Dottoressa in Milano

Helen Cannings says that the informal, laid-back air of Italian lawyers belies a practicality which is more typical of the German work ethic. Helen Cannings is as a dottoressa (or paralegal) in Milan.

Working in an Italian law firm is an experience to be savoured. Although only a few hours away, working in Italy takes a bit of getting used to. Beneath the Gucci loafers, sports jackets and a year round tan, Italian lawyers are, in fact, even more conservative than lawyers in Britain.

The Italian approach to law is the exact opposite of the chaotic impression that is given. Everything is carefully scrutinised and evaluated before being undertaken. Recruitment, for example, is not based purely on the legal expertise of the applicant. It takes many other factors into account such as connections, prestigious schooling, family name and title and the potential business a particular individual might bring to the firm.

In Italy, clients are also screened. Unless individuals show that they are able to pay, they are quickly referred to other firms with the excuse that the problem in question is not within their field of expertise.

On the other hand, companies with access to larger funds are quickly accommodated with the promise that an abundance of lawyers specialising in that area would be permanently on call.

For Italians, practicality takes precedence. In a country where legal proceedings take at least three years to be decided, individuals are wary of bringing a case. Over here, very few people are inspired to pursue a legal career out of mere passion for the law, but rather for the promise of wealth and influence that surrounds it.

There is no doubt that the law is the most lucrative profession in Italy. However, they do have their own individual way of treating staff. In Italy, a lawyer who works in a law firm is not an employee. They are classed as a self-employed professional, and in-house lawyers cannot retain the prestigious title of avvocato.

Titles are popular in Italy. The concept of “paralegal” quite threw my Italian colleagues as they had no official title which reflected my position in the “legal tree”. I am called both dottoressa, which highlights the fact that I am a graduate, or avvocato or procuratore. Many Italians seem to think I merit the prestigious title, but cannot understand how I could have completed law school, passed all my exams, and still not have been raised to the ranks of solicitor.

I have spoken to various foreign lawyers based in Milan, and many of them said that they feel excluded in some way from the close-knit environment of the Italian legal world.

This could be due to the strong sense of “correctness” (correttezza) that we Brits have, which tends to leave us on the sidelines in a professional environment where everything revolves around intertwined personal and working relationships, as well as the illicit. Not in the illegal sense, but in the way that Italian lawyers manage to manipulate the system to their own advantage. This causes us to be distanced from many transactions.

Italian law firms tend to be much smaller than those in Britain. There will be seven people working in a firm, only three of them fully-qualified.

The influx of firms such as Clifford Chance, Freshfields, Simmons & Simmons and Allen & Overy, is not regarded as potential competition by the Italians because the majority of lawyers practise in completely different areas of law.

Given the critical employment situation in Italy, I was surprised to find that Italian firms are extremely interested in employing English native speakers. Although the Americans or the British are mainly needed to translate legal documents and articles, the increased interest shown by foreign investors in Italy has led to a greater demand for common law skills and knowledge.

This is because of the large number of privatisations in recent years, the success of foreign franchises, the growth of legal reforms in the real estate market in Italy, as well as the Italian government's efforts to make Italy a more attractive investment opportunity, by reducing bureaucracy and corporate taxation and implementing new legislation.

It is not all one-way, however. Many Italian firms have opened in Britain and are keen to take on board people who are trained the British way.