Costa Rica may not have one of the biggest populations or economies in Central America, but this has not affected the flourishing of its legal market – boasting a size and a level of sophistication that surpasses even those of larger countries in the region. President Rodrigo Chaves, in office since 2022, has made strengthening the economy as well as tackling insecurity and corruption key objectives of his government.
The country, known for its political stability and for its strong appeal to the business community (with companies often flocking here as a regional base for their Central American operations), has facilitated growth while promoting in-depth specialisation among law firms. Indeed, the larger firms in this chapter – BLP and Consortium – are comparable in size to those in far bigger economies.
Regionalisation remains a priority for many firms across Central America, and much of this is being led from Costa Rica. A whole raft of broad service-offering firms including Aguilar Castillo Love, BLP and Sfera, as well as boutique firms such as BDS Asesores, have all used San José as a base from which to expand into other Central American countries.
Expansion and institutionalisation remain the core goals for most of the firms in the region, which are keen to ensure consistency as a key feature of their multinational office network across Central America.
Although the majority of Central American firms tend to focus their expansion efforts on neighbouring countries, others have been looking elsewhere. Aguilar Castillo Love, for instance, has outposts in Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay. Other examples of this are Sfera, with a representative office in New York and a counsel stationed in Washington, DC; and BLP, which fields partners dividing time between Central America and Europe.
For international firms with regional ambitions, Costa Rica has also surfaced as the point of take-off. EY Law, Dentons and Spain’s Ecija all have landed in the capital San José as part of their Central America goals.
The bustling real estate and tourism industries in Costa Rica have promoted the expansion on both a local and regional scale, especially following the introduction of digital nomad visas in the country. The coastal province of Guanacaste, a popular holiday and retirement destination, is still one of the most usual places where firms have opened a second office, although it is not uncommon for them to have a base in other coastal tourist hotspots as well.
Though many firms have embraced the trend toward regionalisation, a few still bet on the independent model. One of the country’s oldest, Facio & Cañas, celebrated its 80th birthday in 2022 and continues to focus on its local practice. In a 2023 development, Facio & Cañas opened two offices in the tourist hotspots of Guanacaste and Puntarenas, marking its first expansion outside of the capital. Another outfit choosing to remain engaged in the local market is found in Zürcher Odio & Raven, which is one of the market’s largest by headcount.
Costa Rican firms compete fiercely in a market where businesses place a premium on practice area specialisation and expect no less than the highest-quality service. Firms have been retaining lawyers who have environmental law know-how, labour acumen or in-depth knowledge of complex tax planning to remain on top of the market trends, becoming even more in demand lately as a result of the country’s most recent tax reforms.
Meanwhile, being capable of handling cross-border M&A and banking transactions remains a prerogative of firms that want to hold their own in a market that has long outgrown its borders. Firms in this chapter have reported growth in free trade zone work and increased foreign investment, as well as a general increased flow of M&A transactions.
Costa Rica became the 38th member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2021 – the first Central American country and the fourth in Latin America after Chile, Colombia and Mexico. As such, regulatory work, along with increasing compliance advice, has also occupied lawyers in this chapter of late. The country’s OECD membership may have also contributed to the country’s GDP growth in the past few years.