French diplomat Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord is reported to have said that “language was given to man to disguise his thoughts”. While this may be correct for diplomacy it could not be further from the truth for the field of law. For lawyers, language is not merely an important but the only tool to express their opinions, interpretations and arguments. Whether a judge is delivering a judgement, a defence lawyer is pleading for her client’s innocence or a corporate counsel is drawing up a contract, they all need strong active and passive linguistic skills to achieve optimal results.
The language requirements for Swiss lawyers are unique in the sense that all federal laws in Switzerland are published in French, German, and Italian. The three versions have equal standing and lawyers must be able to compare the different versions and to draw normative inferences from them. Furthermore, approximately 95% of the jurisprudence of the Federal Supreme Court is rendered either in French or German with no official translations. Although the leading cases are generally translated from one language into the other, this is often done with considerable delay, thus exposing attorneys to liability issues. Understanding German and French is therefore an indispensable prerequisite for any Swiss lawyer and being able to express oneself in both languages presents a distinct career advantage.
With that in mind professors Yvan Jeanneret (UniGE), André Kuhn (UniGE/UniNE) and Marc Thommen (UZH) created a project which from September 2018 until June 2019 invited professors from Geneva to Zurich to teach a course in French and professors from Zurich to Geneva to teach a course in German. The aims of the project are to enable law students to understand federal acts and case law in German and French and to make them comfortable with considering legal matters in their non-native tongue.
The project was kindly supported by UniGE-UZH Joint Seed Funding making it possible for Alexandre Flückiger (public law), Anne-Sylvie Dupont (social security law), Ursula Cassani, Yvan Jeanneret, and Bernhard Sträuli (all criminal law) from Geneva to hold lectures in Zurich. Their counterparts traveling from Zurich to Geneva were Thomas Gächter (social security law), Regina Kiener, Johannes Reich (both public law), and Marc Thommen (criminal law). These exchanges have not only enhanced the German-speaking students’ skills in the French legal language and vice versa but also provided excellent opportunities for professors of both universities to meet and discover shared research and teaching interests.
The fact that the project was not only very well received by students but also by faculty colleagues shows a strong demand for French-German language exchanges between Swiss law schools. As several professors from both universities have shown a keen interest in participating, we wish to continue and expand the project to more fields (foundations, civil law, commercial law) and other formats (tutorials, seminars, workshops). The long-term goal is to offer students from Geneva and Zurich a constant and permanent opportunity to develop language and interpretation skills in their non-native tongue as part of their studies.
Prof. Dr. Marc Thommen, University of Zurich
Prof. Dr. Regina Kiener, University of Zurich
Prof. Dr. Thomas Gächter, University of Zurich
Prof. Dr. Johannes Reich, University of Zurich
Prof. Dr. Yvan Jeanneret, University of Geneva
Prof. Dr. André Kuhn, University of Geneva / University of Neuchâtel
Prof. Dr. Ursula Cassani, University of Geneva
Prof. Dr. Stéphanie Dagron, University of Geneva
Prof. Dr. Bernhard Sträuli, University of Geneva