Karin Graf is a partner in the dispute resolution practice group of Wenger Plattner’s Zurich office. She has been handling disputes for 20 years and is praised for being very skilled, solution oriented and able to break down complex matters. Clients praise her for being someone you want at your side at the negotiating table. In addition, Karin Graf regularly sits as arbitrator in international commercial arbitrations. Karin Graf speaks German, English, French, Italian and Spanish.
How have you developed your practice since you began your career?
There are various factors that have helped me to develop my practice over the past 20 years. As a young associate, I have tried to learn from outstanding practitioners around me. I have chosen to work in excellent and competitive firms and have lived a “can do” attitude, which helped me to be involved in interesting cases. Furthermore, I was closely watching my superiors handling their clients, cases and counterparties, trying to identify what fits best for me. In parallel, I have started to think about business development and how to make use of my strengths. I have challenged myself with difficult cases, knowing that this would make my skills and effectiveness continuously grow.
What do you enjoy most about your role as a litigator?
I love to take responsibility for a case and I love the story that lies behind every dispute. In addition, I also enjoy managing a case, defining a strategy, dealing with obstacles and resolving matters. As part of my role as a litigation partner, I am also responsible for setting up a tailor-made and effective team of associates who match with the client and the case and add real value to the team. And, most importantly, I enjoy listening to my clients, understanding their businesses and their needs.
Last but not least, litigation is confrontative but often ends in a solution being found. This is a fascinating process and I strongly believe in the benefit that good out-of-court solutions can generate.
Where do you identify a specific need for action in the market?
I will be answering this question as a female dispute resolution partner in a Swiss law firm. The current statistics show that there are more female than male professionals graduating from the universities’ law schools. If we look at recent numbers from the Zurich Bar Association with respect to bar admissions, we find that there are 20 per cent more women admitted to the bar than men (2020: 59.8 per cent women; 40.2 per cent men). However, just a few years into practice, this relationship is reversed. In the age group of lawyers between age 36 and 40, the percentage of female lawyers drops to roughly 40 per cent against a 60 per cent share of male colleagues. We are, thus, losing a very considerable amount of female talent. If we look at female representation in partnership structures, we note that there is only about 15 to 20 per cent of female partners.
There are, quite certainly, a multitude of explanations for that phenomenon but it is, I believe, too easy to just argue that women do not make it to partnership because they prefer to take care of kids. I much more think that the structures in the market do not specifically support female talent. We will see a need to change this in the coming years, and we need to increase our endeavours in this respect, thinking about mentoring programmes and structural changes.
We can already see that the market starts to impose considerable pressure on the law firms to present diverse teams in the sense of not only gender, but also ethnicity and LGBT+. Many influential firms, among them Novartis and Coca Cola, have started introducing programmes that require their legal service providers to make commitments to diversity and inclusion or risk having fees being withheld. These demands will further increase in the years to come, I believe, and more law firms in Switzerland need to actively think about how they want to retain the diverse talents that enter the firms. This process will also be driven by clients and is here to stay. This is something that we will need to invest in further. Diversity adds real value to the work that is done by law firms and, for this very reason, has a financial value in the eyes of our clients.
Overall, I hope that the partnerships of Swiss firms will continue to be increasingly diverse and that role models will continue to pave the way for others to follow. I personally love to work as part of a diverse team and strongly believe in the benefit this creates for our clients.
Karin Graf is "a responsive, brilliant lawyer" who "seeks effective solutions for the client". She "is very empathetic" and "clear when explaining complex legal issues".
Karin Graf is a partner in the dispute resolution practice group of Wenger Plattner’s Zurich office. She has been handling disputes for 20 years and is praised for being very skilled, solution-oriented and able to break down complex matters. In addition, Karin Graf regularly sits as arbitrator in international commercial arbitrations. Karin Graf speaks German, English, French, Italian and Spanish.
What inspired you to pursue a legal career?
I realised that I take great pleasure in language, debate, analytical thinking and teamwork. Working as a litigator satisfies all these passions. Every conflict has its history. As a litigator, my job is to work through these stories together with our clients, put facts into a legal context and resolve them in the best possible way. This has an investigative, fact-based component, but is also creative work with a human factor.
What qualities make for an effective litigator?
In the internal relationship with the client, it is important to understand the client’s needs, to analyse the circumstances of the dispute properly and to define a strategy. In the external relationship with the court and the counterparty, it is also important to show determination, decency and stamina.
What procedural issues relating to dispute resolution do you see arising from covid-19 where the majority of participants continue to live under lockdown?
Covid-19 has not affected Switzerland as much as other countries. But it has nevertheless catapulted us technologically into another age. Our courts were able to conduct certain procedural steps virtually. We have been offered an opportunity to live through modernisation at a rapid pace. Especially in the area of arbitration, there has been increased discussion as to whether, and which, procedural steps are suitable for virtual execution. I regard this development as positive and find it valuable that we have been forced to leave our comfort zone. However, not every procedural step can be carried out remotely in a way that will ensure equal treatment of the parties and their right to be heard. Going forward, we should make sure that the flow of innovation is maintained and will produce a cost reduction. At the same time, we need to be mindful of safeguarding procedural rights and equality.
How does your experience as an arbitrator enhance your approach when acting as party representative in complex disputes?
As an arbitrator, the fact that you see successful and less successful examples keeps you aware of how a case must be presented in order to be dealt with efficiently by a tribunal. The trial lawyer must facilitate the work of the judge. I have also concluded and confirmed numerous times, both during my time in state courts and later in my arbitration practice, that excessive aggression and harshness are not effective. They intensify the conflict and do not impress the court. A good judge will only be convinced by quality and that is what we need to focus on.
What is the most memorable case you have been a part of?
I was representing the 50 per cent owner of a very successful, internationally active Swiss SME in a dispute against the other 50 per cent owner. A personal conflict had become intolerable for both co-owners and for the many employees. The survival of the company was at risk. We defined a strategy with best, second-best and worst-case scenarios and sued for dissolution of the company before an excellently staffed arbitral tribunal. The company was represented by a trustee. The other co-owner could not be sued directly for procedural reasons and refused to participate in the arbitration. Complex questions of enforceability arose. Approximately six months after we had filed the lawsuit, a solution was found which I still consider to be constructive today and which enabled both parties to continue their professional careers separately. At that time, I felt a sense of corporate co-responsibility for the firm and its employees and was proud and relieved to have contributed to a good solution. I still have the pleasure of advising this client’s many new ventures today.
What advice would you give to younger lawyers looking to establish a career in dispute resolution?
As a young lawyer I thought that it was enough to do an excellent job and be willing to achieve a goal. I had to realise, however, that a career rarely follows a straight line.
First of all, and obviously, you need to have the necessary skills and be an outstanding lawyer. In addition, however, you have to learn to position yourself within the firm; you have to find alliances and remain authentic. For this to happen it sometimes takes a little patience and the constant confirmation of one’s own will. It is a constant learning process. But ultimately it is also good training for representing clients: if you can represent and communicate your own point of view, this can also be applied to representing clients in litigation.