2021 Latin Lawyer Elite firm
Pinheiro Neto has been at the pinnacle of Brazil’s elite firms since the beginning of the country’s legal market. In fact, the development of this country’s dynamic, fiercely competitive and increasingly institutionalised market is in many ways connected to the driving force of this law firm, which began when founding partner José Martins Pinheiro Neto opened a small law office in São Paulo back in 1942. For a long time, Pinheiro Neto was the school for the best and most successful lawyers in the country, including those who went on to found what have become today’s traditional top law firms. The firm’s sense of tradition is one side of the coin; the other is its capacity to drive forward cutting-edge legal work.
Pinheiro Neto is a trailblazer. Year after year, the firm leads the way in some field or another. Not long ago, it became the first elite Brazilian firm to have a permanent office in Japan, Brazil’s third-biggest foreign investor, having nurtured close relationships with Japanese clients since the 1970s. Clients from the country’s heavy industries and financial, automotive and pharmaceutical sectors have relied on the firm time and again for key investment in Brazil. The list includes newcomers, such as Softbank, which is now Latin America’s main investor in start-up companies and represents the type of clients the firm has close links with in the technology sector. Pinheiro Neto’s Tokyo office was inaugurated shortly after the firm opened its office in Palo Alto, again the first Brazilian firm to do so.
Pinheiro Neto innovates from a base of utter respect for its origins and core values. The firm’s culture mirrors the likes of Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP, Slaughter and May and Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP. Compared to its competitors, Pinheiro Neto’s marketing initiatives are more discreet, and it takes a subtler approach to client generation than some. Above all, it is a culture that advocates for structured organic growth based on the provision of higher education and on-the-job training. Pinheiro Neto has, for decades, carefully crafted its own talent. The partner career path includes rigorous training programmes, studying at some of the world’s most prestigious universities and spending time at prominent law firms in the US and the UK, where lawyers hone their skills and gather substantial international experience. The partnership continued to renew in 2020, when Pinheiro Neto announced five new appointments, creating partner positions in its corporate and M&A, environmental and social security and restructuring practices.
Pinheiro Neto’s growth strategy means it only lets into the partnership those who have spent enough time at the firm to fully absorb its way of doing things – indeed, 90% of its partners went all the way from trainee to equity partner. Such a model leaves no room for lateral recruitment at senior level. This is deliberate: senior associate hires are very rare, while partner recruitment is unheard of. This strategy puts Pinheiro Neto on the other side of the fence from many of its peer firms, which have grown – sometimes rapidly – by absorbing newcomers, but it is one that has paid off in spades.
The length of time each partner has spent at Pinheiro Neto translates into a level of cohesion that is exceptionally unique. Indeed, Pinheiro Neto’s partnership is synonymous with stability. Rarely does a partner leave unless they are retiring and no rival has lured a partner from this firm yet. This stability is a result of various factors, including Pinheiro Neto’s one-vote-per-partner, absolute internal transparency towards partner compensation and the sense of accomplishment attached to belonging to this distinctive inner circle. The appeal of these factors is what helped Pinheiro Neto become the first firm in Latin America to reach the 100-equity-partner mark, a feat indeed.
With such a dedicated team, Pinheiro Neto has been able to maintain its leading position across multiple practice areas, displaying leadership in both transactional and non-transactional work. This firm can support clients across the entire legal spectrum in a way few others – if any – can match, especially at such a high level of expertise. Its name is synonymous with cutting-edge matters. For example, it is testing new ground through its representation of WhatsApp and Facebook on their mission to bring digital payment services to Brazil, a novel functionality in the country that is part of its ongoing transition to more open banking. The mandate is in keeping with Pinheiro Neto’s role in the arrival of fintech in Brazil, where it has advised on some of the most strategic deals in the area. Other recent work highlights have seen the firm advise Brazilian private equity investor Patria Investimentos on a 10 billion reais (US$2 billion) fund to invest in infrastructure in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America. It was also counsel to telecoms operator TIM, which, along with Telefónica and Claro, made a 16.5 billion reais (US$3 billion) bid to jointly buy Oi’s mobile services business. All these deals give a sense of the calibre of the firm’s dealmaking.
The success of Pinheiro Neto’s model is evidenced palpably: client trust. Pinheiro Neto is known for providing a safe harbour for legal departments handling the most sensitive matters. General counsel across the board report that when their issue is highly strategic and risk must be avoided, this, and no other, is the firm they go to. The firm has a reputation for its impeccable ethics – long before its competitors, it implemented strict internal governance checks and balances.
According to the study, ‘Who Represents Latin America's Biggest Companies’, published by the Latin American Corporate Counsel Association, which is affiliated to Latin Lawyer, Pinheiro Neto represents 56 of the 100 largest corporates in the region. That makes it the most popular firm among that client base in both Brazil and the entire region. Its impressively broad client list includes big names such as Petrobras, Vale, Ecopetrol, FEMSA, Braskem, Marfrig, Cosan, Facebook, Telefônica, BHP, Carrefour, Bradesco and CCR – and many, many more.
Naturally, clients continue to provide lavish feedback to Pinheiro Neto. In feedback gathered by Latin Lawyer, lawyers here get kudos for their commitment and expertise, as well as their openness to client input. The representative of a fintech company commends the firm’s knowledge of the sector and its willingness to explore innovative activities. Mineração Rio do Norte’s general counsel, Fabio Martinelli, goes on record to say Pinheiro Neto’s team combines a deep understanding of law and business and is quick to respond. Pinheiro Neto’s brand recognition makes a strong selling point for wary international clients navigating Brazil’s sometimes treacherous market. Even the high fees – anyone contracting Pinheiro Neto knows there are cheaper alternatives in the market – and large volumes of high-end work required to sustain the model have only served to bolster the firm’s reputation for quality among clients.
Pinheiro Neto modernised its management structures earlier than any of its competitors, gradually adopting a system of partner collaboration that has proved to be both profitable and fair. The one-vote-per-partner system – no matter their seniority – assures that every partner has a say. Such a democratic structure means big decisions can take longer to reach, but more than simply reaching a majority, this system puts a huge emphasis on consensus building.
For all its leading practice and forward-thinking culture, there is one aspect where Pinheiro Neto lags behind other firms in the market. Of its 108 partners, only 16 are women (around 15%). Pinheiro Neto is adamant about its meritocratic career path; its evaluations for promotion are clear and considered, to a great extent, to be fair too. Yet that fails to explain why so few of those promoted to partner are female. However, there are signs it is serious about addressing this gap. The firm is recruiting more female trainee associates and is working to retain more women as they move up the career ladder. There is an internal committee focused on gender equality issues that is structured into sub-groups so that junior, mid-level and senior associates can discuss specific challenges and bring them to partners’ attention, a reflection of the different issues women face at various points in their career. A mentoring programme is intended to connect female associates with more senior role models. The maternity programme includes extended maternity leave, paternity leave, part-time work, a lactation room and day-care assistance. Women on maternity leave now receive a bonus based on the average of the previous semester’s bonus.
Crucially, Pinheiro Neto has implemented a requirement that every year there must be a balance between female and male candidates for partnership. Of the latest crop of promotions, two out of the five new partners were women. The firm has changed the way it selects partner candidates in favour of giving more control to the management committee over practice area heads, a move that is intended to support greater gender equity. The measure of success will be if Pinheiro Neto reaches its target of allocating a quarter of its partnership positions to women in the next five years.
Be that as it may, Pinheiro Neto is such an institution in the Brazilian market, few would doubt the firm will remain on top of its game. The recent past shows Pinheiro Neto is in a comfortable position even in the face of the most difficult times for businesses in the country. Amid the pressures of the covid-19 crisis, this firm’s leaders were adamant about supporting its people, both through total transparency and regular communications, as well as by following through on pre-agreed bonuses. As Brazil prepares to turn a corner, there are strong signs the economy is entering a phase of prosperity and opportunity. Pinheiro Neto stands at the gates of this new era. Those looking beyond the fog of political turmoil may encounter in this firm, as so many have done in the past, the right path through this challenging but ultimately fertile land.
Managing partner Alexandre Bertoldi continues to manage the firm, but as of late 2020, he is joined in his post by corporate and M&A partner Fernando Meira. Meira will shadow Bertoldi for the next few years before taking over the reins of daily strategic affairs, with Bertoldi moving to a chairman role. Both are supported by a steering committee that features Angela Kung, Antonio Morello, Giuliano Colombo, Guilherme Leite, Marcello Bernardes, Marcos de Vicq de Cumptich, Raphael de Cunto, Renê Medrado, Ricardo Becker and Vicente Coelho Araujo.
Most of the lawyers are based in the São Paulo head office, although smaller but active bases are maintained in Rio de Janeiro and Brasília. Pinheiro Neto recently became the first Brazilian firm to open offices in Palo Alto and Tokyo.
Alliances and networks
The firm is a core member of the prestigious Club de Abogados.