I attended a round-table discussion this week, put on by one of the Belgian bars, on the topic: ‘What do we expect from a lawyer today?’ The participants came from the media, academia and various parts of the legal profession.Much of the discussion would have been familiar to solicitors: complaints from consumers about over-charging and poor communications; fierce defence by the profession of independence and service to the rule of law. There was an interesting section on how lawyers have a role in defusing tabloid hysteria in popular criminal trials. But one aspect would have been strange to UK lawyers: the use of the adjective ‘Anglo-Saxon’ to describe a certain collection of values.

We regularly read in our newspapers that the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is used in discourse in continental countries, sometimes favourably, more often not, to describe a certain way of doing things. The examination of these values tells us a lot about ourselves, and about the interlocutors themselves.

If you research ‘Anglo-Saxon’ on the internet, you will find endless pages about the people who lived in Britain centuries ago, and maybe something on white people in the USA. But you will have difficulty finding what is meant by the use of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ on the continent. They are talking about what they perceive as modern English-American ways of doing things. It principally refers to an economic or markets approach to life, where the Anglo-Saxon way is seen as one of liberalising and deregulating markets, probably as a result of the Reagan-Thatcher vision of some decades ago. We do not see ourselves like that in Britain, where the approach of Attlee and Bevan, for instance, is decidedly not Anglo-Saxon within this formulation, and yet still holds strong sway over many aspects of our society.

The phrase has particular resonance in legal circles. The Anglo-Saxon firms are often mentioned, meaning the large English and American law firms that have opened offices on much of the continent. They are viewed with a mixture of anxiety and admiration. A good example is in the letter which president Nicolas Sarkozy sent to Jean-Michel Darrois when asking him to undertake his grand review of the French legal profession in 2008. He specifically used the term ‘Anglo-Saxon firms’ when asking Darrois to examine the gap between the rich and poor in the legal profession, citing the large Anglo-Saxon firms that specialise in economic and financial affairs at one end of the spectrum (you can guess which end).

In legal terms, Anglo-Saxon values mean the liberalisation of ethical rules, such as the one against conflicts of interest, particularly on the grounds of accommodating important commercial interests. At my round-table this week, Chinese walls were cited as a specifically Anglo-Saxon practice. Without question, alternative business structures are another. It is recognised that Anglo-Saxon values are changing the legal landscape, and that they need to be faced.

The opposite of Anglo-Saxon values in this discourse is the European social model. I live in a country which has such a model. It has some surprising aspects when you come from living in the UK. For instance, the waiters at the string of restaurants in the square nearby here in Brussels have remained the same for the last eight years – it is a properly paid career for life. If you are an employee and your child falls ill, the social security agency will send someone to your home free for up to two weeks so that you can go back to work. These are just two of the positive sides. The negative sides are well-known: the rate of taxation is very high, and hiring-and-firing is hard and inflexible.

We do not see ourselves as belonging to a category with the Americans in possessing Anglo-Saxon values. It is not a term in use among us. In any case, there is no singular view on these matters in the UK, with a large chunk of the so-called Anglo-Saxon population being in opposition to what are seen abroad as Anglo-Saxon values. Yet we must face it that others see us that way, not always in an admiring way. They particularly see our legal developments as Anglo-Saxon. It is good to know how others see us, since it helps us to see ourselves.

Jonathan Goldsmith is the secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents more than 700,000 European lawyers through its member bars and law societies