How was it back then, Jean-Claude Wenger?
He could also have been a surgeon. Or an actor. Founder of the firm Jean-Claude Wenger on his difficult years as a student, the secret of a successful partnership, and the fascination of major trials.
Jean-Claude Wenger: “I came from a rural area where everyone knew everyone else. I was a stranger in the city.”
Your parents were psychiatrists, and you grew up in rural Thurgau here in Switzerland. What led you to the law?
When I was a little boy, I wanted to be a teacher. I imagined it would be rather boring, but on the other hand the idea of so much time off was attractive. I flirted with acting for quite a while during middle school. After I got my “Matura” secondary school certificate, I had to go directly into the army and I thought I might come up with a good idea there about what I could study at university. I saw that five of my fellow soldiers were going to study law, so it couldn’t be such a bad idea.
Did you ever think of studying medicine?
Yes, I would have liked to be a surgeon. But that idea suddenly passed. I liked doing precision work with my hands. I even did embroidery for a time. I also made a bit of lace (laughs).
Then you moved to the big city. How did that go?
I came from a rural area where everyone knew everyone else. I was a stranger in the city; I knew no one. I lived with an aunt and I was lonely. And I didn’t really enjoy going to university lectures all that much. But I was an enthusiastic member of the university theatre group. We performed “Iphigenia” eight times in the entrance hall of the university in 1948. I can still recite entire passages from it.
If you had to do it all over again, would you study law?
I don’t know. A long time passed before I found the profession to be a calling. After completing my studies I went to work for the court, which I enjoyed for a while because of its theatricality. Then I went to the Court of Appeal, which was a bit more interesting intellectually. But after five months I’d had enough. I applied to three law firms but didn’t have the best impression. Then I replied to an advertisement in the Zurich newspaper. A lawyer was looking for someone to handle liability and building law cases. I found that intriguing, and I got the job. After ten days the lawyer left on a two-month trip to the U.S., handing his cases over to me. I was thrown straight into ice-cold water. After two weeks I knew this was it. This is my profession! I was almost sorry when the lawyer came back from his trip.
What did you discover during that time?
That I liked to work on my own. I knew I wanted to work independently, and a few years later that’s just what I was doing. I leased office space at Seegartenstrasse 2 in Seefeld and 15 years went by. I became a lawyer, heart and soul.
It seemed as if each of us was saying what the other felt.”
This is where Lelio Vieli comes in. How did you meet?
Lelio was slightly younger than I was; we had crossed paths at the university. It was a stroke of luck that he contacted me, that's the only explanation for it. He said he had something to discuss with me. I didn't know him very well at that point, but I already hoped he would be proposing a cooperative venture. My wife knew the Vieli family and viewed them very positively. What happened was that Lelio told me he wanted to make a change and had thought of me. We got on well from the time of our first conversation. It seemed as if each of us was saying what the other felt.
What was Lelio Vieli like as a person?
Lelio tended to be more cool-headed, while I tended to be the driver. But the way we treated each other, what we expected from each other and from ourselves – in those respects we were practically identical. We were as one voice and became very good friends. Lelio died in 2009, but I still have very vivid memories of him.
Still, were there ever disagreements?
Never! We may have had different opinions. Then we'd go to Café Black, have a coffee, and tell each other what we honestly thought, but each of us would also ask the other at least as seriously for his opinion. And we always came up with a good solution – quickly, which is very important. The subject would be off the table after five minutes.
The value of a good partnership is still making itself felt at Wenger Vieli today. But what makes a partnership a good one?
The most important thing is trust. And consideration is just as important. A partnership isn’t all fun and games. You also have to be able to give up some things. A person who only wants to develop himself isn’t a good partner. A partner must also be able to step back and be happy for the other person’s success. We had all of that to a great extent.
Lelio Vieli and Jean-Claude Wenger:
The founders’ values still apply today.
Is it possible to learn how to be a good partner?
The ability to learn that is certainly limited. Some people are better at it than others. But if a person fails to understand that he also has to give sometimes and can’t only take, then it won’t work. Then it gets dangerous. It's even more dangerous when two or three mavericks of that kind combine forces. We’ve also had to ask that sort of person to leave the firm.
How do you feel now when you see that the firm employs 125 people?
It’s a completely different firm. It has the flexibility of being able to put together a highly-skilled team overnight. But you can’t run a large organisation or be responsible for employees the same way we were able to. Lelio and I knew the joys and sorrows of all our employees. That’s also the reason we originally wanted to stay small. There’s a degree of closeness that becomes impossible once the firm reaches a certain size.
Bignia Vieli and Chrigel Wenger followed you as the second generation. What did that mean for Lelio Vieli and you?
Many offices deliberately don’t do this because they have the feeling that it isn’t helpful for the children or that it puts them under particular pressure. That's not how we saw it. Lelio had often loudly proclaimed that women were not suited to the legal profession, but that was one of his few major errors, as he quickly realised when Bignia joined the firm. I always told him, you’ll see, she’ll run circles around you. And of course I was very happy when Chrigel joined. He had done his training elsewhere. The partner who was responsible for him there told me at great length that I’d poached Chrigel from him.
What did you and Lelio Vieli intend to do when you first started out?
We decided we didn’t want to do asset management. That’s certainly one reason for our success. We negotiated on behalf of banks but we never let ourselves be taken in. We were always proud of our independence and incorruptibility.
It was always clear to both of us that we wouldn't allow ourselves to be bought by anyone.“
Were there any temptations?
Once after the "Chiasso case", Kreditanstalt asked Lelio whether he wanted to become head of the legal service and later a member of management. Lelio's father had been the director general of Kreditanstalt, so it was tempting for him. But he loved our independence as much as I did and refused the offer. It was always clear to both of us that we wouldn't allow ourselves to be bought by anyone. The greatest temptation for me was when I was supposed to become a brigadier general. But I refused – and never regretted it.
Have there also been setbacks in your career?
Lelio and I always pursued litigation to its conclusion – and we were proud of that. We always said that anyone who doesn’t litigate is only half a lawyer. But when you conduct litigation you can also lose, and that’s something very unpleasant. Particularly when you felt you ought to win. And the older you get, the more you think you’re going to win. You have to be able to suffer defeat, and that’s not a simple matter. But litigation is often an incredibly interesting process that develops over time and allows a person to experience the whole panoply of the legal profession.
What was your most important case?
(Laughs.) The longest one lasted 27 years! I suspected there would be complications, but I still made the mistake of asking to conduct witness depositions in Athens. That involved Greeks, Belgians, and French people. The expenses skyrocketed. But the mandate the public knew most about was Kaiseraugst. A majority of the Swiss population rejected nuclear energy in 1975 – due to concerns about final disposal or an accident. Planning of the Kaiseraugst nuclear power station had already taken more than 20 years, and the costs were well above a billion francs. The Swiss federal government was as much involved as a bank consortium and the lead company Motor Columbus. Activists also occupied the area for a time. The Swiss Federal Council asked me to negotiate a compromise between the parties. I was unsure and asked Lelio. He told me, when your country calls, you must do it. Take two months, and I’ll attend to things here.
How were you successful in getting the opponents to agree?
It was their last chance. They could lose everything or win half. I chose a pretty unusual strategy – which is beyond today's scope to explain – and gave them a week to think it over. They reluctantly agreed, but instead of calling me they called Otto Stich, a member of the Federal Council. I didn't care. I was happy that it ended well, although no one believed it would.
How much did your wife know about cases like this?
Hardly anything. I have the great advantage that my wife is also a lawyer. As a district court judge, she also knew how to maintain confidentiality. We took discretion very seriously. Other lawyers were unfortunately a bit too relaxed in talking about their cases, but we never did that. But I’ve seen marriages break up because the wife was excluded from the husband’s professional activity.
Especially when you have a life partner who understands the material, it's not always easy to say nothing. What did you do with your doubts, your questions?
I certainly dealt with most of them myself. And I had Lelio; we were able to – and allowed to – talk about everything.
Your life’s work is now celebrating its first 50 years. Is there anything you’d like to impart to the employees and particularly the partners?
Stick together, show unity to outsiders, stay honest – including with yourself. And have as much fun as you possibly can with your work!