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'Be as curious as you possibly can'

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Leah Dunlop's first experience of Italy was as a waitress in Calabria. Photo: Leah Dunlop/Hogan Lovells
16:21 CEST+02:00
Leah Dunlop, from the UK, has come a long way since working as a waitress in Calabria in the 1980s. Now head of corporate practice in Italy for the Hogan Lovells' law firm, she talks to The Local about setting up a law firm, bridging business cultures and the rewards of learning Italian.

What brought you to Italy?

The first time I came, I took a gap year after the Law Society finals.

I knew nothing about Italy but a friend of mine at university had a cousin who was setting up a restaurant deep in southern Italy and I said:“OK, if she’s looking for help then I’ll go there”. I arrived in Calabria in August 1982.

How did you find southern Italy in the 1980s?

I thought somebody would speak English or French; when I got down there nobody spoke French, nobody spoke English and nobody spoke Italian - they all spoke Calabrese. It was like landing on Mars.

My friend’s cousin did speak English, but after about two weeks she said she was only going to speak Italian and she never spoke to me in English again. I found that, gradually, I could understand her and in three months I was fluent.

So how come you stayed for more than a year?

The link is always love. Within the first month my friend’s cousin fell head-over-heels in love with a man and invited me on a blind date to meet his cousin. He turned out to be the first person I had met so far who spoke some French, so we could talk, and to cut a long story short he’s my husband now.

We both returned to London in September in 1983 and I started my training contract with Lovells.

Fast forward almost 20 years, you returned to Italy. So what brought you back?

In the mid-to-late 1990s Hogan Lovells started looking at setting up in Italy. The reason I came out was because people there felt that you can only really replicate the culture if you have someone here who represents it and can act as a bridge back to partners in London.

Italy has a very well-established and excellent local law firm system, but it was very difficult to find people who had the same cultural aspirations and so we felt that it would be better for us to set up greenfield.

We started to look for like-minded, international lawyers and in October 2000 we opened with three partners and six associates spread between Milan and Rome. We now have around 90 lawyers.

It was initially a secondment for three to five years and it worked out so well that after four or five years I decided to stay.

How does the work differ?

The Italian economy has a greater level of individual entrepreneurs compared to the UK, which is much more institutional and corporate.

One of the first deals we advised on was the acquisition of Birra Peroni by SAB Miller from the remaining Peroni family. That was the deal that made me want to stay because it was so difficult.

You had SAB Miller, which is corporate, and the Peroni heirs who ran Birra Peroni; it was a complete contrast in cultures and closing that deal used all of my skills.

As you work on such international deals, do you feel like you live in Italy?

With technology, it doesn’t really matter where you are and I’m still doing deals which are based on English law. We really do have coordination at the international level, so I’m living and breathing that during the workday.

But I would say my life outside of work is entirely Italian. We speak Italian at home; the kids all went to international school but they don’t speak to me in English, although they can.

We don’t regularly see any English-speaking friends. Expats are all nice people but they tend to live in an isolated world where they talk to other expats; you don’t learn much from them.

What advice do you have for professionals thinking of making the move?

Go for it and learn as much as you can, all the time - working and while you’re not working - because it’s the only way you’ll really start to appreciate differences in culture.

It’s a great confidence boost to meet the challenge of going to a strange country, working in a different system, and to actually succeed or get through it well and to learn new skills.

The same thing applies to cultures and really understanding people, which is why it’s so nice to learn the language so you can go to the Italian cinema and read Italian books; and listening to Italian comics is great. All that gives you a better understanding.

Learn the language and be as curious as you possibly can about everything. 

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