In the Spotlight

A Lawyer of Many Talents

Felix Uhlmann is an oft-cited expert in these Covid times. The Basel born and raised legal expert is also a well-connected culture vulture – and enjoys the occasional game of chess when he can find the time.

Stefan Stöcklin

Felix Uhlmann
Felix Uhlmann
Expert in constitutional law Felix Uhlmann is also a keen speed chess player. (Picture: Frank Brüderli)

 

Felix Uhlmann, immaculately turned out in an elegant pinstripe suit and red tie, is sitting in his office at the UZH Institute of Law and reflecting on the pandemic. “You can never be properly prepared for a major crisis, and from a legal point of view new questions come up all the time,” says the professor of constitutional law. He has been called upon to give his opinion on many such legal questions in the last two years – from restrictions on private gatherings during lockdown to the proportionality of the Covid certificate or offering 50-franc vouchers as vaccination incentives.

His expertise is highly sought-after across Switzerland: He submitted the first expert report on the Federal Council's ban on large-scale events in early March 2020, and his most recent one was on the certificate requirement, which he presented to the parliament of Basel Stadt this October. While many of us wound our activity down a notch due to Covid, he stepped it up a gear.

Well-versed legal expert with a sense of humor

“The pandemic has been a real stress test for our legal system,” says Uhlmann. As a legal academic, his role is to weigh up which measures are permissible under prevailing law and which aren’t. Uhlmann took a keen interest in the unfolding coronavirus crisis from the get-go, he says, recalling the ski holidays in February 2020 when the virus first began to take hold in Europe. As life became increasingly restricted, he had plenty of time to look closely into the legal questions and exchange views with other experts. “We had many more collegial discussions than in the past,” says Uhlmann.

Governmental offices and media professionals soon became aware of Uhlmann’s expertise, and he rapidly became known as one of the most important legal voices in the country. His openness and his ability to get straight to the heart of a matter, even with complex legal questions, fueled his popularity. “I talk to all journalists, whether from the left-wing or right-wing media, as long as they don’t misquote me,” says Uhlmann, a barely perceptible smile flickering across his face. In that moment, the levity behind the 52-year-old professor’s straight-laced persona is evident. And then with correspondingly dry humor he indicates the suit and says: “Sorry to disappoint, but I didn’t get dressed up just for you, I’m giving a lecture later.” He got used to wearing a suit, he says, from his time working in a law firm.

Stellar career

Felix Uhlmann grew up in Bettingen, near Basel, in a family “completely free of lawyers” (his father was an engineer). It was somewhat by chance that he chose to study law at the University of Basel – he might equally have opted for mathematics, history or literature. The topic of his doctoral thesis – constitutional law – which he wrote under professor and member of the Swiss Council of States René Rhinow also came about by chance, through projects at the professorial chair.

After that his career trajectory was steep and rapid. Uhlmann worked for a time as an assistant to Professor Rhinow and as a trainee in a law firm. After pursuing an LLM at Harvard Law School in Boston, he passed the bar exam in Switzerland. He then worked as a lawyer in the top law firm Wenger Plattner at the same time as holding an assistant professorship in Basel. In 2006, at only 36 years old, he was appointed to the professorial chair in constitutional and administrative law at UZH. “I didn’t have to think about it for long before accepting, even though I did really enjoy working as a practicing lawyer,” says Uhlmann. It was a decision he’s never regretted – the work and the legal environment in Zurich suit him down to the ground.

Lover of literature and theater

Uhlmann speaks with a sonorous Basel dialect. Although he has been teaching and researching at UZH for 16 years now, there is no trace of Züritüütsch influence. He kept his home base in Basel, partly for the sake of his wife and four children. The other reason was his involvement in Basel’s literary and art scene.

The media-savvy lawyer is very well connected in the Rhine city, where he is currently president of the art commission of the Basel Kunstmuseum, which occupies an important place in the cultural life of the city. In the past he was also on the board of the Basel Literaturhaus and a member of Pro Helvetia. “I’m a lover of literature and theater, and an avid reader.” Alongside his passion for culture, his legal background comes in very useful in such positions. For example, he recently advised the Kunstmuseum in Basel on the dispute about the restitution of the works of Curt Glaser, which ended with the museum making a settlement.

Legal eagle, media darling, and at home in high culture: Felix Uhlmann is a man of many talents. In fact he has yet another hidden talent up his sleeve: Chess. He plays the game of strategy to a high level, and in 2001 played in a simultaneous exhibition against Russian grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi. Of course he lost, laughs Uhlmann, but he still plays speed chess once a week on the computer. He doesn’t have time to play more often. But even that is certainly good training for teasing out the complicated legal quandaries posed by coronavirus.

 

This article first appeared in the last December 2021 issue of the UZH Journal.

Stefan Stöcklin, Editor UZH News; English translation by Caitlin Stephens, UZH Communications