We are delighted to present the second edition of Who’s Who Legal: Central America – a comprehensive guide to the leading practitioners and law firms across 13 areas of business law in the region. The introductions below contextualise our findings and explore the diverse and distinct markets of each jurisdiction.
Belize is the smallest of the Central American countries and is thus one of the smallest consumer markets in the Central America and Caribbean regions. Its economy is heavily dependent on tourism and agriculture including the traditional exports of citrus, bananas and sugar cane.
The economy is set to benefit from the government’s recent announcement of plans to allow oil and gas exploration in 99 per cent of Belizean waters. This is forecast to bring considerable opportunities for foreign investment as well as a boost to the country’s export market. However, significant opposition has come from environmental groups who say this threatens the famous Great Blue Hole, a World Heritage Site and a major tourist attraction for the country.
Tourism accounts for half of the overall Belizean economy and the country was lucky to escape most of the economic impact of the Zika virus epidemic. Despite the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) declaring an international public health emergency surrounding the virus, tourism to Belize increased by 13 per cent in 2016.
However, Belize has been hard hit by the widespread destruction caused by Hurricane Earl, devastating around 2,000 homes and causing over US$100 million worth of damage. This has been a major factor behind the recent decline in the county’s GDP for the first time in five years, from $675 million in 2015 to $667 million in 2016.
Unlike some of its neighbours, the country does have a long history of peace, stability and democracy. The legal system is constructed on the common law of England and is the only country in the region with English as the official language. This makes the country a particularly attractive area of Central America for foreign investors and businesses who are already familiar with such legal processes, and who are drawn by the lack of communication barriers. Our research particularly highlights lawyers across the dispute resolution, intellectual property and private client sectors, from well-known firms including, among others, domestic outfits Barrow and Williams, and Courtenay Coye.
Costa Rica is one of the most stable, prosperous and progressive nations in Central America, and thus provides an attractive investment opportunity for businesses who see it as a “gateway” to additional development across the rest of the region.
In particular, the country has a reputation for its progressive environmental policies, being the only country to meet all five United National Development Plan (UNDP) criteria established to measure environmental sustainability. Costa Rica officially plans to become a carbon-neutral country by 2021, and so offers a ripe opportunity for companies looking to invest in the industries which will facilitate this. Renewable energy is one of the strongest industries in Costa Rica, with the country able to produce 98 per cent of its electricity without oil in 2016, although critics argue this statistic masks a growing demand for oil in the country.
It has a swiftly developing economy, and while areas such as agriculture, renewable energy and tourism all contribute to its robust economic position in the region, the country has diversified with recently developed sectors such as finance, pharmaceuticals, and ecotourism.
Costa Rica is known for its sophisticated legal market, with our research reflecting its significant capabilities across corporate, administrative and public law and financial law, as well as in industry sectors such as real estate. Our research highlights both regional and independent law firms, with the country achieving the highest number of listings in this edition.
Costa Rica is used as a launchpad into the region not only for corporate entities but also for large regional law firms who conduct a significant proportion of their work in the country. As a result, competition in the legal market remains fierce. Indeed 2016 saw a high-profile merger between Batalla Abogados and tax boutique Asesores Fiscales Corporativos to form Batalla Salto Luna. This is expected to intensify competition between other leading domestic firms including LLM Abogados, Sfera Legal and Zürcher, Odio & Raven – all of which continue to provide competitive pressure and boast a number of well-renowned lawyers featured in this edition.
The Dominican Republic is the largest economy in the Dominican Republic–Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) trade bloc and is a prominent trade partner within the Central American region. Rich in natural resources, boasting almost 6 per cent GDP growth last year and a current inflation rate of just below 3.5 per cent, the Dominican Republic has a robust market for both businesses and law firms, outperforming many of its competitors in the region. Foreign direct investment reached over US$2 billion in 2014, around 3 per cent of nominal GDP, and, according to the World Bank Group’s Doing Business report 2016, the country is among the top 15 economies for ease of doing business index in Latin American and the Caribbean (LAC).
Natural resources is one of the largest markets for law firms in the Dominican Republic; Barrick Gold Corporation, the largest gold mining company in the world, recently pumped almost US$4 billion into a gold mine in Pueblo Viejo, representing the largest investment in the country to date. Dispute resolution and real estate & construction are also strong areas. The legal market is a mix of strong national outfits and international players. Local firm Pellerano & Herrera comes out on top of our listings with eleven lawyers and Headrick Rizik Alvarez & Fernandez – with a Miami office to bolster their Santo Domingo offering – achieves eight listings. Central American law firms with a presence in the region are mostly absent in the Dominican Republic, but the inclusion of international firm Squire Patton Boggs illustrates the country’s more globally integrated legal market.
El Salvador continues its slow recovery from the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, which sent the annual GDP growth rate tumbling from 4.7 per cent and exacerbated enduring socio-economic problems such as poverty and unemployment. Almost 10 years on, the economy continues to make incremental improvements and, as in 2015, the annual GDP growth rate in 2016 was a slow and steady 2.4 per cent.
Sources have attributed this stunted rate of recovery to an assortment of regulatory and economic factors, including inconsistent regulatory application, gang violence and high levels of corruption, all of which have restricted market opportunities and competitiveness and have discouraged domestic and international investors. Despite recent progress, these factors remain a significant hindrance to further economic development and undercut the benefits of the country’s relatively open market and broad trade relationships.
International trade accounts for over two-thirds of El Salvador’s GDP, which has increased consistently over recent years and reached a record $25.85 billion in 2015. Particular industries of activity include food processing, textiles, petroleum and chemicals, and light metals.
However, the metal mining industry is now in the spotlight thanks to the Salvadorean government’s unanimous vote to impose a blanket ban on the activity, making it the first country in the world to introduce a complete national ban on mining. The decision comes months after the ICSID dismissed the merits of OceanaGold’s claim for US$250 million in compensation from the Salvadorean government following its refusal to provide the company with permits to dig in the El Dorado mine. Such a policy is sure to prompt changes within the legal market and economic climate as a whole, given that gold, iron, steel and aluminium are currently major commodity exports.
Regional giants Arias and Consortium Legal retain their dominance in the national market and wider Central American region, offering services across the board and demonstrating particular strength in corporate and financial matters. Domestic outfits Guandique Segovia Quintanilla and Romero Pineda & Asociados boast impressive reputations for excellence in the national arena, with a focus on integrated corporate advice across an array of sectors. Meanwhile Espino Nieto & Asociados is widely recognised for its expertise in IP matters and full-service firm Sáenz & Asociados is well known in the region for its considerable strength in arbitration proceedings.
Since the peace deal in 1996 that ended its 36-year civil war, Guatemala has emerged as the largest economy in the isthmus, with the largest nominal GDP in Latin America. As such, it has become a healthy and growing jurisdiction for law firms. Its GDP grew by 3.5 per cent in 2016 and inflation currently sits at around 4 per cent, making it a stable business environment. These are perhaps signs that comedian-turned-president Jimmy Morales has managed to return stability to a country rocked by the acrimonious resignation of former president Otto Pérez Molina and vice president Roxana Baldetti over corruption charges. However, Guatemala remains a poor nation with almost a quarter of its population living in absolute poverty, meaning that its legal services market is tailored towards international corporations and financial institutions with a small middle market. Attempts by the country to shake off associations with corruption will take time; according to a recent study by Transparency International it ranks as fourth highest for corruption in the Americas, below only Nicaragua, Haiti and Venezuela.
Corporate law and the finance sector remain the dominant areas, with labour, employment and immigration law, dispute resolution and intellectual property also strong. National firms such as Mayora & Mayora, Arenales & Skinner Klée and the recently established QIL +4 Abogados perform well. However, in a change from last year’s results regional powerhouse Consortium Legal emerges with the greatest number of lawyers with 12 listings, suggesting that Guatemalan national firms are now seeing genuine competition from more integrated regional players.
Honduras continues to face many challenges when it comes to attracting business and foreign investment, due not only to its position as the second poorest country in Central America but also as one that suffers from widespread violence, crime and unrest. President Juan Orlando Hernández has taken steps in recent years to tackle its extreme poverty, corruption and poor fiscal situation, and over the last year or so the country has witnessed some improvements, most notably with its 3.6 per cent GDP growth.
Furthermore, as a member of the Dominican Republic-Central America-Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), it would seem that the country is well placed for companies looking to expand and further their business interests in the region. The country’s largest trade partner by far is the US, with whom it had $10 billion worth of two way goods trade in 2015.
The country’s small economy leaves little room for specialisation in the legal world which is reflected in our research – the majority of Honduran practitioners are highlighted for their work in broader practice areas including corporate, finance and administrative and public law.
The legal market is dominated by regional law firms who make up over 70 per cent of the country’s listings in our research this year. However, some local outfits do also feature – most notably Bufete Melara & Asociados, placed in the top three firms in the country. Regional heavyweights include Consortium Legal, the newly formed Arias and Aguilar Castillo Love for whom Honduras makes up a part of their extensive regional networks. They stand out for their first-rate expertise handling corporate, finance, dispute resolution and administrative and public law matters. The diverse Honduran legal landscape also encompasses boutique firms, such as IP specialists Bufete Mejia & Asociados. Although the majority of the country’s legal work is conducted in the capital Tegucigalpa, some local firms also boast a presence in the second largest city, San Pedro Sula.
Nicaragua is the largest country by area in Central America and has a population of 6 million people. The country’s economy continues on its upward trajectory, following an all-time high in 2015 with a GDP of $12.69 billion; the trend is forecast to continue into 2017.
The country’s recent elections in November 2016 resulted in the reappointment of Daniel Ortega as president. The government’s previous record includes strong economic growth as well as social programmes which have reduced poverty by almost 13 percentage points. In addition Nicaragua largely enjoys a low level of crime, compared with that suffered by many of its Central American neighbours. Despite this, the election has been marred by allegations of corruption as opposition leaders accuse the election of being the most rigged contest in four decades.
The controversial Nicaraguan Canal project remains an issue in the country. As one of the world’s most ambitious engineering projects, it is an indication of Nicaragua’s position as a desirable investment opportunity for overseas clients – particularly, in this case, from Asia. Intended as a superior rival to the Panama Canal, it is forecast to greatly increase trade in the region by allowing the world’s largest ships to pass through the isthmus between the Pacific and the Atlantic, as well as create thousands of jobs. However, it is not yet known when work on the Canal will actually begin, and conservationists continue to protest that the dredging and potential blasting of the lake could result in immense damage to ecosystems and freshwater supplies.
Our research features lawyers across an impressive 11 different practice areas, with many highlighted particularly for their work in corporate, administrative and public and finance law. Regional firms including Arias & Muñoz, Consortium Legal and Central Law have a strong presence in the country alongside domestic firms, offering clients the benefit of both local and international legal expertise.
For the past decade, Panama has enjoyed a prominent position as one of the fastest-growing economies worldwide. An average annual growth rate of 7.2 per cent – built on the solid foundations of a highly developed services sector - the economic benefits of the Panama Canal and longstanding inbound interest in the country’s firmly established financial services industry has made Panama a fertile environment in which its law firms can do business. That said, the failure of the US$5.5 billion expansion of the Panama Canal to provide much-needed economic stimulus, and the unprecedented Panama Papers scandal, have together led to a deceleration in the country’s GDP, and concomitantly, uncertainty in the legal market.
Given the importance of the Panama Canal, it is unsurprising that the country’s lawyers excel in our transport section, with corporate, finance, intellectual property and private client also proving to be prominent areas. Panamanian-based international full-service firms perform particularly well in this year’s research, with Morgan & Morgan, Arias Fábrega & Fábrega, Alemán Cordero Galindo & Lee and Galindo Arias y Lopez dominating the market thanks to their local expertise and international networks. Such networks include key offshore, American, Asian and European offices. These outward-facing firms handle cross-border matters and advise international clients on the intricacies of Panama’s tax and legal systems, and thanks to their longstanding pedigree, appear to have secured their market share despite regional competitors.
In this year’s chapter, we recognise 42 of the region’s leading practitioners specialising in administrative and public law.
We identify 17 leading practitioners in the region who are highlighted for their exceptional work handling an array of complex investigations, litigation and transactional matters in the area.
This edition features 95 of the leading corporate practitioners in the region, who are identified for their exceptional expertise advising corporates on all legal aspects relating to M&A transactions, as well as advising corporate executives on governance issues.
In this chapter, we recognise 22 of the region’s finest corporate tax specialists. The featured lawyers are recognised for their experience advising companies, shareholders and financial institutions on issues of tax optimisation and regulatory matters.
We highlighted 61 practitioners in this chapter for their expertise and experience handling a range of disputes including litigation and arbitration. These practitioners act for major clients involved in disputes across Central America and globally.
We recognise 76 of Central America’s leading finance lawyers this year. The list includes banking specialists, transactions experts and lawyers with expertise in project financing and capital markets.
We feature 20 pre-eminent practitioners from across the region who are recognised for their extensive commercial experience in franchise establishment, development and regulation alongside expertise in distribution matters
In this chapter, we feature 55 of the region’s leading IP lawyers. The practitioners listed in the following pages specialise in all areas of IP law, including trademark, patent and copyright enforcement, and anti-counterfeiting, as well as for the commercialisation of IP rights. Below we list the most highly regarded individuals and firms.
In this section, we recognise 31 practitioners with leading practices in labour, employment and immigration law across the region. Their work involves both collective and individual cases in the private and public sector and includes bargaining, administrative issues, working processes and corporate immigration and the treatment of expatriate employees.
This year’s research highlights 24 leading practitioners from across the Central American region who are respected for their top-quality client services and strength in advisory, transactional and dispute resolution capacities relating to natural resources. All of the lawyers listed below possess wide-ranging experience spanning industries including mining, oil and gas and renewables.
In this chapter, we recognise 24 of Central America’s leading private client lawyers. The practitioners featured in this chapter have a proven track record assisting high net worth individuals, families, trustees, family businesses and charities in the areas of wills and succession planning, trusts and estates, residence and domicile and probate. Panamanian lawyers continue to dominate the listings given the country’s favourable tax regime for international high net worth individuals.
Our research identifies 28 leading lawyers who have a proven track record in providing advice to clients including tenants, investors and developers regarding all aspects of buying, selling, letting, developing and managing real estate. Below we highlight the most highly regarded individuals in Central America.
We identify 37 leading lawyers who excel in aviation, shipping and rail law, and are known for their exceptional work handling financing, logistics, transactions, insurance and crisis management matters.
We list 124 law firms in WWL: Central America 2017; however, more than 40 per cent of the listings this year are earned by lawyers from 10 outstanding regional firms, illustrating the dominant position of domestic outfits in the market. We have profiled the leading firms below, showcasing the strengths of their practice and the expertise of their practitioners.
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Nominees have been selected based upon comprehensive, independent survey work with both general counsel and private practice lawyers worldwide. Only specialists who have met independent international research criteria are listed.