International

Market overview

The diversity of Latin America as a region is reflected in the variety of international firms carving out a position for themselves in the region’s legal market....

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The diversity of Latin America as a region is reflected in the variety of international firms carving out a position for themselves in the region’s legal market. The wide range of industries and fast-moving economic cycles in Latin America mean there truly is something for everyone. As such, this list includes firms that would never compete directly with each other – core transactional practices, offshore firms, European corporate partners and boutiques in labour or energy – but who can all claim to be regional experts in their field.

There is a group of elite heavyweights that 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), preferring 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 these UK firms and consider the opportunity to place lawyers on their foreign associate programmes as the greatest privilege.

The top Spanish firms also have a long-standing 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 sought to establish a footprint 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, earning their place in their respective country chapters in this guide. Cuatrecasas, for example, demonstrated record revenue for 2020, and added new offices in Colombia and Chile.

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. Baker McKenzie was the trailblazer for this strategy, starting in the 1950s, but more recently determinedly global firms such as DLA Piper, Dentons and CMS have picked up an array of local offices, most often by merging or forging alliances with existing local firms. In 2021, the region saw the merger of two firms that have long had local presences there: Holland & Knight LLP and Thompson & Knight LLP. The union will combine Holland & Knight’s transactional strengths with Thompson & Knight’s energy experience, and the resulting entity will have offices in Bogotá, Mexico City and Monterrey. 

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. Foreign firms do still have offices in Caracas, although presences there have been minimised. There is a large cohort of US, UK and Spanish firms with offices in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, but they are limited by the local Bar association to only 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 land the wave of compliance and white-collar crime work across the region. 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 that the list of firms they consider their competitors is different from 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, in more than just corporate work: for example, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP launched a new 10-lawyer office there, including the chair of the firm’s US and Latin America international arbitration practice groups, as well as several new hires. It is hoped that this new office will facilitate the development of the firm’s disputes practice, including commercial and investment arbitration.

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 British Virgin Islands as they do so.

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.

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