How important is practicing law for a professor?
They are of counsel at Wenger Vieli, professors at the University of Lucerne, and good friends: Daniel Girsberger and Lorenz Droese on their relationship with the firm, the current generation of students, and the value of academia.
Daniel Girsberger (left) and Lorenz Droese (top):
“Research and teaching are really very contradictory.”
You chose academia following your career at the firm. What makes research and teaching so attractive to you?
Daniel Girsberger: You can take the time to think things through without having to keep an eye on the clock. There’s less pressure – even if the pressure is greater than one might have thought. And of course it's a privilege to convey knowledge to the younger generation in an academic setting, a generation with which a business lawyer like me normally wouldn't have much contact.
Lorenz Droese: Research and teaching are really very contradictory. Research is introverted, contemplative. Teaching is extroverted and fills a certain need for personal recognition that we all feel from time to time. It also makes it possible to expand on a subject to someone who has never heard anything about it – which is a privilege in the hard-boiled world of lawyers. And in contrast to work for the firm, you don't have to drop things once your objective has been reached. Work in academia really begins at the point where a lawyer will have finished. I find that very satisfying.
Could that also be understood as criticism of a lawyer’s work?
Droese: No, that wasn’t what I intended. The academic world certainly meets the needs of my own personality more than simply doing a lawyer’s work does. But lawyers certainly help scholarship to progress. It’s an unusual feature of our system that countless real-life decisions are what generated our legal system, just as countless grains of sand form the sediment that becomes a mountain that jurisprudence then wishes to map.
Girsberger: A bit of criticism may be allowed to shine through. Not a criticism of the legal profession, but criticism of our economic system. Being a lawyer was an independent profession until a few decades ago. Within the limits of their authority, lawyers were allowed to take the time they needed to advise their clients on all relevant rules of the law. Today everything is economically optimised. Lawyers are required to achieve maximum results with minimum outlay. That comes at the cost of subtleties, sometimes including human aspects. This economic optimisation is slowly infiltrating academia as well. Free thinking is increasingly being regulated.
You see the up-and-coming generations, the lawyers of tomorrow. What do you gain from exchanging views with students?
Droese: Independently of whether a generation and its values actually make sense, it’s always stimulating to learn more about a trend. The generation that I’m teaching now is positioned between the youngest people in my group of friends and my own children. I find it enriching to shed light on this blind spot. I’ve been teaching for over ten years and have seen few changes during that time. But I do observe an astonishing cosmopolitan spirit among today’s students.
Girsberger: Unlike some of my colleagues, I wouldn’t say that today’s students are worse. But the students’ areas of emphasis, interests, and attitudes are shifting due to globalisation. On the other hand – thinking of the pandemic – students have also become much more adaptable. In the past year, we’ve completely switched to online teaching, including exams. The students have participated in this in a radical way. My conclusion is that today's students have more understanding for the fact that the only constant in our lives is change. We lecturers also benefit from this because we subconsciously participate in those changes.
Thanks to your work, you have gained an insight into the biggest, most important law firms. How does Wenger Vieli stand out from the crowd? What makes Wenger Vieli special?
Girsberger: I started off as a junior lawyer at Wenger Vieli 38 years ago, and since that time the firm has shown that it has a positive attitude towards academia. At the time it practically had its own academic orientation. The senior partners, J-C Wenger and Lelio Vieli had – in addition to their legal streak – a strong philosophical and psychological interest that inspired the most fundamental academic activity, namely thinking. A person who wanted to do academic work was supported. I was also allowed to write my post-doctoral thesis during my working hours. I was even told, “We want you to finish and we’ll also give you more time than you thought you’d need.” I’m still very grateful for that today, because otherwise I might have failed.
Droese: I was able to benefit from this attitude during a later phase. I had very little experience with the two senior partners, but I was influenced by people they had influenced. Particularly by Daniel Girsberger, who showed me that the doors of academia were open. And also by people who were not necessarily academically inclined themselves but who still understood my decision and – perhaps only reluctantly – supported it and even encouraged me. That’s truly not something that can be taken for granted, and for that I'm grateful.
You must have particularly liked the senior partners’ fundamental attitude, Mr. Droese. At one point you entered a university programme in religious studies. How did that come about?
Droese: I was fascinated by Hans Jonas’s book “Ethics of responsibility”. Jonas had studied theology and religious studies. It was extremely disappointing to me when I realized that this course of study didn’t interest me. I chose law because I wanted to do something that emphasised language but I was frustrated by “Philosophy 1”. I’m not good with crafts or the natural sciences, but law seemed to be appropriate because it was a sort of craft that involved language. Paradoxically, I was able to settle certain outstanding accounts from my side trip to Phil. 1 – which I certainly felt to be a setback – at a place I’d never sought but astonishingly found.
I come from a family of lawyers;
both of my grandmothers were lawyers."
And you, Mr. Girsberger, how did you come to study law?
Girsberger: I come from a family of lawyers; both of my grandmothers were lawyers. For me there was very little question of what I wanted to do in life. But the question of whether I had chosen the right path became more pressing as I proceeded along that path. It was the opposite of what happened to Lorenz. It wasn’t until I was able to combine my work with academia that I found fulfilment. And really that’s the great thing about law as a profession: you’re not forced to follow one track. There are so many variations that you can turn into your primary subject. For example, I changed from being a trial lawyer to an arbitrator to a mediator, and I’m grateful for that.
How important is parallel experience in practicing law to the work of a professor?
Girsberger: It’s not an absolute requirement, but it's unbelievably enriching. Certain academic legal subjects become more three-dimensional and colourful when they are taught if you have one foot in the practice, because our profession is actually a practical one.
Droese: I don’t find practicing law to be a necessity as such. However, for me it is. We aren’t doing research on a natural phenomenon that really exists. We’re doing research on a phenomenon that results from actual practice. If you withdraw into a purely scholarly existence, to a certain extent you’ll be removing yourself from what you’re studying.
However, there is certainly an academic tradition that has made a great deal out of that more otherworldly perspective. Only that wouldn’t be for me.
We're doing research on a phenomenon that results from actual practice."
Daniel Girsberger specialised in arbitration. Lorenz Droese focused on civil procedure. Do you have an explanation of exactly what took you in those professional directions?
Girsberger: The path I took developed into business law only because I worked in a business law firm after completing my studies. If I had started off with divorces and inheritance law in a family practice, I would no doubt have gone in that direction. And then it’s usually individuals who influence you or subjects that – as in my case – are suggested by an academic mentor. The fact that I ended up specialising in arbitration was really a coincidence. I had to substitute for someone who was supposed to give a speech on it. My thesis advisor considered it an opportunity to distinguish myself relatively quickly in an interesting field.
Droese: I always draw strongly from my own experiences. I ended up in the public prosecutor’s office more or less by chance. The knowledge I gained there led to my handling subjects that involved a criminal law aspect. One particular case combined criminal law and civil procedure, and that resulted in my dissertation. I was also greatly influenced by working with Marco Cereghetti at Wenger Vieli. All of that rather coincidentally led me to specialise in civil procedure. One might say that when I went into religious studies I had a master plan and things went awry. After that I no longer had a plan and things went well (laughs).
What does being of counsel at Wenger Vieli mean to you? Or to put it more bluntly, what do you get out of it?
Girsberger: I was a partner at Wenger Vieli for 17 years, so one feels very strong ties to the firm. Then I moved to the University of Lucerne, where I helped to found the Faculty of Law. When you have to carry a load like that, there’s no more room for being a partner. You have fewer obligations when you’re of counsel, which offers a certain relief. But I never had the feeling of no longer being heard.
Droese: I was always a salaried lawyer at Wenger Vieli. I myself never experienced the entrepreneurial perspective of playing a more limited role due to being a professor. I feel that two things bring me closer to Wenger Vieli: the relationship to the practice that I've already mentioned – I can talk to people with whom I have a relationship of trust about professional and technical issues, as well as about areas of doubt, about problems whose solutions aren’t evident. That’s something that greatly stimulates me and also brings practical problems to my attention which I wouldn’t see if I were in an ivory tower or viewed things from a more starry-eyed perspective. And as for the personal side of things, I always enjoyed being at Wenger Vieli. It was hard for me to say goodbye, even if it was good for my biography. I found it much easier to say goodbye because I knew that being of counsel would allow me to keep enjoying proximity to the firm.