Doing business in Italy can be both satisfying and frustrating in equal measure and for companies setting up new operations or closing down old ones, instructing employment lawyers will inevitably be part of the process.
The choice of such lawyers can be as random as goggling “employment lawyers Italy” or as painstaking as a meticulously planned military operation, involving a five-stage tender process lasting as many months, in which RFI, RFPs and other such documents are required. In these so-called ‘beauty contests’ all that is missing is the inside leg measurement of the managing partner!
Word of mouth in Italy is a powerful tool and “who you know” is still very much part of the Italian culture. Chambers rankings also play their part, while businesses that want to play safe still opt for the big brand names. However in all of this, client loyalty is more or less a thing of the past. What counts is value for money, quality of services and some sort of tangible “added value”. Companies are looking for lawyers who are reliable, responsive and have a good reputation; who understand their business and find solutions not create problems. Clients don’t judge us on the quality of advice (which is a given), they choose based on service; the “packaging” of our services and how they are delivered is what matters.
More often than not the choice of law firm falls to the General Counsel or CEO of the company. In a recent survey, the COE of a UK retail company, when talking about the purchasing of legal services, was quoted as saying: “…it’s about people, but it’s not that much more complicated than, say, buying a photocopier: you expect the photocopier to do what it says, and you expect the lawyer to do what he says. You buy different levels of service with different photocopiers. Can it scan, print, etc. It's the same thing with lawyers" (Silvia Hodges: Winning Legal Business from Medium-sized Companies). The role of the in-house lawyer has become pivotal to the procurement process. The metamorphosis of the in-house counsel persona in the last 20 years means that they now hold the purse strings as the purchasers of legal services and need to be courted accordingly.
Lawyering is becoming more of a business than a profession: being top class employment lawyers is not enough. Lawyers need business experience not just legal experience: they need to be aware of current affairs, who is doing business where, who the movers and shakers are, i.e. a general business awareness beyond their traditional remit. Needless to say English fluency is no longer considered an optional extra for foreign lawyers, but a basic skill in order to practice in the international arena.
Employment lawyers, once seen as the poor relations of the corporate high-flyers, have come into their own in recent years, enjoying a marked upturn in business, as the global financial crisis reeks havoc on the M&A departments. This turnaround in fortunes has given a welcome boast to niche employment firms, also in terms of 'standing' and market positioning.
At LABLAW I am the partner in charge of the international business of the firm: developing and managing international clientele in the area of employment law and industrial relations, managing cross-border HR projects for global companies and coordinating multi-jurisdiction projects between LABLAW and the L&E Global Alliance. Italy is not the first place our foreign colleagues think of as a country that can generate business for them and yet there are a number of sectors in which Italian companies are world leaders (e.g. fashion and luxury goods business, furniture, eyewear, leather goods, jewelry, food and wine, luxury cars and precision tools).
Being an international lawyer is as much about the law as it is about recognizing and adapting to the differences between cultures and ways of doing business. My added value is that being bilingual, dual qualified and having lived and worked in Italy for 18 years, I can approach and see issues from the client’s Anglo Saxon perspective and put it into an Italian context, and vice versa.
A word of warning to the uninitiated. Business (and social) etiquette in Italy is a labyrinth, to be navigated with due care and attention. To name but two: professionals like to be addressed by their full title: Dottore, Avvocato, Ingegnere etc. and Italians would not be seen dead ordering a cappuccino after 12 noon. Living the dolce vita first hand is an education in itself - and I have yet to graduate!
Sharon Reilly is a partner at LABLAW, a leading Italian employment law niche firm with offices in Milan, Rome, Pescara, Padova and Genova. LABLAW is a founder member of L&E Global, a fully integrated global alliance of employment lawyers.