As part of our commemoration of Sidley’s 20 years in Switzerland, we interviewed Todd Friedbacher, the original co-founder and current managing partner of the Geneva office. He also is a member of the firm’s Executive Committee and is regularly recognized as a leader in international trade and WTO law.
As a first mover and market leader in [the WTO disputes] space, we have always attracted exceptional talent. You get the very best of the best when you’re lucky enough to be in this position.
— Todd Friedbacher
Can you share a bit of your background and what led you to co-found the Geneva office?
TF: I graduated from law school in 1994, just as the agreements establishing the World Trade Organization (WTO), which is based in Geneva, were concluded. During that time, Dan Price, a former partner at Sidley, was putting together a group of lawyers who could represent governments before the courts at the WTO and in investor state arbitration tribunals. It was horizon gazing – no one else in the market thought that this was going to be a way to make a living. But I was looking for a novel practice area with questions of first impression regularly up for consideration, and WTO litigation was exactly that.
This opportunity just fit perfectly with what I wanted to try and do with my career. It was the classic right place at right time — all because of Dan’s vision, with Sidley providing a fantastic platform for us to grow that client work before the WTO and investment tribunals. Scott Andersen, a former Sidley partner, and I co-founded Sidley’s Geneva office in 2002. We were still young, so we had the hubris of youth to go to a country that had very few international law firms present in the market and attempt to do the kind of work that almost no firms in the world were doing at the time. We thought: “Sure, we can do that, why not?” And so, we ran out, jumped in with both feet, and 20 years later, it’s been a great success.
What intrigues you most about your practice?
TF: We were the first to set up shop here in Switzerland, with an exclusive focus on WTO work. There was no script for how to do it: the work was new, the market was new, it was completely greenfield. So, as a first mover and market leader in this space, we have always attracted exceptional talent. You get the very best of the best when you’re lucky enough to be in this position. What intrigues me most about my practice is nurturing these lawyers and making sure they develop long and successful legal careers. Working together with such talent remains compelling for me more than anything else.
What’s distinctive about the Geneva office?
TF: Scott Andersen always had a saying: “Everybody loads the dishwasher in the Geneva office.” It means that everyone, at every level, is expected to contribute equally to the firm, whether that is enhancing our profile to attract the right clients or developing a solution to a particular client’s litigation problem. It is an intense team approach, but all views are both respected and expected. Geneva is a real melting pot of nationalities, languages, and legal traditions, largely because of the presence of the United Nations and all of the international organizations with offices here. Our office is a cross section of that. You wouldn’t expect that level of diversity in a relatively small office like this.
How has the business and policy landscape evolved over 20 years?
TF: Our office has always focused on maintaining its reputation as the premier shop for the resolution of international trade disputes at the WTO. But at the core, we are international litigators. The baseline skills we developed in WTO disputes have a lot in common with the resolution of disputes in other international fora. So a bit more than 10 years ago, we brought in the firm’s International Arbitration practice here in Geneva, to complement our WTO Disputes practice, expanding our mission to cover the complete range of international dispute settlement.
In 2019, we launched our Swiss Life Sciences Initiative, which has been incredibly important in bolstering the brand of the firm’s Global Life Sciences group and in positioning the firm to better serve key life sciences clients who are either based in Switzerland or have their EMEA headquarters in Switzerland. Switzerland is an innovation hub, particularly in the life sciences space, and so having life sciences lawyers on the ground here is important. Now we can provide clients with opportunities to confront issues like drug pricing and reimbursement challenges not just in the U.S. but all over Europe, the UK, China, and in other jurisdictions across the world.
Are there any achievements you are particularly proud of?
TF: I am incredibly proud of our work on the landmark Brazilian cotton case at the WTO, challenging U.S. cotton subsidies. While it was a David-and-Goliath legal battle, we won by establishing that U.S. subsidies were inconsistent with WTO rules and harmed the interests of cotton farmers in developing countries worldwide — leading to a very significant $750 million payment from the U.S. to Brazil. It was a foundational dispute, both in terms of the law and the politics and policy around agricultural subsidies and development. Importantly, the case solidified the firm’s reputation as the world’s most thoughtful and influential litigators on WTO matters.
Another matter that stands out was our representation of South African Olympic gold medalist Caster Semenya in her appeal, to the Swiss Supreme Court, of a Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruling upholding regulations that required Caster to lower her natural testosterone level in order to compete in international competitions. The Supreme Court agreed that the regulations violate Caster’s physical integrity, because the required hormonal drug intervention is not medically indicated, has negative health effects, and is not based on the athlete’s free consent. Nonetheless, under Swiss law, the Supreme Court considered that this was insufficient to overturn the CAS judgment. Caster’s fight is critical to advancing the human rights and dignity of athletes everywhere, and we are proud of the part we played in advancing this cause. This is a long game, and justice will ultimately prevail.
This year also marks the 10th anniversary of Sidley’s Emerging Enterprises (EE) Pro Bono Program, which originated out of the Geneva office. Why is pro bono so ingrained in the office culture there?
TF: The Geneva office is a microcosm of society as a whole. Our lawyers understand the importance of giving back and using their knowledge and skills to help underserved communities around the world. It’s why most of our pro bono projects have an international focus. Our EE Program helps social and environmentally focused businesses worldwide launch their enterprises and get their goods and services to market. Since 2012, the EE Program has supported more than 200 clients across 55 countries, with our lawyers and specialists contributing more than 56,500 hours of pro bono work since its inception.
What are some of your goals for the Geneva office?
TF: One of our biggest strengths is providing clients with multiple solutions to complex international disputes spanning multiple fora. We can equip a client with the necessary tools to find the best and most comprehensive solution to a problem in front of them today and give them the best type of watertight relief tomorrow. What I want us to do is to expand our profile even further into other types of international fora for the resolution of these disputes. I would also like to build upon the accomplishments of the Swiss Life Sciences Initiative. The lawyers who are working on this initiative in the Geneva office are doing fantastic work, and my goal is to facilitate their ability to keep growing its reputation.
Geneva is surrounded by unspoiled nature and mountains on all sides. What do you like to do outside of work?
TF: There are few places in the world with the geography, landscape, and natural beauty that we have here right at our doorstep in Geneva specifically and in Switzerland generally. Outdoor sport is a very important part of my life, whether it’s skiing in the mountains close by, or running through the local vineyards, or swimming in the lake down the street. I take full advantage of everything here.