US FIRM Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton is set to become only the third major US firm with an Italian office when it opens in Rome in the spring of 1998.

The firm's move comes at a time when several UK firms are examining ways of entering the lucrative Italian legal market.

The Rome office will initially be staffed by two or three partners and five or six associates drawn entirely from other Cleary Gottlieb offices.

Several Italian lawyers will relocate from the firm's Brussels office.

Managing partner Ned Stiles said his firm always used its own lawyers when opening new offices, and never merged with local firms or formed associations. “It means we are confident in our lawyers' training and quality, and they are steeped in the firm's culture. We very seldom take lateral partners,” he said.

According to Stiles, his firm chose Rome rather than Milan because it had a substantial number of clients in and around the city.

He said that he opening of the new office meant the practice now had a “significant presence in all the major European markets”.

He added: “The Italian economy is as big as in France and the UK. We already have a substantial Italian client base through our New York and European offices, and there are not many US firms in Italy, so it's an opportunity to fill that niche.”

Linklaters has said it wants to open an Italian office, while Denton Hall is looking for an Italian firm to join its international group. Simmons & Simmons merged with long standing Italian partner Milan-based Grippo e Associati in June and last December Freshfields took over another Milan firm, Lega Colucci Albertazzi & Arossa.

US firms Baker & McKenzie and Graham & James also have Italian offices.