot, even when I was a kid to try to get the best grades at school, college and then university. My dear friend helped me remembering the influence of this factor on my academic cursus and on my career.
Young people of color or other people with diverse backgrounds might be discouraged from pursuing a legal education given the dearth diverse role models in many Swiss law firms. What advice would you give them?
I would tell them to work hard, keep their heads up, go for it and read carefully the following sentences from Kamala Harris, which she mentioned during a speech at Spelman College in 2018:
“My mother had a saying that she would speak to me and my sister, and she would say to me, ‘Kamala, you may be the first to do many things, but make sure you are not the last.’” She added, “and that’s why breaking those barriers is worth it. As much as anything else, it is also to create that path for those who will come after us.”
I simply wish for a society, in which people get the position they wish and deserve – including promotions – because of their skills exclusively.
A career mentor is the new buzz word. How important do you think it is having a mentor for a successful career?
I think that having a mentor is key for a successful career. The mentor does not have to be one single person. It could be several people with various skills; family members or people met in the personal or professional environment. The only suggestion I would make is to stay humble and happy to learn from more experienced people.
Having a mentor has been key to me. He is a big-hearted entrepreneur, who is now retired. He is very humble and would probably be surprised to be called “a mentor”. My mentor helps me going out of my comfort zone and always makes sure that I am spreading my wings to the maximum.
Which female lawyer would you like to nominate as a role model for breaking.through and why?
Two very close friends of mine: Me Régine Gachoud, a very talented lawyer working as a gender advisor and deputy head of the section at the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as Me Marie Flegbo Berney, a talented M&A lawyer and partner in a law firm in Geneva.
Thank you so much for this interview!
Lausanne/Zurich, 30 March 2021. Hélène Weidmann, LL.M. answered the questions in writing. The questions were drafted by Florence Jaeger.
* For our international readers: this is the cultural boundary between the French-speaking and German-speaking regions of Switzerland.
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