The diversity of Latin America as a region is reflected in the variety of international firms carving out a position for themselves. The region’s wide range of industries and fast-moving economic cycles mean there truly is something for everyone.
The available expertise is diverse, as can be expected in a complex and growing region that needs a range of legal services to help transact its expanding commerce. As such, this list includes firms who would never compete directly with each other – core transactional practices, offshore firms, European corporate partners and boutiques in labour, energy or arbitration – but who can all claim to be regional experts in their field.
There is a group of elite heavyweights who rightly boast of their longevity in the region. By being early movers, they have built up a deep knowledge of local markets and customs, which takes time to accumulate. They also have enduring relationships with major local corporations, banks and law firms, much to the envy of newcomers, given this is a region where relationships are of utmost importance. This group is largely formed of the finest East Coast firms, which continue to invest heavily in Latin America. While each has a unique service offering, they all have exceptional talent dedicated to the region, mostly in transactional areas. They compete with each other heavily for high-value, sophisticated work and have proven themselves capable of handling the most complicated deals. The UK’s Magic Circle firms are also well established and have similarly prestigious reputations. While later to the game than their New York peers, they are now well entrenched in this market. Most firms falling into this category do not have local law offices in the region (although many have foreign law consultancies in São Paulo). As well as it not making commercial sense, they prefer to select the best lawyer for the job from their best friends in the region. (By the same token, top-tier Latin American firms covet any referral relationships they have with them and consider the opportunity to place lawyers on their foreign associate programmes as the greatest privilege.)
The top Spanish firms also have a longstanding presence in the region, having assisted major Iberian companies and banks in the region for decades, which has helped them forge excellent relationships with local firms and knowledge of markets. In recent years they have pursued establishing a footprint on the ground in Latin America, setting up local law offices – or, in the case of Uría Menéndez, forging ties with a top-tier firm with offices in multiple jurisdictions. The local law offices of Spanish firms have had considerable success and compete side by side with respected local names. Several of these offices are recommended in their respective country chapters in this guide.
Regional expansion is not the domain of Spanish firms alone. Law firms intent on establishing a global presence include Latin America in their expansion plans. Alongside the global heavyweights, niche firms such as UK insurance firms are pursuing regional expansion. In an example of this, Clyde & Co announced a formal alliance with Chilean firm Grasty Quintana Majlis in early 2020, adding to an existing network that includes bases in Mexico and Venezuela. Another mover is European firm CMS, which today has several successful local offices in Latin America. Generally speaking, the most popular destinations for foreign firms are Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile (as firms shape their strategy around the Pacific Alliance) and, of course, Brazil. As Clyde & Co evidences, foreign firms still have offices in Caracas. There is a large cohort of US, UK and Spanish firms with offices in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, but they are restricted by the local bar association to practising the law of their home jurisdiction.
Just as the number of firms competing in the region has expanded over recent years, so have the areas of focus of those who have been there for some time. We now see New York firms, formerly known for their capital markets work, poaching energy partners from Houston firms; US firms providing Spanish law advice to leading European investors; Miami firms offering New York law at Florida rates; and almost all of the above competing to be the partners of the wave of Asian investors changing the face of business in Latin America. More recently, compliance and white-collar crime practices are in demand, and it has become increasingly common for international firms to factor that area of counsel into their broader Latin America offering. All this means that even though the legal landscape is growing, the divisions between firms are getting more blurred. It is common for firms to compete with peers in some areas and not others, and many firms report the list of firms they consider their competitors to be different to what it once was. While New York remains the financial centre of Latin America, other US cities are also important hubs: Miami’s proximity to the region has ensured a cultural confluence too, and the city has become a natural home for many businesses operating throughout the region. The firms there have become commercial partners for these companies. Resource-rich Latin America provides a great source of business for energy multinationals, and their lawyers – the Texas-based firms – are unsurprisingly strong in the region as well. Washington, DC-based practices have long been important in the fields of trade, project finance, sovereign financing and arbitration in particular. In Europe, London still houses some noted practitioners – particularly for the insurance industry – and Paris is an important base for arbitration work. The main Spanish firms and a good number of UK and US firms have relevant talent in Madrid.
Another area of fierce competition is among the offshore firms: as Latin American companies have become more sophisticated, they are increasingly taking advantage of the benefits of offshore financing, turning to firms based in the Cayman Islands or BVI as they do so.
For the first time this year, this chapter also includes a selection of the best consultancy firms offering support and highly-valued expertise while working closely with law firms and clients in a variety of complex legal proceedings in Latin America.