Chile will probably remember 2019 as the year society and its business markets were shaken up to their core. October’s protests – which saw an estimated 5% of the country’s population take to the streets in what is considered the largest protest in Chilean history – have extended into 2020 and the cries for social change mean legislative and constitutional reforms are on the horizon.
Lacking a majority in Congress has so far stopped President Sebastián Piñera from pushing through certain reforms, especially related to the country's pensions system. But October’s unrest has brought pensions, as well as labour and administrative law reforms to the forefront of Congress’ debate in the hope of quelling the social unrest that has persisted over recent months. An upcoming referendum on whether to change the country’s constitution, alongside anticipated reforms, in 2020 leaves many law firms preparing to handle an uptick in client demand for many of these non-transactional practice areas. This includes the delayed effect of October’s protests that could see a rise in the number of disputes filed this year as a result of businesses across the country having to close for an unpresented amount of time during the troubles.
Unrest aside, Piñera’s business-friendly approach means lawyers remain confident he can succeed in elevating the country’s economy. Before the protests, many firms saw an uptick in projects and transactions, and many are hopeful that the country can return to this state of stability within the next nine months.
Chile’s strong institutional framework and longstanding economic stability has got international firms’ attention. Their arrival is heating up competition in the local legal market and firms are mistaken if they expect they can sit back and relax.
Fortunately, Chilean firms are more than up for the challenge. A large number of well-structured, full-service corporate powerhouses are recommended in this chapter. Chile has traditionally been seen as one of the safest places to do business in Latin America, meaning that a high calibre of international businesses operates in the country. This has given rise to an elite legal community built on strong corporate, finance and capital markets teams. Substantial, noteworthy transactions take place in Chile and, when they do, there are a healthy number of corporate law firms with the skill and headcount to handle them. Fuelled by the steady stream of foreign companies that have brought their business here since the late 1980s, Chile’s law firms contain some of the region’s most sophisticated dealmakers.
The legal market has one clear leader in terms of size – Carey – and most would agree that the market is only capable of supporting one such titan in terms of headcount.
The bulk of this chapter’s most successful law firms are multidisciplinary. They offer a broad spectrum of services designed to make them a one-stop shop for clients and some offer a very deep bench in a wide range of practice areas. This full-service capability is enabling firms to serve their clients well in areas of newfound importance. Hotly-anticipated tax, labour and pension reforms expected this year have prompted many firms across the country to boost these practice areas too, while a data protection law is anticipated for 2020 to get Chile more in line with international standards, especially those in Europe and the US. Industry-wise, Chile’s legal market contains experts in some of the country’s most important economic drivers: mining, infrastructure and energy. Environmental law is also a strong practice for many firms, given the importance of the area for companies in those industries.
Boutiques also have a place in this market. There is clear demand for their specialised service offering and a handful of well-regarded IP, mining and environmental law firms are listed over these pages. Several firms have lost talented partners in the last few years who have moved on to create their own outlets specialising in certain areas, including litigation and antitrust. With in-house teams also taking on more responsibilities themselves, clients are increasingly turning to external counsel for more specialised legal matters, which is good news for boutique firms. Many full-service firms want to increase the level of specialised legal advice they offer to compete in Chile’s highly competitive legal market. Several are restructuring their offerings to focus more on industries, rather than practice areas, in an attempt to move ahead with what clients are looking for.
Investors’ continued attraction to the Pacific Alliance is changing the face of the Chilean legal market. The number of global firms with offices in Chile continues to increase and is one factor contributing to greater movement in the legal market, as global firms cherry-pick their local staff.
Chilean law firms are among Latin America’s most institutionalised, in part because many of the country’s leading lawyers have experience working abroad. Firm management and leadership are modern and forward-thinking, putting this market on a par with some of the best region-wide. One notable weak spot concerns gender parity: on average, Chilean firms have the lowest number of female partners in all of Latin America.
Santiago, or more specifically its business district of Las Condes, is very much the heart of the legal community. As more firms in this market build international ties, an increasing number work closely with offices in legal markets further afield, particularly in the Pacific Alliance, but also globally.
Chilean law firms have a commendable commitment to pro bono work. The country has one of the most successful clearing houses in Latin America, of which most, if not all, firms on this list are members.