Law: Law as a defining element in British culture: A fundamental difference of approach makes Italy a different market for UK firms to break into. Sharon Wallach reports on a week in Milan designed to help them

An interesting dilemma faced the British Council as it organised the recent British Law Week in Milan: Italian lawyers are not permitted to advertise. Publicising the event had, therefore, to be undertaken with a degree of delicacy. The Italian advertising rules could not be enforced on the British lawyers taking part in the week, but, says Martin Rose, the British Council's assistant director in Rome, they acted with courtesy towards their hosts.

All three British jurisdictions took part in the event, a coup so far as Mr Rose is concerned. Representatives included the presidents of the English, Scottish and Northern Irish law societies, the chairman of the Bar, the Director of Public Prosecutions, High Court judges and the author John Mortimer.

It was the first time that such an event had been staged in Italy. According to Mr Rose, it was a logical progression from the British Council's work. 'For four or five years, the council has run an intensive law programme,' he says, including conferences, exchanges and seminars, often mounted with the British-Italian Law Association or its sister organisation L'Associazione del Giuristi Italo-Britannica. 'It seemed to us a year ago that the time might be right to do something bigger, something that would combine the cultural and the professional,' Mr Rose says. He points out that there is great interest in Italy in the ways of British justice, reflecting many Italians' dissatisfaction with their own system. Some adversarial elements have indeed been introduced in the Italian courts. 'In the last two years in Italy, the courts and judges have been very prominent in current affairs. There has been what has been described as a judge- led revolution.'

On a commercial level, Italy's privatisation programme has attracted a higher level of interest from British law firms. But, Mr Rose explains, Italy is a difficult market for those firms to break into. The reason is a fundamental difference of approach. 'Italian law firms are small and vociferous,' he says. 'When they reach a size slightly larger than tiny, they break in half. It is an environment that British firms adapt to with some difficulty.'

The adaptation process involves learning to work in the Italian way, which operates on personal contacts, lots of visiting and not much fanfare. 'There have been a lot of attempts by British firms to set up offices here; most haven't worked. Those that have succeeded - Simmons & Simmons and Clifford Chance are the notable cases - have not attempted to establish offices, but have found Italian studios and set up joint ventures.'

So, says Mr Rose, it seemed useful to provide a cultural framework in which British practitioners could show their wares. 'The dynamic is that the small Italian firms worry about a lot of big firms muscling in. At the same time, there is doubt whether the business is there to support the overheads of the big firms.'

The week's events contained two interdependent strands. First, the British Council put together a programme reflecting the generic nature of law: professional regulation, the future of the profession and so on. The intention, says Mr Rose, was to present law as one of the defining elements in British culture.

The second strand gave British firms opportunities to present issues illustrating the diversity and capacity of the British legal profession. 'What we hoped for most from the event is already beginning to happen. That is a change in the way that British firms look at the Italian market,' says Mr Rose.

More than 20 British firms took part, including Frere Cholmeley Bischoff, Linklaters & Paines, Penningtons, Bird Semple from Glasgow, Pannone & Partners, and Herbert Smith.

Mr Rose is cautious in predicting the results of British Law Week. 'Most British firms know a bit more about Italy, and Italy knows a lot more about British firms, advertising or not.'

The event can also be viewed as a subliminal marketing tool, a way of raising awareness. 'One line in the hidden agenda is that if Italy is going to choose common law partners, they will choose Great Britain and not the United States,' Mr Rose says.

The programme was presented in a mixture of English, Italian and simultaneous translation. 'A lot is being done by the British firms in Italian. Most of the law firms we are dealing with have at least one Italian-speaking solicitor, if not many.'

Milan is Italy's largest commercial centre as well as housing the country's major commercial bar. British Law Week succeeded in accounting for most of the city's hotel and conference space.

'There was a conference of anaesthetists going on at the same time,' Mr Rose says, 'but I don't think they got a look in.'