Adjusting to legal life in old London town

Four foreign lawyers on the pains and pleasures of working in London: a legal environment unique to the rest of the world

Livia Ogilo is a senior assistant at Studio Legale Sutti

If you are a lawyer specialising in international trade law, practising in London is exciting!

I am an Italian qualified lawyer. After working with Studio Legale Sutti in Milan for several years, I was offered the opportunity last summer to assume responsibility for running the London office. This has proven to be a very enriching and interesting experience.

Given that we provide a barrister-like practice and work mainly with local lawyers, I have had the opportunity of meeting a huge variety of English colleagues (probably more than a local lawyer would do in their normal professional life), visiting their glamorous offices in the City, or meeting them during the numerous cocktail receptions I have attended in some beautiful London sites. Law firms in Italy do not normally hold very many receptions – unfortunately.

I am often amazed at the capacity of some of the younger London colleagues to maintain their hectic social lives and to come up with the goods during working hours.

Although I find the London social environment stimulating, I have felt that the different cultural reality of a professional career in the City would produce a continuous state of disorientation for me.

Fortunately, as far as practising in London is concerned, understanding the differences has proven to be a rewarding endeavour in providing legal services to British law firms and corporate counsel.

It is essential, when communicating with people instructing you, to understand their cultural reality and to tailor each issue to their expectations as well as to the very real and practical differences between our cultures and legal systems.

English colleagues asking for my assistance make me feel like their “sheet-anchor” most of the time. They are relieved to find a lawyer who can deal with their needs concerning the Italian legal system.

Stephan Grauke is a partner at Beiten Burkhardt Mittl & Wegener

It is a natural choice for a German law firm with offices throughout Germany to establish an office in London.

With the advantage of having some six months work experience as a trainee in a

London-based firm, and having worked with an English law firm in Germany, I did not expect a total cultural shock in business or in social life. But some readjustment is needed to make sure that you look the right way when you cross the street and “mind the gap”.

An even greater effort is required to ensure a successful practice in one of the most competitive legal markets in the world.

As a foreign law firm it is important to position yourself correctly in this market and not to compete with large, well-established English firms in their core practice areas.

Rather, it is important to find your cross-border niche, where you are able to provide additional value to the client.

This involves the London-preferred, sophisticated, often heavily tax-driven financial structures, usually accompanied by enormous amounts of paper. I recall that I once was asked by an English solicitor to provide him with a standard form loan agreement under German law. When I delivered a draft to him he stated: “These eight pages can't be a valid and enforceable loan agreement, because a valid loan agreement must have at least 40 pages.”

The German and English legal systems are dissimilar not only in the approach to legal issues and its documentation, but also with regard to the path to justice. For example, somehow I must convince my German clients that when going to court they will also be required to bring in a barrister – to the client's ears yet another lawyer.

These differences, however, can be viewed as challenges to be met and overcome.

Besides the professional challenges, London is a great city to experience. The variety of restaurants, first-class museums, theatre and, of course, the Proms, are all part of the London experience.

Nevertheless, negotiations continuing past 10pm remain negotiations continuing after 10pm, whether one is in London or in Frankfurt. Since I've been in London, I have made it to the Proms once.

Duncan Walls is a partner at Mayer, Brown & Platt

After working for Allen & Overy for eight years, I went through one of life's “seminal experiences”.

In light of some earnest discussions with a good friend (who remains so) and a trip to Singapore to be interviewed by three wise monkeys – sorry, managing partners – I joined Allens Arthur Robinson to manage their London office. The name of the practice is a melange of the two remaining joint venturers – one firm from Sydney and the other from Melbourne. Colleagues in law, everything you have ever heard and warned your clients about joint ventures is true.

With the optimism that comes only with naivety, I arrived in the City of London in 1982, not sure what to expect, but quietly confident of coping. That was my first mistake.

“Walls, one does not wear brown shoes in the City,” I was told as we headed off for a day of entertaining clients at a sporting event. But with more sympathy, one of my American friends put it succinctly: “I gotta tell you, brown is not a power colour.”

“Look! Listen! you don't understand! we do things differently down here!”, became a common refrain from my colleagues calling me from the lucky country.

Obviously, I must have changed (all right, I know there are many over here who would dispute that), or perhaps I'm just getting old. Fortunately, fate intervened and our heroes closed their London office to “implement our business strategy to focus on Asia”.

I'm now with Mayer, Brown & Platt based in Chicago, who have the virtues of US business without the abrasiveness of New York. No cultural shock here, the international practice of law and increasing globalisation show the depth of the historic influence of English law over the centuries.

However, one must face the need to become bilingual. This is consistent with the perceptively accurate observation by Churchill about the two nations and a common language. With one major and telling difference, the ambitions, managerial philosophy and IT services in US firms of comparable size are broadly the same as found in English firms of similar size.

The difference between the cultures is that there is no age discrimination in US firms who not only tolerate older lawyers, but profit from their wisdom, experience, stability and continuity to the mutual benefit of all, including the clients.

Is political correctness a problem? Well, I'm still here – those who know me will understand the significance of this statement.

Elena Cuatrecasas is a lawyer at Ur'a & Menendez

When my firm made me an offer to spend some time in our London office, I immediately decided to accept.

It is not every day that one has the opportunity to find out what it is like to live and work in a city which can be considered, in many respects, as the centre of European financial and cultural life.

I realised that my day-to-day life was going to change from the very first morning that I found myself trying to squeeze between arms, legs, umbrellas and newspapers (mainly belonging to young men dressed in dark blue striped suits) on the world-famous London tube. What really surprised me and, no matter how hard I try I have not yet been able to grasp, is their ability to read and turn the pages of a 30-inch newspaper in a square centimetre, without even bothering the people around them.

It also took me a while to get used to the change from the two-hour break which we have at home, consisting of a leisurely lunch followed by the midday news and a 10 minute nap, to a quick Boots chicken sandwich in the office.

This situation improves on sunny days, when the office library can be replaced by a park but, let's face it, sunny days are a rare treat in this otherwise most pleasant land.

From a strictly professional point of view, clients are clients everywhere and, as we lawyers know, are always right no matter what their nationality. But English clients are also more demanding, at least as far as deadlines are concerned. When, on a Monday, I was instructed to prepare a mortgage deed “by Tuesday”, it took me a while to understand that it was not Tuesday the following week.

In this regard, things can get difficult when the advice requested does not depend entirely upon us, the Spanish lawyers based in London, but when action must also be taken from Spain, where the one/ xtwo-day deadline policy is unlikely to be understood by other Spanish lawyers, and absolutely ignored by Spanish authorities.