Salli Swartz


What do you do?

I am a full partner in a French law firm that I founded, with other French partners, five years ago.

Why did you decide to set up your own law firm rather than work with somebody else?

I set up my first law firm in 1988, when I left PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) with another female lawyer friend of mine and convinced myself that I could find clients and be good at it. It has been a great adventure, and extremely successful, ever since.

Which kind of law did you practice?

I practice international, transactional business law and arbitration. My work covers international mergers and acquisitions, both by foreign companies that are acquiring or setting up business in France and other countries in Europe, and by French companies that are investing outside of France. I also advise multinational businesses on compliance issues (anti-corruption, social auditing, privacy etc.) and more recently on creating and enforcing compliance programmes that take into consideration the Ruggie Guiding Principles on business and human rights. I also represent - sometimes pro bono, sometimes not - governments (mostly in Africa), which need outside counsel to assist them in extractive industry contract negotiations with the private sector.

Why did you decide on this area of the law?

When I first created my firm in 1988, my partner and I promoted our law firm as two very good lawyers who had left big law, i.e. the big international law firms, to offer the same services at a lesser cost. We were as competent as big law firms but because we were much more efficient and close to the client, we could be much less expensive. As a result, the work that came to us was generally contractual work; either from foreigners who wanted an Anglo-Saxon to walk them through the French system, or from French clients who liked the combination of my French partner and myself, who had knowledge of both French and Anglo-Saxon businesses and how they related structurally and legally to each other. In the mid-1990s, I got involved in pro bono work in Africa through the US State Department, that would often engage me to train government officials in anti-corruption issues in West Africa because of my French language and legal capabilities. I have continued doing pro bono work in both East and West Africa and in parts of Asia on both anti-corruption efforts and the negotiation of extractive industry contracts with a number of different NGOs.

My career evolved somewhat in function of the clients that requested my assistance. When I came to Paris I decided that I was not trained to do family law, which often involves litigation before the French courts. Given my skill-set, I focused on international arbitration and transnational business transactions. In fact, I commenced my career in Paris doing international arbitration work, mostly in ICC construction arbitrations in the Middle East.

After several years, I joined an exclusively French firm, where my skills were used to update a book called Doing Business in France, and in labor law negotiations and international acquisitions where one of the parties was an Anglo-Saxon company. When I left the French firm (where I could not be a partner because I was not admitted to practice as a French avocat which required French nationality at the time), I created the independent legal entity of PwC. In that capacity, I was counsel on a multitude of international deals involving French and foreign parties.

When I went out on my own, my partner and I did a lot of marketing and I reached out to contacts who could, and in fact were, interested in using our services.

Why did you decide to practice in France rather than the US?

I had been an exchange student in Paris when I was 20, and France enchanted me. Studying at the Sorbonne and grande école Sciences Po, was very exotic and intellectually challenging. It opened my eyes to the world. I then went on to Syracuse University School of Law where I obtained a certification in international law. When I graduated, there were not many international public (or private) international law positions available so I decided to become a legal service poverty lawyer in rural Pennsylvania. It was quite a change of career orientation when I came to Paris. It was not easy to convince a law firm to hire me, but I did. And to this day, I believe that for me, it was the right choice and is much more interesting and intellectually challenging than if I had remained in the United States.

Why was it more intellectually challenging?

The type of work that I do is much broader in scope than what most corporate lawyers do in the US, and it requires not only language skills but cultural insight, legal talent and communication skills in order to explain to and negotiate with people of different cultures and of different professions in different countries worldwide. This has always been fascinating and challenging. I learn something new almost every day, which keeps me sharp and connected. And I suspect that I would not have had such an exciting career if I had stayed in the United States.

But when I began my career in France, I did not have a set career path. I did not affirmatively decide to specialise only in arbitration or only in M&A. As it turns out, these specialisations fit my skill-set, but it was not pre-ordained. When you are advising a newly incorporated French subsidiary of a foreign group, you do a bit of everything, which is what a general counsel does, but in-house. I would incorporate the company, negotiate the shareholders agreement if any, do the first employment contracts, negotiate the first lease, the commercial agreements, the general terms and conditions of sale etc. I still do that. I take care of all the legal needs for a number of French subsidiaries of large American or English multinationals as well as French companies who have international business operations.

You've edited a book on Careers in International Law for the American Bar Association. What advice would you give to someone who wants such a career?

Firstly, I would say do your very best in law school. Learning how to reason, how to think and how to be creative in law to meet the client’s needs is the essential foundation which is needed to be a good lawyer.

Once you learn how to be a good lawyer, then you need be open to different cultures, speak a few languages (or at least want to speak a few languages), be flexible in your approach to all types of political, sociological and economic or financial issues that will arise in negotiations with your future partners, your associates, your clients and their partners.

Often, even if you think the issue you are discussing is 'just' a legal issue, there are all types of background 'noise' that may be expressed as legal, but may, in fact, not be strictly legal in nature. You have to have an open mind. You have to want to be challenged almost every day and not necessarily 'just' a niche specialist that feels inadequate outside your comfort zone.

There are all types of skills that are required by a lawyer who practices internationally. I do not mean to imply that you would not need such skills if you never leave home, but I think you really need them if you want to cross borders and deal with different types of people, who work in different types of legal systems and who have different types of education and who live in all types of countries (democracies which have rule of law and others…).

What do you look for in the lawyers you hire?

Most of our CVs come from French law students with the exception of summer interns. We require at least two (French) master's degrees and a degree from an Anglo-Saxon law school.

My favourite candidate would have an LLM from an American law school, and in addition to French law degrees would also have a degree from a business school. We do look at the type of schools the French student has attended and the type of baccalaureate the student has obtained. We also look at the extracurricular activities of the candidate, because I believe they reflect the character of the person - such as whether the person has travelled greatly, lived abroad, whether the person is interested in doing internationally-based types of work, or whether or not they're just looking for an internship to get through their education. And that comes out fairly clearly in an interview.

What do you think the best law school in France is?

I couldn't say because I never went to law school in France. I think you can become a great lawyer having attended many different law schools in France. In France, the law schools are public universities. You don't have to pay to go to them and they are open to everyone who has received his or her baccalaureate. To the best of my knowledge, there are no studies that detail the earnings or positions of former law students broken down by university, so they are difficult to rate.

I'm not sure that any given law school is the top French law school, any more than I would say any law school in the United States is the top law school, despite all of the surveys and rankings. For me, it all depends on why the student chose the school she or he did, what that student wants to do after they graduate... I can say, however, that the current French law school population has a majority of female students, yet the majority of French women lawyers ten years after graduation are not partners in big law firms. Most of them are single or small firm practitioners - if they remain in practice. This is, in my mind, a real issue for diversity and ambitious female attorneys.

You're a member of a number of associations worldwide. What does it bring you?

I am a former Chair of the International Section of the American Bar Association (ABA), sat on the ABA Board of Governors and the Board of Directors of the ABA Rule of Law Institute. I am currently a member of the Advisory Board of the ABA Center for Human Rights. My involvement with the ABA has brought me management skills, legal expertise, friendships, and contacts. As Chair, I organised and led a delegation of American international lawyers to Lebanon and Jordan, which was a real eye-opener for a number of American lawyers. And I organised the first conference of the ABA International Section in Paris, which over 1,500 lawyers worldwide attended. Through the ABA, I became active in the International Legal Assistance Consortium, which is an international association which coordination of legal technical assistance to post-conflict democracies.

I am also a member of Arbitral Women which is an association dedicated to supporting women attorneys who want to get into and stay in international arbitration as counsel or arbitrator.

I only participate in organisations that I really believe in. For example, I was admitted as a member of the (United States) Council on Foreign Relations which is a prestigious think tank on international policy issues and which is very interesting intellectually.

For the little of free time that I have, when I am not practicing law, I try to give back to communities and governments what I've learned, through associations and institutions, which is why I started doing pro bono work in Africa, and I'm still doing it today. Currently, I am working on the World Bank African Mining Legislation Atlas project and I participated in writing a book entitled: Mining Contracts, How to Read and Understand Them.

This is part of my pro bono work. My goal is to give back to whoever needs it or thinks they need it, information that will help governments improve their skills in negotiating extractive industry contracts with the private sector and by doing so, will hopefully improve the rule of law and the economic, financial and social return on national resources in developing countries.

Is there any contract you're particularly proud to have worked on?

There are many contracts that I am particularly proud to have negotiated, such as the Consortium contracts that built the Eurotunnel and those that facilitated the construction of the Al Udeid airbase in Qatar. Some of my favourite cases or contracts are not in the public eye but involved highly complex joint ventures and foreign investments. 

I can also say that I am very proud of the pro bono work that I have done (and hope to continue to do) in Africa. I am very proud of the work that I have done with the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights on business and human rights by making lawyers aware and developing their skills so that they can assist their clients in assuring respect for human rights.

In my own work as an attorney, it makes me very happy when I can assist bringing people together to negotiate a fair deal that the parties will both benefit from in the future. I love negotiating deals and I love trying to improve and grow businesses and the rule of law and the economic and social future of developing democracies. My people and legal skills have been honed over many years, in negotiations in different cultures, in different contexts, in different languages, and for me, that is what makes my career so interesting.

Do you have any parting wisdom for the readers?

In speaking with women law students and young professionals, I have noticed that some of the younger female generation of lawyers are feeling quite challenged by the very idea of having a full-time profession as well as a fulfilling private life.

I would like to get the word out and encourage all female professionals: it really is possible to have a private life and a good career (but you will have to define 'private life' and 'good career').

As a professional, successful female partner in a successful international law firm, I can confirm with enthusiasm that it is possible to have both a fulfilling private life (with a partner and children if that is what you want) and an enriching, challenging and very satisfying career as a lawyer. You will have to make choices and it may not be easy every day, but you can do it. It is up to us women to define our professional goals and careers and not just endure what happens to us professionally. Read Lean in. Don’t limit yourselves to others’ perceptions of you. Be professional and don't be afraid of compromise and setbacks. But go out there and do it.

Salli Swartz | Attorney At Law | Artus Wise Partners

37 years' experience

CV in brief

Studied BA in Political Science at University of Massachusetts Amherst (USA) | JD in International Law at Syracuse University College of Law (USA)

Previously worked at Philips Giraud Naud & Swartz | PricewaterhouseCoopers

Languages spoken English, French 

Find her online Artus Wise Partners profile Amazon author page | LinkedIn 

Bar admissions Paris Bar | Pennsylvania Bar | US Court of Appeal for the Federal Circuit | US Court of International Trade | US Supreme Court

Associations American Bar Association – Immediate Past President of the Section of International Law (ABA SIL) | Union Internationale des Avocats (UIA) | International Bar Association (IBA) | Council on Foreign Relations | Board of Directors of the International Legal Assistance Consortium (ILAC)

Related reading Careers in International Law Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In

Exclusive Skype interview by Lucie Goulet, March 2016