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Legal market overview
Colombia has undergone far-reaching social, economic and political transformations over the course of the last decade and these processes continue. While foreign business interest in Colombia remains very healthy, the strength of economic activity forecast has not fully materialised due to a number of factors. Perhaps foremost is the limited number of new infrastructure projects actually initiated, robbing the economy of a motor that would have driven both economic and legal activity in multiple sectors. It remains to be seen if these will begin before elections scheduled for mid-2014. Mining sector activity, too, has remained limited, awaiting the establishment of an effective new regulatory and administrative body. The government has been far from idle (see the reforms, below), but has also had the extraordinary distraction of peace talks, upon the success of which, the country’s medium-to-long term growth and security depend. Despite these difficulties, the business market –and with it, legal activity– has remained relatively dynamic, with considerable transactional activity, such as Carrefour’s $2.6bn sale of its Colombian holdings to Cencosud, holding centre stage.
With the implementation of the US-Colombian free trade agreement (May 2012), firms have sought to prepare themselves for increased trade with the US, and a new axis of commercial activity, focused upon the country’s northern coast, is evident. Full-service firm prietocarrizosa opened a new office in Barranquilla last year, and leading labour boutique Godoy Cordoba Abogados recently followed suit. The FTA has also had a number of unforeseen outcomes, most notably in the labour sector where, at US insistence, the agreement enshrines union rights. Reform and liberalisation is occurring in other sectors too: in the dispute resolution sector, courts are in the process of moving from written to oral procedures, while the arbitral codes, both domestic and international, have been reformed to bring them more in line with international norms. With domestic arbitrations at the Bogotá Chamber of Commerce growing approximately 40% year-on-year from 2011 to 2012, these are timely modifications. If the arbitral reforms have been well received, reactions to reforms in the tax sector have been somewhat more circumspect. In the IP sector, where the FTA has brought the Madrid Protocol into effect, a controversial new copyright law is likely to be declared unconstitutional. In the insurance sector, Law 1328 (2009) came in to force in July 2013 substantially liberalising the market; and in the competition arena, stronger enforcement has been interrupted by the resignation of José Miguel de la Calle as Superintendent of Industry and Trade.
The arrival of new international players notwithstanding, the market remains firmly dominated by what has been dubbed the Colombian ‘magic circle’, comprising four prestigious full-service firms: Brigard & Urrutia, Gómez-Pinzón Zuleta, Posse Herrera Ruiz and prietocarrizosa. If the former pair long enjoyed a slight edge in corporate and financial matters, there is certainly a suggestion that the latter, in turn, enjoy a similar advantage in projects work, and to a degree, in the energy sector too. On their shoulder, sits a second group of, generally smaller, full-service firms, led by Cárdenas & Cárdenas Abogados and the ever-present Baker & McKenzie Colombia S.A., but also including Lloreda Camacho & Co., Sanclemente Fernández Abogados S.A. and Cavelier Abogados. Recent market arrivals Norton Rose Fulbright and Holland & Knight LLP, are both seeking to develop genuine full-service capability in the local market. And while the much rumoured ‘invasion’ of numerous other full-service firms has not, as yet, fully materialised, Garrigues has moved swiftly to open a Bogotá office (planned as the first of a number in the region); and various boutiques have developed alliances to strengthen their market positions: De la Torre & Monroy with DAC Beachcroft LLP in the insurance sector; and Godoy & Hoyos Abogados with Ryan in the tax sector. Such developments have had their costs: having lost a number of lawyers to start up Castro, Leiva, Rendón & Criales in 2011, the recent departure of founding partner Luis Carlos Neira and his team to Norton Rose Fulbright marks the end of Holguín Neira & Pombo Abogados.
Within this changing scenario, the boutique sector remains vibrant. The additional legal requirements around much big-ticket work (particularly environmental and community issues) have made it more difficult for such firms to participate in major transactions and financings, although some, notably Martínez Neira Abogados and Rodríguez Azuero Abogados, continue to do so. At the same time, such shifts have opened new specialist sub-areas which boutiques can frequently explore more fully than their generalist competitors: Durán & Osorio Abogados Asociados and Palacios Lleras, for example, on work relating to the state and, along with Muñoz Tamayo & Asociados, in certain aspects of projects work. Certainly boutiques continue to occupy the role of protagonists in a whole range of sectors: Esguerra Barrera Arriaga in competition; Araujo Ibarra & Asociados S.A and Ibarra Abogados in international trade; OlarteMoure in IP; Godoy Cordoba Abogados in labour; Pinilla, Gonzalez & Prieto in real estate; and Lewin & Wills, Abogados in tax, among others.