This interview was conducted as part of the 2020 Edition of The Best Lawyers in Germany “Law Firm of the Year” award recognitions. Our partner Handelsblatt, also published these awards on June 27, 2019, online and in print in their June 2019 edition.
For Thomas Winzer of Gleiss Lutz—Germany's 2020 “Law Firm of the Year” in Labor and Employment Law—diversity and work-life balance are a foundation of their hiring practices. Winzer joins Phillip Greer, CEO of Best Lawyers, to discuss those topics as well as trends in labor wages and rights.
Your firm was the first German firm that introduced a part-time partner track in 2001 for lawyers who wanted to have a family. Can you talk about how that initiative has evolved and how it's been received over the near two decades?
TW: Management is really taking care of that, but perhaps I can give you my personal impression and tell you what it means for us in our practice area. From my perspective, the part-time partnership program has been a great success, as we have been able to retain very good qualified lawyers.
Those who want to have a family, in particular women, just stay with us. For us in the labor and employment department, we have been able to improve the ratio of female lawyers and partners. 30% of our partners are now women and that, I believe, is a big success. They are very good lawyers. I could imagine that we would have lost some of them if we hadn't had such a program. Take one of our most recent partner appointments in our Berlin office as an example: She was pregnant when she was voted into partnership. Her partnership started January 1st and it was very clear that she would go on maternity leave only a few months later. She will return and then start again with us. Without such a program, we likely would not have been able to keep her with the firm. It’s great that we're able to do this.
Additionally, there's a core approach towards diversity and female attorneys starting as early as their entry into law school. How has diversity strengthened the firm?
TW: Again, that's really something that is the focus of our management. My personal take is that some things are simply the right thing to do. We are an inclusive employer, and we value and honor diversity. It also makes a lot of sense from a business perspective if you are able to get people with a diverse background into the firm. These days, if you put people with different backgrounds together on a team, you get different perspectives. This allows you to provide clients with better service and results, because each background may have certain strengths. If you're able to combine these strengths, that makes an important difference. Also, if you're talking specifically about women, I personally believe it's very important in connection with what we just discussed in relation to your first question. It's really key for a firm like ours that we are able to retain women from the outset because they are so talented. My personal impression is that they are sometimes a bit hesitant to take the last step and say, “I want to become a partner”, because they think, “well, hmm, you know, it might be difficult, but I want to have kids. It would be a shame to lose very talented people because of such doubts.
Therefore, I think it is crucial to empower those women, believe in them and support them so that they grow and become very successful lawyers. I believe we are really on the right track here and are truly improving diversity and supporting women. A lot of programs have been started by our management in this connection. We help our female lawyers with networking and they meet internally, discussing how to grow as a lawyer and how to develop their business, they can talk to female partners about how they achieved their partnership, and so on.
We have events with female leaders from other industries, not just law firms; for instance, from the banking and financial services sector. They network and I believe that's also a very important thing that you can offer, especially the younger lawyers. I believe this is a very positive development and I'm glad the firm as a whole and the management of the firm genuinely supports and furthers this initiative.
There's been a bit of resurgence in labor striking and fighting for rights and better wages. Can you talk about any trends or changes in the landscape you're seeing emerge in the German market?
TW: In the German market we’ve had a very good economy in recent years. We’ve been very lucky, I would say. Maybe other European countries have suffered more. However, what we really see is that this situation may change. On the one hand, we have a huge transformation process taking place in certain industries. I'm thinking about the automotive industry with the shift towards electric cars. It will indeed result in the loss of a significant number of jobs. This will of course increase union activity again and that's probably more related to how we structure such a big transformation. How can we avoid mass redundancies? How can we educate people so that they will be able to perform jobs with a future? I don’t think it's so much about minimum wage or minimum protection, because we have quite a good level of protection here in Germany.
The second issue is, are we nearing a recession? Will there be a big economic downturn and how do we deal with that? My sense is that the employee representatives will play a significant role. I don’t believe we will have the very, very big battles like in France because, even though unions also fight hard here in Germany, we traditionally aim to find a compromise. In Germany it's actually about finding a good solution that is acceptable to unions and management. This approach really helped us in recent recessions, because the situation did not explode and amicable solutions were found. I hope it will be the same this time.
This interview was edited for brevity and grammatical clarity.