I know that complaining about business travel to glamorous destinations is considered inverted snobbery. I have been in Athens and Zurich these last two weeks, first at a Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE) Plenary Session and then at an IBA Bar Leaders Meeting. Why complain, you might ask? Well, cabin fever from meetings in windowless hotel rooms from which you cannot escape, and headaches from being pinned to the chair during hours of lawyer-policy discussions, can be equal to an ordinary dull day book-ended with being packed into a crowded commuter train for an hour each way.

One of the challenges of my business travel is being thrown constantly together with lawyers from other countries, and finding topics to discuss with them. Back in the UK, it is easy enough – ‘did you wear your "Impaling Grayling" T-shirt to the legal aid demonstration outside parliament?’ or ‘are you applying for the vacant chief executive post at the Solicitors Regulatory Authority?’ But to keep the conversation going with lawyers from elsewhere, you have to be a compulsive follower of international developments.

I have provided some tips below. (Before you say that I mock other countries, I should declare that no one can be mocked more than we can, since we come from a country where a foreign lawyer can ask us, in a dull moment during a coffee break: ‘Can you count the number of bodies regulating lawyers in the UK on your fingers alone, or do you need your toes, too?’) So here goes.

If you meet an Italian lawyer, say ‘Describe the latest litigation concerning Italian lawyers’. That is because there have been so many Italian lawyer cases in the past before the European Court of Justice (Arduino, Cipolla and Melone, Mauri, for instance), and so you can be sure that another one will be coming along soon. And there is! A new reference to the Court of Justice is pending about Italian citizens who took their lawyer qualification in Spain and then moved back to Italy (Torresi, Cases 58/13 and 59/13).

Just a few days ago, too, there was an announcement of action taken by the Italian competition authority, which had been investigating 12 regional Italian bars as to whether they had engaged in competition-restricting agreements in order to prevent colleagues admitted to the bar in another EU member state from practising law in Italy. Five regional bars were each eventually fined a nominal sum of €1,000 for practices which were deemed in excess of the requirements in the lawyers’ directives, such as requiring the payment of a one-off fee, requiring the EU lawyer to pass Italian aptitude and language tests, or to submit proof of having already exercised the profession abroad for a certain period of time. Seven of the regional bars were let off altogether. A year’s investigation yielding €5,000 in fines might not be thought the best use of the competition authority’s time.

If you meet a French lawyer, you should ask ‘please will you explain how your filter system works?’ This has nothing to do with office plumbing or ways to smoke a cigarette. Rather it relates to the method used in France and some other member states for reporting suspicious transactions for the purposes of the money laundering legislation. In France, the report is filtered by the lawyer to the president of the bar, who is the one to decide whether the report should be transmitted onwards to the financial intelligence unit or not. This filter system received back-handed protection in the recent money laundering case, Michaud (12323/11), brought before the European Court of Human Rights, and its supporters feel that it should be implemented everywhere. But not all bars have such a system, and there is a lively debate now in the CCBE about how to take the matter forward. Will the Law Society president cancel all future engagements to wade through the reports received from solicitors?

A lawyer from Hungary can be asked about the threats to the rule of law from the Orban government. A lawyer from Romania can be asked about the unconstitutional bar in that country, which is causing great consternation. Lawyers from Greece or Portugal can be asked about the negative impact of the Troika on their legal professions. And so it goes: each country has its unusual developments.

There are plenty of questions to ask lawyers from outside the EU, too. If conversation is flagging, ask a Brazilian or Indian lawyer: ‘Don’t you think it is about time that you opened your market to a bit of competition from foreign lawyers?’ You will be able to doze for at least an hour. You should ask an American lawyer: ‘Do you think that the model for funding law school students needs rethinking?’ – in the light of the $50,000 per year tuition fee now being charged at the best schools.

It is surprising how much you learn. We are not alone in our peculiarities. Asking the right questions helps to pass those challenging hours before you get on the plane back to the comforts of home.

Jonathan Goldsmith is secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents about one million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs