November 27, 2011 11:33 pm

Interview: At home abroad

Elisabet Wenzlaff: 'Law is so open to discussion and analysis. The more you discuss it, the more you can understand it'

The young Elisabet Wenzlaff believed a Master of Laws (LLM) degree would set her up for an international career. “Studying law at Stockholm University, the focus had very much been on Sweden,” she says. “I knew I wanted to work overseas or for an international company.”

That was not the only reason for her applications to American universities, the 56-year-old chuckles. “I also wanted to go abroad and have an adventure.” Which she did. Together with five friends, Ms Wenzlaff, who enjoys pursuits ranging from sea kayaking and sailing to cross-country skiing and running, took off on a canoe trip along the Yukon river in Canada.

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Her venture into studying overseas paid off. For the past five-and-a-half years, she has been general counsel and senior vice-president at Volvo, the Swedish carmaker. Before that, she was general counsel at Akzo Nobel, the Dutch paint and chemicals company.

Ms Wenzlaff, who originally intended to become a physiotherapist, describes herself as “very much a country girl”. Her parents were farmers and, in her own words, “unacademic”. She ended up studying law “by accident”, yet became an ambitious student.

In 1982, she gained a Fulbright scholarship and applied to Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania. “I chose Pennsylvania because it had a well-known professor of international sales law,” Wenzlaff says. “But also because it offered to pay my tuition fees and living expenses, so it was more economical than Harvard.”

Her first degree, she says, gave her a good knowledge of Swedish law, but the LLM broadened her thinking. “You compare common law systems,” she says. “It really made me think.” The teaching method was much more discussion-based than she was used to. “I learned less about the law than about how to think. Law is so open to discussion and analysis. The more you discuss it, the more you can understand it.”

By learning about other countries’ legal systems that were not based on written law, Ms Wenzlaff was able to think philosophically and explore ideas. “Common law systems are not superior, but they are very different to the Swedish system,” she says. “The LLM was critical in exposing me to new legal systems.”

Ms Wenzlaff adds: “To go abroad at that time and age was fascinating. I came across so many different nationalities.” As well as helping her English, the experience also helped her to build her confidence. “When you are thrown into a new environment, you can thrive,” she says.

For Ms Wenzlaff, as the only female on the 13-person executive management team at Volvo, that confidence has stood her in good stead. Since the start of her career she has been used to being a lone woman in male-dominated industries. “I am used to working with men and I don’t feel uncomfortable in that situation,” she says. “In fact, it is often the men who feel strange.”

Being overseas also forced her to make new friends, many of whom have remained so for the 30 years since she graduated. “It’s amazing as we only spent a year together,” Ms Wenzlaff says. “We’re quite close.” Recently, she met up with two of them when she was working in the US and went skiing with another alumnus in Italy. It has helped bolster her network of contacts. The university, she says, treated foreign students very well. “We weren’t exotic oddities – we felt very valued. I was treated well and highly regarded.”

She credits her LLM with putting her on an international track. “Obviously I had dreams to work for global companies, but before doing the postgraduate course I didn’t think it was really attainable,” she says. “The law school has an international philosophy that gives it an edge over others.”

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One thing Ms Wenzlaff does regret, however, is that she did not stay on in the US and work for a year, which her course at the Ivy League university in Philadelphia permitted her to do. “That would have helped me even more,” she says.

Immediately after graduation she was offered a job in Sweden at White & Case, the US law firm, where she worked between 1984 and 1989 on cases related to the construction industry and company disposals. “I know that was due to my LLM,” she says. “When I got my current job at Volvo, it was then owned by Ford. I think that, even three decades on, my American LLM helped.”

Ms Wenzlaff, who lives in Stockholm with her sea-captain husband and two children at the weekends but works at Volvo’s headquarters in Gothenburg, on Sweden’s west coast, has a corporate law job that requires a corporate pragmatism. She says she wants “to demystify the law … Many corporate lawyers have extensive experience of business and should be fully integrated in [the company].”

Nonetheless, she has a philosophical belief – which she attributes to her studies in Pennsylvania – that the law is a “guarantor of society and a guarantor for freedom; it guarantees there is some kind of justice, trust and stability”.

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