Ex-City lawyer now General Counsel for a sports marketing agency in Switzerland
Rowena Samarasinhe trained at CMS Cameron McKenna and qualified into their IP and Technology group in 2006. She left last year to follow her interest in sport by working in Geneva on the broadcasting rights for Euro 2008. She has since moved to be General Counsel of Athletics Management and Services AG in Luzern. We spoke to her about her job changes and how she finds life in Switzerland compared to working in London.
mtl: Hi Rowena, please can you start at the beginning of your legal career?
Rowena: After studying Law and South East Asian law at Nottingham (which included a year in Singapore), I did the LPC at BPP in London and trained at CMS Cameron McKenna. I enjoyed my training contract and, having been slightly nervous about choosing the solicitor route, found that it was the perfect firm for me. This was because it wasn’t magic circle but was still big enough to have good work and I was certainly challenged while I was there.
On qualification I joined the IP and Technology group. It had a small integrated sports group and that was where my interest lay, particularly as I had been quite a serious runner when I was younger. I was able to do some motor sports and sponsorship transactions, but the rest of the time I did broad commercial work. At the same time I started to look around at the other options available because of wanting to be more involved in sports law and I spoke to some niche firms. I considered doing a well-regarded PG Certificate in Sports Law* at King’s College London but at the time it wasn’t an option for me due to my work commitments.
I found that I wasn’t able to break into sports very easily because of the gap in my CV in relation to my lack of sports business knowledge, despite having a good commercial background from the City. So instead I applied for a Masters that would give me the grounding I needed. I was offered a place on the FIFA Master, which is taught in Neuchatel, Milan and Leicester. I was about to accept it when I applied for and was offered a job by Sportfive in Geneva to work on Euro 2008. I left CMS Cameron McKenna at between one and two years’ PQE and moved to Switzerland.
mtl: Why did you make that particular move and how did the job go?
Rowena: I had already been mulling over a move to Switzerland at the time because of my love for the mountains and the outdoor lifestyle. My brother and his wife were thinking about it too and I speak French so it wasn’t too daunting. However I’d assumed that law was so centralised that I wouldn’t be able to make the move very easily. I heard about the job at Sportfive through friends doing the KCL Certificate in Sports Law as they had access to a very good jobs list. The role involved broadcast work and was based in Geneva, which I thought was perfect. It also meant that I had my first break into the sports world, so I didn’t need to do the Masters anymore.
I started work in Geneva in June 2007 and my role consisted of negotiating the ex-Europe broadcasting agreements for the Euro 2008 tournament. I enjoyed it and was on a permanent contract with the company. However, due to the nature of events work, when the tournament finished there was no guarantee that I would be able to remain in Geneva and I may have had to move to Hamburg, where the company’s head office was based. I didn’t want to move to Germany as I was happy in Switzerland (or London) and my German isn’t fluent. So instead I looked around again and came across my current job at just the right time – I heard about it through a friend at FIFA who was chatting to my predecessor at a party…
mtl: Where do you work now and what do you do?
Rowena: I now work for Athletics Management and Services AG in Luzern and, given my background as a runner, it is the perfect job for me. It is a niche sports marketing agency and I’m the General Counsel. We work for a large Japanese advertising agency which owns the rights to the IAAF World Athletics Series and I also work on the Asian Games.
I deal with a lot of legal issues including sponsorship and broadcast contracts. I don’t advise on the technical legal issues so much as the documents are usually under Swiss or Japanese law. Instead I have more of a commercial role in that I lead the negotiations around terms and analyse the risks involved. Once the documents are given a health check by external lawyers in the relevant jurisdictions, I will take them from there, so I still do a fair amount of drafting.
I mainly work in English and during the week I live in Luzern where the office is based, travelling back to Geneva at the weekend. There are twelve of us and most people are frequently on the road, so travel is part of the territory.
mtl: Tell us about living in Switzerland?
Rowena: I love living here and it is of course very different to London. Although I’m a Londoner, I was getting fed up with the craziness of the London life and also with having no time to do any sport and that was a big issue for me. I now have a much quieter social life because Geneva and Luzern are villages compared to London. But instead I mountain bike and hike a lot and I ski every week during the winter months. Most people here are active and sporty so people meet up to hike rather than drink (though we do go out too) so there is just a different focus.
Geneva has a huge ex-pat community due to the banks, hedge funds and the UN organisations. I was put in touch with friends of friends when I moved over, so I was fortunate to gain an instant social life. I do go back to London fairly regularly and of course I miss my friends and family there. However I have a lot of visitors to stay here and I don’t feel like I am missing out on anything.
I certainly don’t miss working in London at the moment as I have a better work-life balance here. The Swiss Franc has strengthened recently so my salary is comparable to what I would be earning in London, though friends who are bankers find they earn less here (but have more time instead). I love working in athletics and want to stay doing this role for a while.
mtl: Do you have any tips on making a similar move or about working in Switzerland?
Rowena: To get into the sports industry as a lawyer, you need to be persistent and knock on a lot of doors over and over again. You have to put yourself out there, get advice from those who have established themselves and strengthen your CV on the sport front. This may involve getting the experience through a Masters if you can’t get a first job. Once you are in, the work is not that different to commercial work in London (i.e. I still draft licences, service agreements etc) but the subject matter is completely different and you need the sports business knowledge to be taken seriously by a potential employer.
Now that I am in Switzerland, I am more aware of how many institutions are based here: FIFA; UEFA; and the IOC for example. I hadn’t realised how big the sports industry is in this country, so it is a good place to look for a job. Dubai, Hong Kong and India are also massive hubs if you are prepared to move abroad. However most of these roles will be in-house. If you want to stay as a private practice lawyer, then I think you would be best off staying in London.
mtl: Thanks for your time and we hope that you continue to enjoy work and life in Switzerland.
Law with South-East Asian Law, Nottingham University
Trainee and IP/Technology assistant, CMS Cameron McKenna
Director Legal, Sportfive (Geneva) negotiating the broadcast rights for Euro 2008y
General Counsel for AMS