In October 2020, Luis Acre became the Bolivian president. His appointment came after opposition senator Jeanine Áñez spent a year as interim president following Evo Morales’s resignation in the wake of the country’s 2019 election. The protests surrounding the election resulted in a nationwide shutdown – many firms were unable to function as normal and partners were forced to try to maintain normal operations by working remotely amid continued disruption.
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 further 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. The covid-19 pandemic plunged the Bolivian economy into recession and exposed structural weaknesses in the country’s healthcare system. Since his election to office, President Acre has pledged to form a government of national unity and recover from the impact of the pandemic.
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 shown 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 compared with those of 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. This model has 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. Ferrere, having established itself as a key player in the Bolivian market, lost several lawyers in 2020, who went on to form PPO Abogados. Having absorbed Bolivian boutique firm OPRAN earlier this year, the newly founded firm PPO has continued to grow and consolidate itself as a player in the market. Ferrere retained its offices in La Paz and Santa Cruz, and also has a compact team based in Cochabamba. 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. Meanwhile, global firm Dentons and Bolivia’s Guevara & Gutiérrez – Servicios Legales announced its combination, which marks the arrival of a law firm from outside Latin America in the local legal market.
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 in 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 Bolivian oil and gas hub Cochabamba, mining centre Potosí and Tarija.