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Dr. Liza Sant’Ana Lima im Porträt

„Seeing the world in all its diversity is the most beautiful adventure one can experience.“

Dr. Liza Sant'Ana Lima, founder and partner at Sant'Ana Lima Avocats, talks about her international background and the cultural differences regarding gender equality in the legal profession.

Dr. Sant'Ana Lima, having grown up in a small village in Brazil, did you ever imagine being a member of the bar of three countries and managing your own law firm in Geneva?

No, I could not imagine that life would hold so many beautiful surprises for me. At the age of 15, my only dream was to go to university in Paris, which is why I started learning French. I had a great desire to see the world and leave the small village where I was born and educated. But I did not imagine that this desire would lead me to establish myself as a lawyer in Switzerland.

You decided to study law and specialised in Public International Law with the aim of going into diplomacy or joining an international organisation. What made you change your mind?

In 2005 during my second year of my doctoral studies, I had the opportunity to go to the 6th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization, which was held in Hong Kong, China. I was able to meet the then Foreign Minister of Brazil, Mr. Celso Amorim, for whom I have a lot of respect. Although the results of the negotiations were rather disappointing, some Brazilian diplomats were making what I thought were surreal statements on Brazilian TV, just to make the government look good. I was extremely disappointed. And I told myself that this was not for me, that I could never have invisible “handcuffs” that would deprive me of my independence. I am more than convinced that I made the right choice in abandoning this project. Can you imagine how difficult it would be for me, as a woman, to defend the ideas of Jair Bolsonaro's government abroad.

In 2009, you arrived in Geneva. Being a Brazilian national, your native language is not French, and you had not studied law in Switzerland. How did you approach finding a job in this new environment?

Finding a job in Geneva was a very difficult process, but very educational.

Given my PhD in international trade – previously obtained in Paris in 2008 –, my first instinct was to contact a large American law firm with an office in Geneva that had handled Brazil's litigation at the World Trade Organisation. The lawyer I met then explained to me that in the field of international trade litigation related to the WTO only five people were recruited per year, not in Geneva, but in the whole world! He said, “Do you really want advice? Change your field.”

I think he gave me the most valuable advice you can get in such a situation.

I had practised family law and criminal law in Brazil before I went to Paris to continue my studies. After my thesis, I worked as a foreign trainee lawyer at a corporate law firm in Paris. I was sure that I needed to be in touch with people and the difficulties of life and that I did not see myself as a corporate lawyer.

I then started sending applications to Geneva law firms. The recipients of my CVs and cover letters quickly noticed my “handicap”: although I had a doctorate and a French bar exam, I had no training in Swiss law! I had several moments of frustration and discouragement, until I realised that my strength lay precisely in my cultural, linguistic, and educational differences, and that, in an international city like Geneva, these differences could only be an asset. I therefore decided that my “handicap” would become the springboard for my professional settlement in Geneva. With this new perspective, doors started to open. In 2010, I had a nine-month experience with a Swiss lawyer born in Brazil, and then with another one who would become my business partner in 2013 – also Swiss and born in Brazil.

You have a PhD in International Economic Law which you obtained in Paris. Did you always want to do a PhD and what did you learn during this four-year period that helped you in your career?

In 2003, when I finished my Master's degree in French and European Legal Culture in Paris, I did not want to return to Brazil. I had fallen in love with Paris at first sight and I wanted to settle there forever. I had considered doing a PhD, but I had to find a job to finance my studies. For the Master's degree, I had obtained a scholarship from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in France, but I was still living with the family who had hosted me as an au-pair when I arrived in Paris in 2001. Having lived with the family for two years, which was very pleasant (we are still in contact), I wanted to have more freedom. Despite my research, by mid-July 2003 I had not found a job. Not without sadness, I had to face the fact that I had to organise my return to Brazil. Except that, the day after I realised this, the director of my Master's degree called me and asked me what my plans were. I told him that I wanted to do a PhD, but that I needed a job to finance my stay in Paris. So, he said, "That's very good. You had the best average in the class and the university wants to offer you a scholarship for the PhD.” That was one of the best days of my life.

The doctorate took four and a half years to complete, although I had started thinking to end it in three years. It was a very rewarding time. I do not think I have ever read so much. I especially learned to master the French method, that is, to present a subject in two parts and two sub-parts. This helped me enormously during my Paris bar exam in 2009. Indeed, when I drew lots for the subject on which I had to make an oral presentation, I realised that the topic was not in the programme I had studied in the preparatory course. I asked to change the topic and received a resounding "no". I had one hour to prepare my presentation. With the help of the code of civil procedure, I was able to construct a plan in two parts and two sub-parts on a subject that I had no idea about (needless to say, I presented it to the jury as if I were the "authority" on the subject). To my surprise, this was my highest mark in the exam. 

In short, I think that having done a PhD made me receptive to the unknown, which is very relevant to being a lawyer. Indeed, as law is a constantly evolving social science, the only certainty we have is that we must always be learning, researching, being quick on our feet in the most unexpected situations, always questioning everything, and always evolving. Otherwise, we will become old-fashioned, obsolete, and conservative in a world where everything is moving very fast and constant adaptation is key.

You are not only the founder and partner of your firm, but you have also been providing legal services to the Brazilian Consulate in Geneva for almost ten years. How do you manage to juggle all of your commitments?

It is true that I have a very full agenda. My life as a lawyer and partner in my law firm is made up of deadlines, drafting, meetings with clients, hearings, managing my collaborators, administrative tasks, etc.

The Brazilian Consulate's legal office in Geneva is open for free legal consultations once a month. It is a great pleasure for me to advise my compatriots. Being a foreigner in Switzerland myself, I have empathy for the difficulties they face in their daily lives, particularly in the areas of immigration law, family law and labour law.

The organisation of my daily agenda requires a certain discipline. I get up at 5 AM every day. I do some exercise and read. I arrive at the office at around 8 AM. I enjoy a cup of coffee while reading the Tribune de Genève. After that, my activities depend on the schedule. I do not always know what time I'm going to leave the office, but I have to be in bed by 10 PM. Sometimes I go to the office on the weekend, but I avoid it for the sake of marital peace. And I often dream about my cases.

I have chosen not to have children, which is why I can devote my time to my profession as well as to my other passions, such as literature, cinema, travel, Zumba, Internet Scrabble and my husband, of course.

What advice would you give to young jurists who want to study or work abroad?

I believe that seeing the world in all its diversity is the most beautiful adventure one can experience. The openness and understanding of others without our prejudices is the greatest wealth we can acquire. Understanding others helps us understand ourselves.

I can therefore only advise young jurists who wish to study or work abroad to go with an open heart, ready to listen, to learn, and to let life surprise them.

What role do values and passion play in your professional life?

I am convinced that the world would be a better place if humanity placed moral progress before material progress. That is why I do not compromise on my values, even if it means taking difficult decisions when I feel they are necessary, whether they concern my partners or my clients.

As far as passion is concerned, I believe that it goes hand in hand with justice, which is above all a feeling. A lawyer does not deal with a case, but fights for a cause, behind which is a human being worthy of any battle.

You grew up with three sisters and served as General Counsel at OWIT Lake Geneva, the Chapter of the Organisation of Women in International Trade in Switzerland. What roles do women play in your daily life?

Women have always been my references and role models. My mother was my first teacher. My sisters taught me very early on to fight for the fair sharing of cakes, for games without cheating, for equality of arms in our arguments, and to question authoritarianism (not necessarily authority). The family is indeed society on a smaller scale. My paternal grandfather died when my mother was 9 years old, with an older and a younger sister. My maternal grandmother was therefore the pillar of the family, from whom we learned the values of perseverance, firmness, generosity and determination. My mother started working at the age of 16. All the women in my immediate family are fighters. The men in the family, with a few exceptions, were either absent or 'macho'.

Margaret Thatcher used to say something like "If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman". In my experience as a child and teenager, this proved to be true. Later, in my adult life, my professional experiences with men started well but ended rather badly.

When I decided to launch Sant'Ana Lima Avocats, I immediately called on Denise Nopper, whom I had seen working as an interpreter in a courtroom, and who is still my "right hand", as well as being a great friend. My partner, Sanda Bunaciu, joined us in January 2018. Our professional and personal relationship could not be more inspiring.

This is not to say that I do not enjoy working with men. On the contrary, I really like my associate, Simon Gil, whom I like to tease that he is only a good person because he grew up among women, his mother and two sisters.

Female partners, especially named partners, are still strongly in the minority in Geneva and overall, in Switzerland. In your opinion, what would have to change in order to have a more balanced representation of the genders in the Geneva and in the Swiss law firms?

I have been able to work with several female lawyers in Geneva and other French-speaking cantons over the years. There are some wonderful women in our profession, which is still, in fact, dominated by men.

Change, in my humble opinion, requires an evolution of mentalities, which I hope will come with the new generations.

To my great surprise, I found that Switzerland was even more patriarchal than Brazil in terms of integrating women in the job market. Given that my mother and all the women around me have always worked, regardless of the age of the children, I was a bit puzzled to find that in Geneva many women of my age did not work because they had to, for example, drop off and pick up the children from school in the morning, pick them up for lunch at home, drop them off again at school after lunch and then come back to pick them up at the end of the day!

There are surely women who are fulfilled in an exclusive role as a mother, but there are certainly others for whom such a situation is almost a prison, and a source of much frustration, especially if, before the birth of the children, they had a professional activity.

I think it is up to women to continue to fight for real equality of rights between men and women, for example demanding more childcare facilities, and establishing a cooperative relationship with their partners in which each has the same obligations in caring for the family.

And I think, above all, that female lawyers should partner more with each other instead of waiting for their male colleagues to decide whether or not they "deserve" to be partners.

You have practiced as a lawyer in Sao Paulo, Paris and Geneva. How do you feel the cultural differences in terms of prejudice against women in the industry?

In my humble opinion, in all three countries the prejudices against female lawyers remain. However, in a country like France, which has known, among others, Gisèle Halimi and her fight for the women's cause, there are more rapid developments.

The same is true in Brazil, where the socio-economic reality pushes women to be entrepreneurs, especially as a large proportion of them are "heads of household".

In Switzerland, these developments are slower, perhaps because of economic prosperity and a patriarchal model that has only been challenged more recently.

I am also very optimistic that the Federal Court's ruling in March of this year marks a turning point, as divorced women will now, to the extent possible, have to enter the job market even after the age of 45.

Although many women are concerned about this change, I am convinced that it is very positive in the long term, as it will motivate younger women not to give up their professional life when they make decisions about their family life.

You are a lawyer at the Geneva, Paris and São Paulo Bars. How has your international education influenced your practice?

It is thanks to my educational, life and professional experiences in Brazil, France and Switzerland that I feel very comfortable working in all three countries. Knowing the culture of each country makes it easier to connect with the clients.

Have you ever experienced discrimination because of your Brazilian background?

Yes, unfortunately. In 2017, during a hearing at the prosecutor’s office in Geneva, a fellow lawyer said that I was "not even a colleague" to her. She repeated this at the next hearing and, as I considered that this went too far, I lodged a complaint with the President of the Geneva Bar Association for violation of the duty of confraternity. A conciliation hearing took place, at which the colleague in question committed to respect my title as a lawyer.

However, since at the time I was registered with the bars of São Paulo and Paris, as well as on the Roll of European Union Lawyers of the Canton of Geneva, it has certainly not been my title that posed a "problem" to my colleague, but my origin.

Is there any advice that has accompanied you throughout your career that has especially touched you or helped you and that you would like to share with young lawyers?

I mentioned earlier the advice of a lawyer from an American law firm in Geneva to change my field when I was looking for work in international commercial litigation after arriving in Geneva. I found that very valuable. 

But the key piece of advice was the one I grew up with, from my mother, a very religious and practising Catholic. Every time I left the house to go to school, she would make me repeat "I am a perfect daughter of God; I succeed in everything I do". I always believed that.

Which female lawyer would you nominate as a role model for breaking.through and for which reasons?

There are many inspiring women lawyers in the world.

But if I have to mention only one, it would be Gisèle Halimi, the "disrespectful lawyer", the "insoumise", who left us in 2020, and who made the cause of women her life's struggle.

Thank you very much for this interview!

Geneva, 25 May 2021. Dr Sant’Ana Lima answered the questions in writing. The interview was conducted by Audrey Canova.

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