Interview with Dr. Thomas Rihm. Mr. Rihm works as a consulting and litigating lawyer and has many years of experience in the field of commercial law and international matters. Since 2016 he has been running his own law firm with offices in the cantons of Zurich, Zug and Bern (Switzerland).
(Translation of the interview in German)
Mr. Rihm, how long have you been working as a lawyer?
I passed the bar exam in 1988. After a three-year work stay in the United States, I practiced in Switzerland, first as an associate and from 2000 onwards I was continuously self-employed.
Where do you like it best; in Zurich, Zug or Bern?
The big capitals such as New York and London are still extremely appealing for me. I come from Bale and have lived and worked in Zurich for 30 years. Therefore, Swiss cities are love at second sight.
Foreigners are focusing on the canton of Zug for various reasons; is this understandable for you?
The Canton of Zug does many things right and is therefore rightly popular among foreigners.
What is the Lex Koller?
The current Lex Koller regulates the purchase of real estates in Switzerland by foreigners. Until 1997 it also included the purchase of commercial real estates. Since then, only the purchase of residences by private individuals has been regulated. Ever since the introduction of the free movement of persons in 2002, for example, professionals from the European Union who wish to settle in Switzerland can purchase residential property with only a few restrictions.
I have a company abroad. How can I transfer the company’s head office to Switzerland?
This is no rocket science. The international company law of the current and prospective countries of domicile involved usually contains detailed instructions thereto.
How can I move to Switzerland and work here?
At the moment, the agreement on free movement of persons applies in relation to the European Union. According to this agreement, it is possible since 2002 to take up residence in Switzerland with or without an employment contract, the latter also in order to start looking for a job locally in Switzerland. This will be put to the vote again in the autumn. One can only hope that the sovereign will keep calm and confirm the current regulations on the free movement of persons. A quota system continues to apply in relation to the United States and Asia. We are right to complain around here about discrimination by Fortress Europe.
What is the flat rate taxation (“Pauschalbesteuerung”) in Switzerland?
It is taxation for foreigners according to the prospective cost of living (in German: “Besteuerung nach dem Aufwand”). These amounts have been raised by various cantons in recent years and currently amount to between CHF 400’000 and CHF 600’000. In addition, a certain minimum asset of approximately CHF 10 million must be proven to be held in Switzerland. Other countries such as the United Kingdom, Italy or Malta also offer such solutions successfully.
Do you have experience in advising clients on how to save taxes?
Tax law advice is part of every consultation with regard to commercial law. Obviously, the same applies when advising private clients.
Do you also negotiate with the tax authorities for this purpose and support your clients in the registration procedure?
Tax advice, especially in the context of the flat rate taxation, has increased enormously since 2002, thus, with the introduction of the free movement of persons. Since then, flat rate taxation is no longer a mere pensioner solution. Instead, entrepreneurs from all over Europe and the CIS region are constantly settling here in Switzerland.
Are there gift and inheritance taxes in Switzerland?
Gift and inheritance taxes are levied in practically all cantons.
You are a lawyer with international experience, including many years of professional experience in New York where you obtained a CPA title. What have you learned from these experiences?
As a corporate lawyer, you are recently always in demand for local expertise. However, international professional experience is what makes it possible to embed your own advice in the international environment. The long-term work stay in the Big Apple was certainly a defining experience. Having lived and worked in one of the world’s leading economies is irreplaceable. Despite all the cultural-critical farewells, one can still learn from the United States as the last western awakening society.
Are you still working as a lawyer abroad?
With us, mandates in international arbitration, legal assistance and advice to private clients often take us abroad. The transactional business, on the other hand, has mainly become a desk job. Unfortunately, stays of several weeks in New York in order to finalize transactions are becoming less and less common.
What are the differences between being a lawyer in Switzerland and abroad?
We rather see the complex similarities in the international practice. The often painted distortions about being a U.S. attorney do not reflect my professional experience in any way.
You opened your own law firm 4 years ago. What was your motivation for taking this step?
This has always been my long-cherished wish. Primarily was the desire for even greater professional and therefore personal development opportunities. The previous professional constellations were characterized by excessive consideration and internal administrative work. My step into full independence should have been taken much earlier. One makes many mistakes in life.
Today’s corporate lawyers are nearly always advised to specialize in a particular area – what is your point of view?
You have to differentiate. First of all, there is a large part of the legal profession outside of the centers, which are active as so-called sole practitioners over the country. Specialization as a business model is difficult to realize there. Nevertheless, also the sole practitioners regularly provide very respectable performance in the area of commercial law.
The discussion of specialization among corporate lawyers is therefore really an urban topic. Specialization is certainly a good thing when it comes to initial positioning in the legal market at a young age. The question of how it continues in the following is also a matter of temperament. You can also make yourself comfortable in the specialization corner and remain a one- or two-topic lawyer with a high demand for use, especially in large law firms. Whether this is fulfilling for a long professional life must remain open.
It is generally known that many a commercial lawyer becomes a specialist immediately if the amount in dispute is only large enough. In addition, legal topics are often completely or largely omitted – such as immigration law under the 2002 agreement on free movement of persons – or they are subject to pronounced economic cycles, which then also require rapid adjustment. The M&A lawyer of the year 2019 must mutate into an insolvency specialist in the following year 2020. This label is then called “Distressed M&A”.
What are you particularly proud of with regard to your law firm?
I am particularly proud of our team of young prospective corporate lawyers. You can teach them a lot from 30 years of professional experience. The fact that you are still in demand as a discussion partner means that we are very satisfied. The child of today listens to the name of mentoring.
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