Italian legal alliance challenges old-school ruling over title, advertising and freebies

An Italian law firm network has appealed to its country’s supreme court after the national bar association ordered it to change its name.

At the end of December 2009 the Consiglio Nazionale Forense (CNF), Italy’s national bar association, ruled that law firm chain ALT Assistenza Legale per Tutti, which translates as ’legal help for all’, must change its name.

According to the 15-page ruling produced by the CNF, the ­message conveyed by ALT’s name “lies not in the information, but in the direct suggestion”.

Essentially the arguments against the name were that the words appealed to potential clients in an emotional, subconscious way, and also that the acronym ALT was too close to the Italian for ’stop’, again appealing to clients on an emotional level.

The CNF also upheld an earlier decision by a regional bar association that stat­­ed ALT firms could not advertise free consultations on their shop fronts as it amounted to unfair and ­unbecoming conduct.

Following the ruling ALT co-founder Cristiano Cominotto changed the alliance’s name to AL Assistenza Legale and took down the signs offering free consultations, although the organisation continues offering the service.

Cominotto has appealed the ­ruling of the CNF to Italy’s supreme court the Corte di ­Cassazione, insisting that the organisation has done nothing wrong. He expects a decision within the next six months to a year.

Cominotto established ALT with Francesca Passerini in ­January 2008, just after the Bersani decree, which eliminates minimum fees and advertising restrictions, was passed.

AL Assistenza Legale covers family, criminal and civil law, offers a free consultation and claims that it provides customers with accurate estimates of costs.

“It doesn’t mean that our prices are low,” said Cominotto, “but it means our clients won’t get any surprises.”

Any firm can apply to join AL Assistenza Legale and since its inception the network has grown to 16 firms across 14 Italian cities.

Problems first began for the ­network in May 2008, when the Brescia Bar Association brought disciplinary action against co-founder Passerini, insisting on the removal of signs promoting the alliance’s ’first appointment free’ policy.

In June 2009 the Italian Antitrust Authority began ­investigating the Brescia bar and will determine if its findings in this case amounted to anticompetitive behaviour. Nevertheless, the bar’s decision was upheld by the CNF, which added that the organisation would have to change its name.

The problem is that AL ­Assistenza Legale’s approach ­clashes with traditional Italian law firm culture. Despite the Bersani reforms, the Italian legal profession is uncomfortable with forthright advertising and pricing, and ­especially with offering free advice.

“The Bersani decree was a ­disaster for the legal profession and it was founded on the general philosophy that lawyers are a way-too-protected industry,” said Luca Arnaboldi, senior ­partner at Carnelutti Studio Legale Associato. “A new decree’s ­currently under discussion in the Italian ­parliament, which will revert and neutralise the negative effects of the Bersani reforms.

“AL’s practices don’t affect us, as the larger firms point at a ­completely different segment of the market; but they could affect solo practitioners, and to the extent that the firm’s expansion violates rules of conduct, which include soft advertising and no free advice, I think it’s right that they’re carefully monitored and sanctioned if eventually caught in unfair conducts.”