Bolivia had a difficult end to 2019: Evo Morales, the country’s longest-serving leader and first indigenous president – who had held power since 2006 – was forced to step down following pressure from the military and police amid public protests over allegations of fraud in the country’s election. The country went into shutdown, with many businesses and shops closed due to blockaded roads and a strike called by the opposition to protest Morales’ actions. Many firms were unable to function as normal, and partners were forced to try and maintain normal operations by working remotely amid continued disruption. Morales was replaced by interim President Jeanine Áñez, who assumed power in November. A general election is due on 3 May this year, but lawyers are uncertain as to the outcome at the current time.
Historically, waves of nationalisations in strategic sectors such as oil and gas, energy and telecoms have crowded out private investment. And while the government’s infrastructure and energy agendas – particularly regarding lithium – offer opportunities for investors, the recent turmoil has hammered the country’s shaky economy and affected business perception. While in recent years investors from Russia, China and Iran have shown interest in what the country has to offer, projects such as the Bolivia-to-Brazil gas import contract between Petrobras and Bolivian counterpart YPFB have been put on hold in the wake of the political and social uncertainty.
However, Bolivia’s law firms are well prepared, and are proven experts at displaying the kind of flexibility required to maintain profitability when faced with turbulence. A steady increase in demand for flexible working has meant that partners were well equipped to maintain operations during the shutdown. In terms of practice areas, natural resources, arbitration, regulatory and labour law remain the busiest for Bolivian firms. Resources are routinely moved from one practice area to another as demanded.
Across the market, while foreign investors have showed more interest in the country’s opportunities in energy and natural resources, there is still a relative lack of complex or cross-border legal work. This has kept the legal community relatively small when compared to some other countries in Latin America. Traditionally, Bolivian firms have been based on a family-led structure characterised by a handful of related partners occupying most, if not all, senior positions. Such a model has clearly served these firms well for decades, but this is changing. Leading firms are reviewing their structures and processes to remain competitive and retain scarce talent. In part this is motivated by new competition in the form of Ferrere, a Uruguayan firm that entered the market over a decade ago and is now the largest firm in Bolivia. Competitors such as CR & F Rojas and Moreno Baldivieso are pushing for modernisation and to become more meritocratic, adding non-family equity partners. Meanwhile, other firms such as Bufete Aguirre, Quintanilla, Soria & Nishizawa Sociedad Civil, which is the product of a 2018 merger, have remained stable in the face of market challenges.
Law firms are also now implementing structured career paths for junior members, while at the partnership level, some are rethinking their equity ownership or introducing new categories of partner. Only a small group of firms have an international outlook, but those with a cross-border focus tend to have lawyers who have spent time in universities and law firms overseas. Client portfolios dominated by foreign investors also influence their approach to legal services. Law firms are speeding up their processes and reviewing their fee structures in response to clients’ demands.
It is now the norm for Bolivian firms to have offices in La Paz, the country’s administrative capital, and the eastern lowland city of Santa Cruz, the commercial and oil and gas centre, to which companies have moved their headquarters over the years. Several also have operations in Bolivia’s oil and gas hub Cochabamba, mining centre Potosí and Tarija.