After more than 30 years of relative economic and political stability, Chile’s contentious presidential election has sparked a turning point for the South American nation. Gabriel Boric, the country’s youngest-ever head of state, took office in March 2022. The left-wing politician and former student union leader campaigned on a social-democratic platform, with promises to protect the environment, increase taxation on mining and revitalise the national pension programme.
Boric inherits an overhauling of the Chilean Constitution, which was agreed upon in a historic referendum in 2020 as the nation battled rising inequality, social unrest and political polarisation. If passed, the progressive charter would foresee a significant shift from the Pinochet-era document that has accompanied the once lauded neoliberal economy. The new draft envisions an increased government role in the provision of social services, gender parity and the protection of indigenous rights and the environment, which is likely to impact key sectors of the economy and draw up plenty of regulatory work for local lawyers.
Chile may be in a state of flux while it awaits the decision of the September referendum, but the country’s economy has remained an attractive destination for investors. Combatting climate change remains a priority for the country’s politicians. Boric’s predecessor, Sebastián Piñera, pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 and the transition has spurred substantial investments in Chile’s renewables sector. With climate change an increasing global concern, foreign entities are continuing to put money behind Chilean projects, firmly establishing the country as a world leader in renewable energy development.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the future of Chile’s mining industry, the sector continues to generate work for both local and international firms. The country is the world’s largest copper producer and copper demand and prices have soared over the past few years, owing to the use of the metal in popular green energy sources such as electric cars and wind turbines, for example.
A long-anticipated pension reform is a top priority on this government’s agenda. It remains to be seen how the constitutional reform will address the undoing of the 50-year-old pension system, but lawyers are likely to see a lot of work coming their way, especially when it comes to regulatory matters and disputes.
Boric’s reform agenda also incorporates changes to the country’s tax system, including increased taxes for the country’s wealthiest. Adding a 2.5% tax rate on the wealth of the highest earners would raise some US$5 billion, the equivalent of 1.9% of the country’s GDP, and help Boric fund his social policies. As the need for tax expertise accelerates, local law firms have been seeking to bolster practices to ensure they have a hand in anticipated legal work.
Chile’s strong institutional framework and longstanding reputation as one of Latin America’s wealthiest and most stable nations have ensured that a large number of well-structured, full-service corporate powerhouses are the backbone of the market. The high calibre of international businesses operating in the country has given rise to an elite legal community built on historically solid corporate, finance and capital markets teams. Substantial, noteworthy transactions are commonplace in Chile and when they happen there are a healthy number of corporate law firms with the skills and headcount to oversee them. One such example took place in recent months when the nation issued the world’s first-ever sovereign sustainability-linked bonds, pledging to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions as part of the transaction.
The legal market has one clear frontrunner in terms of size – Carey. Arguably, the market is only capable of supporting one such titan in terms of headcount.
The bulk of this chapter’s most successful law firms is full-service outfits. Their well-rounded offerings enable firms to serve their clients well across several areas of newfound importance. The country’s major constitutional overhaul has incited law firms to polish up their public law offerings, while expected tax, labour and pension reforms have also inspired outfits to boost these areas too.
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. Chile – like other countries in the region – is experiencing an influx of start-up and fintech deals as technology becomes commonplace in daily life. Some law firms have established dedicated teams to manage this flow of work.
While full-service firms dominate the market, boutiques have their place here, offering clients more bespoke and personalised legal advice. There is a clear demand for their specialised service offerings and a handful of well-regarded intellectual property and environmental law firms are listed in this guide. In the past few years, several firms have lost talented partners 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.
Investors’ continued attraction to the Pacific Alliance, as well as the strength and stability of the economy, is changing the face of the Chilean legal market as international law firms increasingly demonstrate interest. Spanish law firm Cuatrecasas launched its Chilean operations two years ago, a move that was felt widely across the local market. The outfit has since expanded exponentially, poaching top talent from local and regional rivals to decorate its Santiago office with knowledgeable expertise. While most firms spent the past 12 months strengthening their key practices, this market is far from stagnant. Indeed, in a surprising move, partners at Bofill Mir & Álvarez Jana Abogados went their separate ways, establishing three new outfits.
Chilean law firms are among the region’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 par with some of the best in Latin America. One notable weak spot concerns gender parity: on average, Chilean firms continue to have the lowest number of female partners in all of Latin America. While partner promotions saw an unanticipated spike in the region at the end of 2021, less than a handful of Chilean firms elevated a female lawyer to a senior position during that review period. Some local outfits have sought to rectify this gap by elevating women to senior management and department leader roles over the past year. Morales & Besa elected its first female managing partner and has since made concerted efforts to bring more women into senior positions at the firm. Nevertheless, across the board, very few women are seen in the senior rank of Chilean firms.
Santiago, or more specifically its business district of Las Condes, remains 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.