Aleksandra Schellenberg, UBS’ global head of legal sustainable finance, knew she wanted to be a lawyer from the age of 14, revealing that she made her decision after watching the first episode of American legal comedy drama Ally McBeal, while growing up in Poland in the late 1990s.
She recalls: ‘I remember after watching the show, going to my mum and telling her I wanted to be a lawyer and she said, “Hey honey, we don’t have any lawyers in the family, that might be a bit difficult!”
‘I wanted to be a lawyer and I decided to invest all of my energy into achieving it. Little did I know at the time that it would not always be like Ally McBeal.’
Schellenberg studied law in Poland for her undergraduate degree, heading to university in Austria in her last year for six months on a scholarship to study international law, where she realised that she ‘operates in an international environment way better than in a domestic one’.
After graduating, Schellenberg was unsure of what kind of lawyer she wanted to be. She decided to apply for some internships, ending up as an intern for a months at the Polish Embassy in Switzerland, which she enjoyed for its combination of law, diplomacy and international relations.
After completing her internship, she spent a year in New York working as a diplomat for the Polish Consulate. During this time, Schellenberg contacted the United Nations to express her interest in contributing to some workshops on a voluntary basis.
‘After a while, someone from the UN suggested that I apply for an internship. I always thought you had to have connections to work there, but I sent my CV for an internship in Bangkok, and you know what? They called me back! They asked to schedule an interview and I was still in denial – I just thought they were doing it for the diversity and inclusion statistics, you know – Polish girl, Eastern Europe.’
Perhaps unsurprisingly to everyone other than herself, Schellenberg was accepted onto the UN internship, moving to Thailand in 2011 for six months.
She reflects: ‘When I worked for the United Nations, I saw how powerful lawyers can be in the human rights space and how big of a difference legal expertise can make. After the UN, I wanted to help people in a more tangible way. I thought there must be an environment where I could have an even bigger impact.’
For Schellenberg, operating in financial services and making a positive impact are not mutually exclusive: ‘I realised that the financial industry is the perfect place for lawyers to combine their legal and commercial expertise to help businesses reroute financial flows to build an offering for clients who, not only want to earn money, but make a positive change in other people’s lives. Many people want to do well by also doing good.’
Schellenberg started working for multinational investment bank UBS as its in-house legal counsel in 2012. The irony of such a seemingly dramatic shift is not lost on her. ‘I always laugh about what my next employer might think because I went from working in diplomacy and human rights to suddenly working in an investment bank.’
Schellenberg explains the rationale behind going in-house rather than into private practice: ‘I strongly believe that the quality of your legal advice is as strong as your understanding of the business you cover. I wanted to be the best lawyer I could be and one way to achieve this is to work hand-in-hand with your business. This way, you are involved in the entire process and get a chance to identify legal risks you might not notice otherwise.’
Schellenberg worked in the UBS IB derivatives documentation legal team for two years, after which she moved to the global wealth management division, which she describes as ‘brilliant, because they had a sustainable investment department’.
Following changes to EU regulations in 2019 and the implementation of the European Green Deal, Schellenberg says: ‘I had one of the biggest “wow!” moments of my life. I contacted my big bosses and told them what was coming our way. At the time, everyone understood sustainability from a legal and regulatory standpoint.
‘In the market, ESG was heavily built on international voluntary standards. Companies could cherry-pick and become part of ESG-related initiatives. For some firms, there was a tendency to join those initiatives just to put the label of the UN on the marketing material to say that they were a member, without really following any of the rules the membership required – because they didn’t have to.’
In 2019, Schellenberg started to build a network within UBS’ group legal department in Switzerland and Europe, with the aim of understanding the practical impact of the Green Deal with a focus on sustainable investment in Europe.
The network initially had eight lawyers covering only European investments and grew to more than 40 lawyers covering all things ESG across the globe.
Schellenberg recalls: ‘I was doing my global wealth management work while handling all this ESG stuff. In 2019 we only saw the tip of the iceberg and the work just kept piling up. I realised I couldn’t do both. This was the moment I saw an amazing opportunity to create an ESG-only team and build it as part of our legal group.’
And so the sustainable finance legal team came into being. ‘ESG is brilliant because it helps us to practise law, be commercial and help the bank transfer the money into good causes – sustainable lending for instance,’ she notes.
‘If you want to be an ESG lawyer and you do not like to work with people, this is not the job for you. It requires so much collaboration – not only in the legal division but also with compliance, risk and finance. You have to understand the business to work out how they can improve.’
Schellenberg reflects on the biggest challenges for her legal team and in the wider market. ‘The main challenge of today is to take control of the regulatory tsunami in the ESG space. We need to understand what is coming our way in terms of laws and regulations and what it means for our business, particularly if you work in a company with a global reach. It is crucial to stay relevant to the business partners and advise them in a way that doesn’t lead to conflicting outcomes, or reinventing the wheel every time a new legal act emerges on the horizon.’
Looking ahead, she argues: ‘The main challenge of tomorrow will be keeping the consistency across the ESG-related message we, as one organisation, are sending to clients, investors and to the public. We will need to make sure that what our group entities say they aspire to achieve in the short, medium and long- term is consistent with the disclosures at the level of products and services individual divisions offer.’
The obvious question is how ESG policies have fed into UBS’ high-profile takeover in March of the collapsed Credit Suisse, the global investment bank perhaps latterly better known for countless scandals than its financial services offering.
Drawing on her previous experience as a diplomat, Schellenberg says: ‘I will say that ESG is definitely a high priority topic that is being carefully looked at.’
She also speaks about founding her own social media platform focused on women’s wellbeing two years ago. ‘Speaktacular is a fully anonymous space for women to be 100% themselves, where they can speak to each other about any topic without judgement and empower one another. I love seeing all these fantastic ladies who visit Speaktacular.me to let it all out and tell the world what drives them mad, or what makes them feel proud, or to listen to others and help them. No-one tells them or asks them to do it, but they do it because they understand that five minutes of their attention can make a big difference to someone else’s life.’
And what of UBS’ ESG goals for the next year? Schellenberg is bullish: ‘Our mission does not change. We want to be the financial provider of choice for clients who wish to mobilise capital towards the achievement of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and the orderly transition to a low-carbon economy.’
At a glance – Aleksandra Schellenberg
2004-07 Junior legal specialist for ATOM
2010 Intern for the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Bern, Switzerland
2010-11 Legal affairs specialist for the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in New York
2011 Legal affairs specialist for the United Nations, Bangkok, Thailand
2012-13 Legal counsel IB derivatives documentation for UBS in Zurich, Switzerland
2014-17 Legal counsel, global wealth management investment platforms and solutions at UBS
2017-22 Head of legal, global wealth management, chief investment office at UBS
2021-present Founder and chief executive of Speaktacular
2022-present Global head of legal and sustainable finance at UBS
UBS – key facts
Size of team Eight members in the sustainable finance legal
team (direct reports), +40 lawyers in a virtual sustainable finance legal team
External legal spend Not disclosed
Preferred advisers Linklaters and Clifford Chance