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This Special Report covers 17 practice areas.

This will search all specialists in Central America.

Central America In Brief

We are delighted to present the third edition of Who’s Who Legal: Central America – a comprehensive guide to the leading practitioners and law firms across 17 areas of business law in the region. The introductions below contextualise our findings and explore the diverse and distinct markets of each jurisdiction.

Belize

With a population of 367,000, Belize is the smallest country in Central America. The economy is fuelled mainly by tourism, agriculture and the exporting of sugar, banana and citrus. Annual GDP growth has been sluggish, hitting just one per cent in 2015 and shrinking in 2016. However, it rebounded in 2017 with 2.5 per cent growth.

Belize’s GDP per capita is one of the highest in the region at US$8,300. However, the economy is characterised by severe income inequality and high unemployment rates. An estimated 41 per cent of the population live below the poverty line. Combatting this is an important objective of the Belizean government, which has taken steps to increase access to safe drinking water and promote school enrolment and literacy rates.

Despite Belize’s struggling domestic economy, the uptick in the global economy has gone some way towards aiding it, driving an increase in tourism. According to one lawyer we spoke to this year, “The growing global economy and uptick in tourism has helped with foreign investment in Belize, particularly in relation to real estate investment.” Belize’s democratic and peaceful history, as well as English being its official language, make it an attractive destination for international investors.

Belize is also a member of the CARICOM economic union, a group of 20 developing countries with the objective of enhancing economic integration and coordinating foreign policy. A network of free-trade agreements provides Belize with access to markets within the Union. Nevertheless, the US and Mexico are the country’s biggest trade partners.

The country’s legal market is made up primarily of domestic firms. While it has several national outfits that are widely respected for their top-quality work, including Arguelles & Company and Courtenay Coye, international firms operating in Belize do not feature in our listings and regional firms are similarly sparse.


Costa Rica

Economic growth and long-standing political stability have led to Costa Rica developing one of the most sophisticated legal markets within the region. In recent years the country has proved an attractive destination for international investors, contributing to its steadily growing economy. Costa Rica has long since acted as a springboard for multinational corporations looking to expand into other countries in Central America, lending it a strategic position within the region. Amid growing concern over the country’s tax deficit and uncertainty surrounding the general election, moving into its second round at the time of writing, lawyers across Costa Rica have nevertheless noted an uptick in work, reporting that 2017 was still a “very strong year for international transactions”.

Costa Rica is considered to have “perhaps the deepest legal market in Central America” and our research reflects the impressive size and quality of its legal services industry. Practitioners across the region are widely recognised for their strength in administrative and public law; corporate law; banking and finance; and, thanks to a booming tourism industry, sectors such as real estate.

As demand for legal services continues to increase, practitioners have reported “a lot of movement between law firms over the past year”, generating fierce levels of market competition. Notably, the start of 2018 was the completion of the high-profile merger between leading regional law firm Pacheco Coto and EY Law, bolstering the international firm’s corporate offering within the region. This follows on from the successful rebranding of Arias and launch of Dentons Muñoz, following the decoupling of Arias & Muñoz in late 2016. Such commoditisation within the market adds to the already intense competition between other leading firms in the region, including regional players BLP and Consortium Legal, as well as domestic outfit Facio & Cañas, which all rank prominently across our research this year.


Dominican Republic

The Dominican Republic straddles the Central American and Caribbean markets, remaining the largest economy in that region. It continues to benefit from the Dominican Republic–Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) and its GDP, while growing more slowly than the 7.1 per cent annual rate it saw between 2014 and 2016, is still expected to increase by 5 per cent in 2018, with no signs of slowing down in the coming years.

Natural resources form a large part of the country’s exports; it is the location of the Pueblo Viejo mine, the second-largest gold mine in the world. The energy, environment and natural resources sectors remain highly active, creating plenty of work for lawyers, alongside the jurisdiction’s burgeoning real estate sector, which is driving a 4 per cent growth in the country’s economy. Our research has shown that the intellectual property markets are also increasingly active, as greater specialisation and regulation begin to appear.

The Dominican Republic has no trouble attracting the attention of foreign investors as well as enjoying a lot of domestic investment, leading to a diverse legal market catering for a wide range of firms. Top regional and national firms such as Headrick Rizik Alvarez & Fernandez and Russin & Vecchi are highly sought after by multinational and regional clients, allowing international outfits such as Squire Patton Boggs to capitalise on US and foreign companies looking to do business in the country.


El Salvador

Despite being the smallest of the Central American nations, El Salvador boasts the region’s fourth largest economy. It was the first nation to sign up to the DR-CAFTA free trade agreement and the ensuing years have seen growth for the manufacturing sector, with 2017’s industrial production expanding by 2 per cent. Much of the goods imported into the country are sent to maquiladoras ready to be re-exported to international markets. The employment this industry provides is improving standards of living. GDP per capita has grown year on year from US$8,600 in 2015 to US$8,900 in the most recent fiscal year.

Despite this growth, the country is still heavily reliant on foreign aid and remittances from abroad to sustain its economy. The reverberations of the international financial crisis that began in 2008 are still being felt. GDP, while growing, is barely half what it was pre-crisis and, in a sign that business is slower than hoped, the government is discussing plans to lower the threshold for merger notifications.

Since market privatisation in the 1990s, the services sector has proliferated rapidly. In 2017 it accounted for 64.9 per cent of GDP. The market for small-to-medium-sized loans has increased in recent years, with foreign investors being particularly prevalent. This is reflected in the strong performance of the Salvadorean legal market’s corporate and finance sectors.

El Salvador’s legal market is still growing but is comprised mostly of regional firms. Arias has performed well after its split (its other half merged with international law firm Dentons to become Dentons Muñoz). Local firm Romero Pineda & Asociados also comes out strongly. Our research highlights the increasing breadth of El Salvador’s legal market, with corporate, banking and finance and intellectual property all emerging as practice areas in which Salvadorean law firms perform strongly.


Guatemala

Guatemala is the most populous country in Central America with over 15 million inhabitants. Recent years have seen the economy enjoy sustained growth, with the latest figures showing a 3.4 per cent increase in GDP in 2017. The recovery in the US economy is also improving the health of Guatemala’s in turn – it is the country’s leading source of foreign investment and accounts for US$5.8 billion of its exports.

However, underlying problems in the Guatemalan economy have yet to be fully addressed: 23 per cent of the population lives in extreme poverty and, despite increased foreign direct investment in the wake of its participation in the DR-CAFTA free trade agreement, a lack of skills and infrastructure continue to prevent sustained development.

Mining in Guatemala has recently made headlines as President Jimmy Morales has announced that the Escobal silver mine is to cease production. Moves like these have become increasingly common in the region, with a similar mine closed in El Salvador only last year. This is likely to have ramifications for natural resources lawyers in the region, as disputes over the legality of the closure escalate in the coming months.

Guatemala retains strong corporate, and banking and finance markets according to our research. Fintech is cited by sources as an increasingly important sector in the region, although financial regulation remains sparse.

The legal landscape is dominated by Guatemalan firms with sources noting a healthy presence of international clients, suggesting that the country continues to be viewed as a valuable place to do business. Leading national firms Carrillo y Asociados and QIL+4 Abogados both performed well this year across a range of fields, demonstrating that there is a strong collection of homegrown legal talent.


Honduras

As the second-poorest country in Central America, Honduras continues to struggle to attract business and diversify its economy. Following the deposition of President Manual Zelaya in 2009, the jurisdiction has endeavoured to strengthen its political infrastructure while working to tackle increasing crime rates, driving demand for legal services in these areas.

Honduras is part of the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) which facilitates crucial trade with the United States. It also increased its exports from US$6.7 billion in 2010 to US$8.3 billion in 2015 and has seen its GDP grow annually since 2009. Foreign direct investment fell from US$1.4 billion to US$1 billion in 2016 due to a rocky domestic climate; however, that remains a significant proportion of GDP. National GDP floats around US$21.5 billion.

The unstable climate for foreign investors and poor infrastructure mean that the diet of law firms is predominantly made up of domestic work, allowing regional outfits such as Aguilar Castillo Love, BLP, Arias and Consortium Legal to thrive. The country is also home to boutique firms such as intellectual property specialists Bufete Mejia & Asociados, demonstrating that its legal platform is beginning to diversify. However, the legal market is quite domestic and concentrated - international firms have yet to make inroads in our listings, and all but Bufete Mejia & Asociados are based in the capital, Tegucigalpa.


Nicaragua

Nicaragua’s economy has performed well this year, while sources also expressed optimism about the coming years. The country’s GDP, which evaded the worst effects of the 2008 financial crisis, has been on a consistent upwards trajectory in the years since, gives good reason for confidence as it reached its highest level in history once again this year and currently stands at US$13.23 billion.

The Nicaraguan government actively promotes foreign investment and offers a number of tax incentives to companies, particularly in the mining and tourism industries. However, allegations of corruption and deficiencies in the rule of law remain a source of concern for potential investors. Nevertheless, interviewees have reported a “real estate boom” in the retail and commercial property arenas, a thriving energy sector with several solar projects coming to market and a busy year for banking transactions involving foreign banks.

Progress on the heavily contested Nicaraguan Canal project – which would result in a 276km canal linking the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean – have stalled as Chinese investors have instead renewed their attentions elsewhere in South America, following a thaw in relations with some of Nicaragua’s neighbours.

Nicaragua has one of the best-established legal markets in the Central American region and is home to a number of strong players. It is also diverse, with leading Nicaraguan firms such as García & Bodán standing alongside eminent regional firms such as Consortium Legal and Arias, who are attracted by Nicaragua’s strong economy and high levels of market activity. The market is small, with a limited number of firms able to handle large-scale matters, but one source reported: “There is certainly enough work to go around.”


Panama

Panama continues to illustrate its importance as a legal hub in the region in our research this year, with over a quarter of the total listings in this edition achieved by domestic lawyers.

Despite the Panama Papers scandal in 2016, the country has since recovered and succeeded in promoting itself as a strong jurisdiction in which to invest as well as the high expertise of its legal community. The recently expanded Panama Canal has continued to draw in significant investment and transactional work for national outfits, bolstering the country’s already robust shipping market. Panama also made a significant political move in 2017 establishing relations with China, the second biggest user of the Panama Canal after the US, with many Chinese companies also investing in ports in Panama. The economic importance of the Canal in Panama means that it is a great source of work for the legal community across a range of practice areas including transport, insurance and corporate finance.

The country boasts a healthy selection of national firms whose presence mainly spans the Panamanian market. Traditional heavyweights include Arias Fábrega & Fábrega, Morgan & Morgan, Galindo Arias & López, Alemán Cordero Galindo & Lee and Patton Moreno & Asvat. Many of these outfits when expanding further afield have looked beyond the region, with some establishing offices in key global financial centres such as London, Hong Kong, Geneva and Beijing.  

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Analysis: Central America

Central America: Administrative & Public Law 2018

This chapter sees 45 practitioners nominated for their excellent work handling a range of public law matters including public-private partnerships, free trade zones matters and public procurement.

Central America: Asset Recovery 2018

In this chapter we highlight nine individuals from the region who are noted for their exceptional work in the field of asset recovery, assisting domestic and international clients with the tracing and recovery of assets.

Central America: Aviation 2018

This year we recognise 17 leading aviation lawyers in the Central American market who stand out for their work handling a range of financial, regulatory and contentious matters including aircraft purchase, leasing and financing, competition matters and major disaster claims.

Central America: Banking, Finance and Projects 2018

In this chapter we identify 84 leading practitioners in Central America who stand out for their exceptional expertise across the finance, banking and projects spaces.

Central America: Competition 2018

In this section we identify 20 leading lawyers who stand out for their expertise handling a wide range of competition law matters including antitrust investigations, transactional matters and regulatory issues.

Central America: Corporate 2018

In this chapter we highlight 103 leading corporate lawyers who have been recommended by peers and clients alike for their expertise spanning private M&A, public takeovers, joint ventures and corporate governance issues. 

Central America: Corporate Tax 2018

This year 19 leading figures are recommended for their in-depth knowledge and expertise of corporate tax, including advising national and international clients on both advisory and contentious matters.

Central America: Data, Telecoms & Media 2018

In our inaugural chapter for this practice area, 15 practitioners across five jurisdictions are recognised in our research this year for the impressive work they have engaged in. Regulation and transactional matters are prominent areas of focus for many of those highlighted in the region.

Central America: Dispute Resolution 2018

This chapter sees 70 practitioners listed for their exceptional work in the field of dispute resolution. These individuals advise and represent clients in both litigation and arbitration proceedings across the region and globally. 

Central America: Environment, Energy and Natural Resources 2018

Here we shine the spotlight on 20 lawyers who are considered standout names in the fields of energy and natural resources and environmental law, and are highlighted for their work advising clients on range of regulatory issues, transactions, compliance matters and disputes.

Central America: Franchise and Distribution 2018

In this chapter, we highlight 17 leading lawyers. Many of the individuals listed here boast general corporate practices, and all are regularly engaged in issues related to franchise and distribution.

Central America: Insurance and Reinsurance 2018

In this chapter we highlight nine first-rate insurance and reinsurance lawyers. The individuals listed here have been highly recommended by peers and clients alike for their expertise in contentious and non-contentious matters including coverage disputes, compliance and transactional matters.

Central America: Intellectual Property 2018

Fifty-five standout practitioners are recognised across the region for their work in the field of intellectual property, with expertise spanning trademarks and patent prosecution, enforcement, oppositions, anti-counterfeiting, as well as the commercialisation of IP rights and contentious disputes arising from such matters.

Central America: Labour, Employment & Immigration 2018

This year 34 leading lights are recognised in the fields of labour, employment and immigration law. Those listed have wide-ranging expertise handling collective and individual matters in both the public and private sector including treatment of workers, restrictive covenants, transfers of undertakings, collective bargaining agreements and team moves.

Central America: Private Client 2018

In this section, we recognise 30 outstanding private client lawyers for their expertise assisting high-net-worth individuals, families and businesses with a wide range of matters, including domestic and international taxation issues, wealth and succession planning, trusts and estates.

Central America: Real Estate & Construction 2018

Twenty-six leading names are listed for their expertise in real estate and construction finance, procurement, regulation, funds and disputes in both the public and private sector.

Central America: Shipping 2018

This year we highlight 17 standout shipping lawyers across Central America for their impressive work handling sector-related contractual and financial matters, as well as disputes and casualty cases. 

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Firm Profiles: Central America

2018: Leading Firms

In this edition we list 136 law firms; however, 10 standout regional outfits achieve more than 40 per cent of the total listings this year, demonstrating the depth of expertise on offer at domestic firms. Here we profile the leading firms across the Central American market.

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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.

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