John Aguilar Quesada joined Aguilar Castillo Love in 1985 as a legal assistant, before becoming an associate and later a partner. John is regional co-managing partner of the firm and managing partner of the Costa Rican office. He is also the regional head of the corporate and M&A practice, working in cross-border and domestic acquisitions and divestitures, joint ventures and private equity transactions, advising many of the world’s leading companies. He studied at Harvard (LLM, 1991); and the Autonomous University of Central America (JD equivalent (1989) and LLB (1987), both summa cum laude).
Questions & Answers
Thought Leaders 2020 - Interview with John Aguilar-Quesada
Why did you decide to pursue a legal career and specialise in corporate finance and M&A law?
The admiration for my father, John Aguilar Osborne, as a person and as a lawyer, was a fundamental influence in the selection of my career. The many virtues that I saw in him during his professional development gave me the security to make such an important decision. My specialisation was just the natural result of working in a law firm based and developed on entrepreneurship and designed to support businesses, transnational matters, and the growth and transformation of its clients.
What would you say was the most memorable case you have ever worked on and why?
It was a case that I worked on when I was still a legal assistant back in 1986.
The case involved a regional acquisition and reorganisation in Central America. It was the way we had to deliver the advice and work with the client, becoming an extension of the client’s legal department, that is most memorable to me. That case opened my eyes, determined my route and has had an definite impact on the direction of the firm: close proximity to the in-house legal function, regional mindset and coverage, clients with multi-jurisdictional needs and operations, and a corporate, M&A focus at the firm’s core.
I love what I do, and I live every case as the only one and the last one. Having been educated with the mindset of making the most out of less, it’s difficult not to see something special and meaningful just in being alive, and in every opportunity.
Over the past few years Costa Rica has implemented a series of laws to combat illicit transactions and improve transparency in the formation and finances of public limited companies. How have these changes impacted the country’s banking and finance sector, and what more could be done?
Combating illicit transactions and corruption is good business. For a country it means strengthening the rule of law, and hence, transparency, safety and predictability for all players, including law firms. The current stability and robustness of the banking and finance sector in Costa Rica reflects these efforts. Making sure the country continues at the same pace in adapting to the world’s compliance standards, and investing in enforcement mechanisms, is in my opinion the way to the future.
Costa Rica’s investment climate has been favourable for many years, but many obstacles remain for companies looking to do business locally. What should the government prioritise to improve the country’s business landscape, in your opinion?
Infrastructure is definitely one of the priorities, and in my opinion, a simpler, clearer and more competitive tax regime is another one – particularly since the current legislation was originally conceived and designed to finance inadequate government spending, and not necessarily to promote economic activity. In terms of M&A-specific measures, the government is already working on improving its antitrust regime, with some amendments that will clarify certain issues in local competition law when dealing with business combinations.
How do you see the country’s corporate and M&A sector developing over the next few years?
I see many opportunities. More and more foreign direct investment is arriving into Costa Rica as a result of acquisitions, in contrast to traditional “greenfield” projects, and this trend is reflected internally when it comes to local companies looking for local expansion. The past two years have been record years in terms of local deals and intra-Central American deals. So, hopefully, it is expected that the central government and other related agencies direct their initiatives, including the promotion and improvement of general business environment conditions, towards the M&A side.
Can you tell us about how the firm has developed over the years?
Bufete Aguilar was the first law firm in Costa Rica, founded by my ancestors in the 1820s. My father restarted it in the 1960s, and with his unconditional support and the confidence of my Guatemalan partner Juan Carlos Castillo Chacón, we were able to embark on a joint venture in 1991, that evolved – with the vision, contribution and leadership of Francisco Castillo Love in Guatemala, Enrique Rodríguez Burchard in Honduras, Thelma Carrión Blandón in Nicaragua, Carlos Alfaro Castillo in El Salvador and Eduardo and Juan David Polit in Ecuador – into the first truly Central American firm, and more recently into the first “home-grown” Latin American firm.
In-house teams are becoming increasingly sophisticated across Central America. How has the firm adapted to address new client demands?
We were there when everything started. I was very lucky to be inspired by Salvador Juncadella, the Miami-based Cuban lawyer who I consider the “father” of the in-house counsel movement in Latin America. Mr Juncadella founded the prominent South Florida Group of Regional Counsel, recently renamed the Juncadella Corporate Counsel Group, which today comprises over 400 Latin American-related in-house counsel from some of the largest companies in the world.
It was in the 1990s that the Juncadella Group started with the first exclusively in-house events, and it was back then that we became clearly aware as a firm, of the power, responsibilities and DNA of in-house lawyers.
In the early 2000s the IBA began to host in-house counsel conferences throughout Europe. This coincided with the growth of the in-house movement in that region at the time. Our firm participated in most of them, being the only firm from Latin America. It was during the time of the Enron, Tyco and Parmalat scandals.
In 2011, Aguilar Castillo Love held the first ever in-house counsel-specific roundtable in Central America, in partnership with LACCA. More roundtables came in the following years and our firm became the main supporter of in-house counsel events in Central America. The knowledge exchanged during these events was so important that it prompted the need for action. It was clear that the development of the regional market in Central America provided an opportunity for in-house lawyers and legal departments to become protagonists and not spectators. For Aguilar Castillo Love, it felt like the time to add value, in a different way, to a community so instrumental in the development of our firm. It was the right time to make the in-house counsel of the region aware of their key role as guardians of the law, and of their power and responsibility for good corporate citizenship to the benefit of the Central American public at large.
In September 2017, during a LACCA event in Antigua Guatemala, the firm had the idea of creating the first Central American in-house counsel association. With support from the steering committee, formed by top GCs in the region, it became a reality. The Central American Association for In-house Counsel (www.aaec.org) was launched in February 2018 with the support of the Harvard Law School executive education programme.
We have been around since the beginning of the in-house movement, and we have closely and consistently followed and supported the in-house community for almost 30 years. The firm as it is today, with our vision and strategy, is the result of this interaction.
You have enjoyed a very distinguished career so far, but what would you say has been your biggest achievement?
Thank you. My greatest achievement is knowing that my role in life is one of service to others and to the opportunities I’ve been given. This has allowed me to work with passion in building a sensitive and approachable team.