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Don’t fall behind in Latin America

This blog first appeared in the Law Society Gazette on 12th September 2014.

If you know your Spanish corporate law firms, it won’t seem surprising that Uría Menéndez is the firm behind Latin America’s first cross-border law firm – which takes the name Philippi, Prietocarrizosa & Uría, as reported earlier this week.

Commercial interest in Latin American economies is keen, and assumption has long been that interested foreign businesses should go via firms in the Iberian Peninsula, or the US.

But the next tie-ups or associations to make headlines could – should, I’d argue – involve UK law firms, who need to be less defeatist about their ability to access Latin America as a legal market.

Researching a business development White Paper last year, the lawyers I spoke to acknowledged that UK law firms were behind on building Latin America links, but not fatally so.

Co-writing the foreword, Peters & Peters’ managing partner Keith Oliver, and Alejandro Huneeus, from Chile’s Morales y Besa, said: ‘The potential to tap into Latin America’s economic growth is being underexploited by UK law firms.’

Latin American lawyers and clients acknowledged legal excellence in London, they continued, but concluded: ‘Translating that expertise and experience into more instructions sometimes requires creative thinking from UK LLP.’

A roundtable discussion on the White Paper, held at the fringes of the American Bar Association conference in London, covered by the Gazette, was standing room only – reflecting the potential here – but attendees from UK, US and Latin American firms concluded ‘UK law firms are 15 to 20 years behind where they need to be to take advantage of the economic growth and investment potential of South America’.

UK firms tended to be put off by barriers of language, culture and contacts – obstacles that many of the firms there knew to be surmountable.

Professionals from countries like China and Japan are being less reticent, it emerged, and competition from them and their clients is very real in Latin America. Ambitious UK firms need not lose out – but they do need to make a start.

Lawyers – from eight-partner Peters & Peters to international giant Latham & Watkins – identified some tips.

First, to think properly about the full list of instructions that could flow from economic activity in Latin America – not all were big projects, but plenty were ancillary areas from creating trusts and corporate structures, to advice on regulatory investigations, use of the high court, private client work and immigration.

Secondly, they had to invest time in making personal contacts – efforts that bridged the cultural divide, and some help with any linguistic gap. Anglo-Saxon dealmaking styles can seem unsettling brusque by Latin American corporate standards.

Thirdly, they had to think about explaining cost. UK lawyers, the Latin American professionals noted, spent too much time demonstrating their world-beating excellence in contact they had with them. Instead they had to realise that with accepted excellence came the expectation of a Rolls-Royce price tag.

On this last point, when the stress was on value and transparency, the price-perception barrier to business got lower.

Doable, then, but UK firms need to recognise that progress here won’t just happen to them – they need to get active and engaged.

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