'Accept that you're not doing this for the money'

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Julia Holden is a lawyer with Trevisan & Cuonzo Avvocati in Milan.
08:00 CEST+02:00
British lawyer Julia Holden has worked in Italy for over 20 years. She talks to The Local about the challenges of being a foreign lawyer and what it takes to land a role in Italy.

You came to Italy with Trevisan & Cuonzo in 1992. How did the move come about?

I worked initially for a Milan law firm that specialized in Intellectual Property (IP), having practised in the same field in the UK. There I met the lawyers Luca Trevisan and Gabriel Cuonzo. I soon learnt that they were planning to open a new law firm and, when asked whether I'd like to join them to assist in developing international work, I was delighted to accept. Together we found office space in our present building in Via Brera 6 and started business as Trevisan & Cuonzo Avvocati in July 1993.

Was Italy always part your plan and did you speak the language before you came? If not, how did you learn?

Italy was not always on the cards. In fact, my degree was in law and German, and I trained with a London West End law firm with strong links to Germany.

My second year at University included an Italian language course and to avoid an abysmally low grade I spent two summer months working on a campsite in Calabria, in the deep south of Italy. When that came to an end I spent a further week travelling through Italy and a further two weeks learning Italian in a more formal environment at the University of Bologna.

I realised that Italy was a highly varied country with rich regional cultural diversity, an amazing range of landscapes and a wonderful food culture: in short, I thought I had arrived in heaven or at the very least somewhere close by! I think it was then that I decided Italy was somewhere I'd really like to spend more time.

When I moved to Italy my Italian was limited but over the last 22 years I made significant improvements. Notwithstanding considerable efforts, I literally just have to say 'Buongiorno' and I am identifiable as a Brit or possibly an American. I still need to make lots of progress to truly impress my kids and get those 'endings' right, but generally people know precisely what I mean and the message I wish to convey (essential communication skills for a lawyer)!

Which areas of law do you cover?

I specialize in IP (patents, trademarks, designs, copyright and unfair competition law). In industry terms this means that I get to work for clients in a vast range of industries, including automobile, furniture, fashion, films, media and entertainment and cosmetics, even perfumes. My clients need protection in online and offline environments and IP enforcement through pre-litigation and litigation strategies. Many of my clients are US and UK-based businesses but I have also acted for German, Swiss and Dutch clients. Recently I was involved in providing advice to a well-known US-based celebrity with an Italian background on a IP-related media issue. That was quite a personal thrill - even if it did briefly interrupt my summer vacation.

What are the challenges involved in practising law as a foreigner in Italy?

Obviously, the biggest challenge for any foreign lawyer is that although they have a solid legal qualification in their home jurisdiction, in Italy they may not have a formal qualification - and worse still - they usually know little or nothing about Italian law or procedure. Slowly however, thanks to language, it is of course possible to acquire the skills necessary to assist in serving a useful role in the Italian legal Community. Fortunately, in my preferred field (trade marks) there has been substantial European legislative harmonisation so that - while there are still many conflicting decisions - this is a cross-European phenomena and, in fact, Italy is probably more closely allied to the European majority decision trends than the UK, particularly given that Italy makes a concerted effort to comply with and follow the decisions and guidelines provided by the Court of Justice of the European Union.

What do you enjoy the most about being a lawyer in Italy?

There are many things I enjoy about being a lawyer in Italy: the relatively late start to the day, the good lunch and the relatively 'late end' to the working day seem to suit my bio-rhythms well; the creativity and ingenious approaches to problem solving adopted by Italian IP lawyers continue to fascinate me; the cool calculation of northern Italian litigators is admirable and the general passion that goes into finding effective monetary viable solutions is impressive. Added to all this, Italian lawyers are almost always incredibly well dressed and Italians are generally very good looking people, so it is an 'easy on the eye' working environment.

Hopefully, I didn't break any sexual/racial rules with the answer above but I should add that one of the best qualities that Italians have (and this applies both to males and females) is that they know how to use a balanced amount of charm in an intelligent way, which ensures that living in the Italian legal environment - for the most part - is a very pleasant and enjoyable experience.

How does it compare with being a lawyer in the UK?

It is so long since I worked in the UK that I can hardly remember. Back then, I was initially a timid, young trainee and then a keen but naive associate solicitor in what seemed a dauntingly large ‘magic circle’ firm filled with 'cut throat' commercial lawyers. I seem to recall that people worked unnecessarily long hours, the work I was requested to do as a young associate (swaps and derivatives) was dry and dull, and when you looked out of the window it was often raining.

How have things for foreign lawyers in Italy changed since you came here?

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Many things have changed for foreign lawyers, particularly with the arrival of many US and British firms in Milan and Rome in the mid-90s. This resulted in many more openings and a larger foreign lawyer community in Milan. I am not sure if it is a struggle to find work these days but in my humble view, many Italian law firms could benefit from a native English lawyer in their midst. It is not only about language but also about culture.

What skills do law firms in Italy look for in foreign staff? Are there any particular areas of practise that are most in demand right now?

In order for foreign staff to 'add value’, they obviously need good communication skills in their native language and a basic-to-good standard of Italian. There are many tasks a foreign lawyer can undertake but almost all of them fall into the category of smoothly communicating with lawyers and clients from their native country and promoting the Italian law firm abroad.

Obviously, this task is made considerably easier if the 'raw materials' (i.e. the Italian lawyers) are of high quality: I have had the good luck, pleasure and honour of working with some of Italy's finest IP lawyers. This has made my task very much easier. It is difficult to say whether one area of practise is in higher demand than another. I would say general commercial lawyers are probably those most sought after.

What tips would you give foreign lawyers looking for work in Italy?

If you really want to find employment in Milan, you will find it. Don't expect an equivalent salary for quite some time and accept that you are not doing this for the money but more because you want to enrich your life experiences. Also, accept that things are done differently. Never allow yourself to do anything which crosses normal boundaries of what is acceptable to you. Having said that this last tip applies to business dealings all over the globe. Italy is no exception.

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