Switzerland could become the most attractive location for corporate general counsel in Europe if the country’s parliament accepts a government proposal to grant professional privilege to in-house lawyers.

The Swiss Federal Council has published draft legislation that would grant in-house lawyers ‘professional secrecy’ concerning the ‘products of their legal advice and forensic work’.

Following the decision of the European Court of First Instance in the long-running Akzo Nobel case, neither EU nor non-EU lawyers can claim professional privilege under EU competition law. The draft Swiss legislation has appeared weeks after the European Court of Justice refused to allow a number of professional legal associations to intervene in Akzo Nobel’s appeal (see [2009] Gazette, 26 February, 1).

To qualify for privilege protection under the proposed Swiss law, corporate counsel would have to satisfy a number of requirements before being entered on to a register held by each Swiss canton. Among other requirements, counsel would need to have practised law in Switzerland for one year, hold the equivalent of a Swiss bachelors degree in law, and undertake the majority of their legal work in Switzerland.

Speaking at the Association of Corporate Counsel Europe 2009 Annual Conference in Geneva this week, Martin Henrich, head of global litigation at Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis, said that the need to safeguard Switzerland as a competitive business destination had prompted the proposals. ‘Politicians will look at them and agree that location Switzerland needs prosperity,’ he said.

The 2007 decision in Akzo Nobel confirmed an ECJ competition law ruling in 1982 that communications between company staff and their in-house counsel should not enjoy confidentiality. The draft corporate lawyers bill is open to consultation until 31 July. Texts in French, German and Italian are available at www.bj.admin.ch.