Law firms in El Salvador have embraced the Central American regionalisation strategy wholeheartedly, and several firms now straddling several countries in the area have their origins here. Regional pioneer Arias has its roots in El Salvador, where it dominates the market to this day. San Salvador-based Sáenz & Asociados is also pursuing a regional strategy but with smaller offices.
For Central American firms based outside the country, a presence in El Salvador is important to the regional strategy. Consortium Legal has a well-established office in San Salvador, while Costa Rica-based BLP is a newer player that has added substantial firepower – its local office is led by a former Arias partner and finance virtuoso. More recently, Guatemala’s Mayora & Mayora, SC entered El Salvador by absorbing local banking and finance outfit Telles & Asociados and rebranding as Mayora & Mayora SC (El Salvador). Romero Pineda & Asociados is the only major firm in El Salvador that has favoured an extensive network of alliances over boots-on-the-ground expansion, and comfortably competes for work with its multijurisdictional counterparts. A new regional set-up also launched in 2021, after local firm Valdés, Suárez & Velasco Abogados formed Alta by combining with Costa Rica’s Batalla, Guatemalan stronghold QIL+4 Abogados and Melara & Asociados in Honduras.
Like much of Central America, true practice area specialisation is uncommon in El Salvador, but there is no shortage of experienced transactional lawyers who have enhanced many of their skills in cross-border work. The largest outfits have strong banking and corporate departments, while good intellectual property and disputes teams form the backbone of several firms listed here. Notable labour and tax advice can also be found.
Elections in early 2019 marked a major change in the country when Nayib Bukele, a candidate who came from neither of the two traditional parties, won the presidency. With huge popular approval and skilful social media manoeuvring, Bukele seems to get most of his ideas through parliament. That was confirmed in 2021, when his party (New Ideas) and ally (GANA) won the majority of seats in the congressional election. Bukele is the first Salvadorian president to have a congressional majority in three decades. His methods have been criticised though, not least his move to bring the military into parliament to force its members to vote through a loan deal to buy security equipment – a move associated with the country’s past of authoritarianism and civil war.
The country’s economy contracted 8.6% in 2020 according to the IMF, the biggest drop of the Central American nations, not counting Panama. Although clearly covid-19-related, El Salvador’s economic growth was lacklustre even before the pandemic, and it remains to be seen what Bukele, with his congressional majority, can do about that. His efforts so far have been focused on tackling the country’s security issues and the high level of violence. Meanwhile, off the back of a few big corruption scandals involving former Salvadorian presidents, awareness of compliance is on the rise, with law firms dedicating more resources to the practice and to internal policies.
In September 2021, El Salvador became the first country in the world to adopt bitcoin as legal tender. The move, despite early teething problems and angry protests, will likely generate work for local and regional law firms as clients adapt to transactions in the cryptocurrency.
No firms have seen the need to expand outside the capital, San Salvador.