Bridging Cultures in the Legal Arena with Clarisse von Wunschheim

In this episode of Business Beyond Borders, we welcome Clarisse von Wunschheim, Partner and Head of Switzerland-China Cross-Border Solutions at Altenburger. Clarisse takes us on a deep dive into the world of international arbitration, sharing her multicultural expertise and strategies for bridging different cultures in global dispute resolution.

*The responses provided here have been rephrased for brevity and clarity. For the exact answers and a comprehensive understanding, we strongly recommend watching the full video podcast or tuning into the audio podcast.

Q: Could you share with us your journey in the field of cross-border dispute resolution and what inspired you to specialize in this area?

Clarisse: Certainly. I'm a Swiss citizen and lawyer with a unique international background. My father is from Austria, my mother is from the French part of Switzerland, and my family moved frequently when I was young. I was born in Mexico, lived in Switzerland, Germany, and attended school in France. My exposure to different cultures sparked my interest in international law. My journey into cross-border dispute resolution began when I assisted Professor Pierre Tercier, a renowned figure in arbitration, during my law school years. This experience ignited my passion for the field, leading me to specialize in international arbitration.

Q: How has your diverse background influenced your approach to international arbitration?

Clarisse: My multicultural upbringing has greatly shaped my approach to international arbitration. It has given me a deep understanding of cross-cultural dynamics, which is essential in resolving disputes involving parties from different cultural backgrounds. My language skills (French, German, English, Spanish, and Mandarin) have also been instrumental in bridging communication gaps and fostering understanding between parties.

Q: What are some of the common types of disputes you've encountered in Sino-European business sectors?

Clarisse: I've handled a variety of disputes, including distribution, agency, sales, licensing, technology transfer, and post M&A disputes. These disputes often arise due to differences in business practices, cultural expectations, and regulatory frameworks between Europe and China.

Q: How do cultural differences impact arbitration proceedings, especially in Sino-European disputes?

Clarisse: Cultural differences can significantly impact arbitration proceedings at every stage. From setting expectations and managing fears to negotiating fees and managing information, cultural nuances play a crucial role in shaping the arbitration process. For example, Chinese parties often place a strong emphasis on saving face and maintaining hierarchical structures, which can influence how they approach arbitration.

Q: What advice do you have for lawyers looking to practice in a country like China or firms looking to expand their operations there?

Clarisse: I encourage young lawyers to seek opportunities to work in different countries and cultures to broaden their perspectives and develop new skills. For firms considering expanding into China, I advise caution and recommend thoroughly understanding the local culture and legal landscape before making any decisions. It's important to approach expansion with an open mind and a willingness to adapt to local practices while maintaining international standards.

Q: Can you tell us more about Wunsch Arb and how it contributed to the field of international arbitration?

Clarisse: Wunsch Arb was a small but impactful organization focused on knowledge and business development in arbitration. We conducted projects like analyzing Supreme People's Court decisions to spread knowledge among foreign practitioners. We also organized workshops to bring together Chinese and foreign lawyers, especially the younger generation, to exchange knowledge and experiences.

Q: What are some unique challenges and opportunities presented by rules like ICC, Swiss, and UNCITRAL in international arbitration?

Clarisse: The ICC rules are historical and international, reflecting a century of international commerce. They provide a solid framework. Swiss rules, while less known, offer flexibility and pragmatism, particularly useful in complex cases. UNCITRAL rules create order in cases where parties are unfamiliar with arbitration, but their extreme flexibility can lead to chaos without a determined tribunal.

Q: Why do you advocate for commercial mediation over litigation or arbitration?

Clarisse: Mediation allows parties to explore creative solutions beyond the limitations of arbitration or litigation. It can transform disputes from costly battles into constructive deals that create value for both parties.

Q: Can you share an example where commercial mediation provided a unique solution not possible with other methods?

Clarisse: In a dispute between a German and Chinese company, mediation techniques were used to negotiate a sale of technology contract. This transformed a claim for 1.2 million euros into a 3 million euro deal within six months, providing a win-win outcome.

Q: What trends do you foresee in international arbitration and commercial mediation in the next decade?

Clarisse: I hope commercial mediation becomes more popular as it offers limitless possibilities for resolving disputes. Technology will automate small value disputes and enhance efficiency in high-value, complex cases, but human intuition and connection will remain crucial, especially in cross-cultural settings.

Q: What has been the most rewarding aspect of working in this cross-cultural field?

Clarisse: Building relationships and learning from others has been the most rewarding. Every case is an opportunity to learn about different industries, cultures, and people, making the work enriching and fulfilling.

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