Why are there so few female corporate lawyers, Bignia Vieli?
She’s one of only two women out of 22 partners: Bignia Vieli on the family-unfriendly structures of traditional corporate law firms, her dual role as mother of three and lawyer – and her father.
Large corporate law firms are still clearly in the control of men; there are hardly any female partners. Why is that?
Those firms were established by men who tended to be conservative thinkers, who worked long hours while their wives organised the family and their social lives. Today women are just as well educated and just as good professionally. Naturally many of them don’t want to give up having a family and also being involved with it. But the existing structures in corporate law firms often make it difficult to carry out those intentions.
Doesn’t a firm often miss out on opportunities for that reason?
Sometimes very great ones. Even we have unfortunately lost some very suitable women because as mothers they preferred fixed working hours. That's why it’s urgent for us to create structures that will allow for part-time work, including part-time partnerships. Not just for women, but also for men who want to assume responsibility for tasks at home.
What stage has this rethinking reached at Wenger Vieli?
We’ve recognised the problem and also have some ideas about the direction things should go. Adjustments of that kind are still planned for this year.
How did things go for you? How have you been able to raise three children and still have a career?
I was already a partner – meaning I was my own boss – when I had my kids. I was able to delegate work and organise my time myself. I primarily advised banks, financial service providers, and individuals; there were sometimes emergencies, but they were manageable.
And did you have nannies at home?
We had a housekeeper. She arrived at 8 o’clock four mornings a week, did the housework, watched the children during the day, and prepared the evening meal. She left at 6:30, at which time my husband and I took over.
Your husband pitched in?
He has his own firm and also worked long hours back then. But he always took time for the family. He also had to travel less than I did. And he participated in the housework. As a woman, you can’t cope with five family members and a job as a lawyer if the man of the house doesn’t do his bit.
Who put the kids to bed?
That was my job; I enjoyed it very much, while my husband preferred to do the kitchen during that time. I wanted to be there when the children woke up. And I wanted to be there when the children went to bed. I always found those moments to be very beautiful and important.
If you simply let things come at you without planning, the result can be a mess.”
Three children and a job as a lawyer – that’s a challenge even with a dream husband. What was your recipe for success?
You have to be proactive in getting things organised. If you simply let things come at you without planning, the result can be a mess. But you can anticipate a great deal, so things at home can stay relatively calm. As a lawyer you have practice in that; you're structured, have a plan in mind – and you’re flexible enough to throw it all out sometimes.
Still, work and family can’t be reconciled without some sacrifices. Which ones did you decide to make?
It was always clear to me that the children shouldn’t suffer from my professional activity. So I rarely participated in networking events, hardly went to seminars, and didn't spend much time at lawyers' events. I didn't want to still be away from home in the evening. And I gave up my hobbies. What we did do, though, was travel a lot. We were lucky in that our kids were low-maintenance and hardly whined and didn't get on our fellow travellers’ nerves.
What specific family duties did you not delegate?
Taking the kids to the doctor, holding children’s birthday parties, everything related to school. I wanted to have close bonds with my children and to know what was going on. I preferred to read legal files late at night. And there’s a lot more time once the kids start school.
I wanted to have close bonds with my children and to know what was going on.”
Did you have a magic formula for fatigue or do you naturally need very little sleep?
Actually I need a lot of sleep; I was and still am tired. I think the only formula is to have fun. Fun with the family and fun in one's profession. That’s what keeps you going.
Did you always know you wanted to be a lawyer?
No, not at all. At 18 I would never have wagered that my life would go in that direction. I was also interested in journalism or psychology. Studying law was more of a test run but I immediately felt the attraction. I liked the structured, logical thinking. But I deliberately left my future career path open. When I had my first child, I also thought, let’s keep an eye on things and see how this develops. But I never told anyone (laughs).
You joined Wenger Vieli – in other words, your father’s firm – at age 32. How did that go?
I was working at another corporate law firm, and Jean-Claude Wenger asked to talk to me. I was flabbergasted. I would never have dreamed of coming to work with my father in the firm. But I gave it a try because I never wanted to regret not having tried something.
What were your concerns?
That it’s strange to work with my father. That I might be under more intense scrutiny. And also suspected of being coddled. That’s why I also focused on talking to the other partners. The future of the firm was ultimately in their hands; my father was on the verge of retiring at the time.
So how did it turn out?
I was very positively surprised – including by my father. I got to know another aspect of him – his collegial side. He gave me his full confidence and was certainly happy that I was following in his footsteps. But I was also very proud of him!
How much did your father model the fun of work for you?
My father certainly loved to work and worked a lot – but he didn't allow himself to be consumed by his work. He was an interested person who had hobbies. For example, he loved astronomy and we had a telescope at home. He loved showing us the stars when we were little. It was around the time of the first moon landing. It always resonated that there were many interesting things to discover outdoors.
How did he react when you told him you wanted to go to law school?
He cross-examined me for two hours because in his view the profession of law was too hard for women. I was annoyed at having to justify myself as a woman, because I wanted to study law, and I didn’t allow myself to be talked out of it. It’s very much in my father’s favour that he was soon able to smile and admit that his opinion had been wrong.
Why was that his opinion?
That generation of men most likely had inhibitions about being as tough with women in court as they were with men. Those men were gentlemen; for my father it was a dreadful prospect to imagine openly and strategically “annihilating” female opposing counsel as was done with other men.
Are there things that women lawyers tend to do better than men?
I don’t like male-female clichés and I don’t think it’s gender that makes the difference – it’s character, intelligence, and social skills. But perhaps women – specifically mothers – are a bit better at listening, a bit better at holding back. That’s also because that’s what they were taught in earlier generations.
Where do women still have to lean in a bit so they can change things, even in a corporate law firm?
Women have to learn to act more self-confidently. I don’t mean being louder. And not just to act “as if”. But rather they must believe deeply in themselves – and not hide their light under a bushel. Particularly Swiss women, if I may say so. American and French women are ahead of us in this. They don’t allow themselves to be disconcerted even if their opposite number is being much too domineering. And perhaps we women have the tendency to want to do everything perfectly; we may also be standing in our own way where that’s concerned. Things go better when we acknowledge to ourselves that no one’s perfect. Not even we women (laughs).