Panamanian lawyers reported in early-2015 that one of the staples of their practices – offshore work – was facing crackdowns in the US, the EU and elsewhere. Then, in 2016, external pressure and public perception of the nation’s offshore legal market took a historically sharp turn for the worse.
The nation’s legal system came under fire in April 2016 when news organizations around the world published approximately 11.5 million files leaked from the Panama City-headquartered law firm Mossack Fonseca. The documents show that some the world’s most wealthy and powerful individuals — business moguls and politicians — have ties to offshore companies, allegedly in order to hide assets and avoid taxes. Ultimately, the so-called “Panama Papers” revealed more than 214,000 offshore entities connected to at least 140 politicians and public officials throughout more than 200 countries and territories, according to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). Mossack Fonseca has denied any wrongdoing, and shortly after the leak occurred, the firm released a statement explaining that it’s not aware of, or involved in, the inner-workings of the shell companies it helps create. ‘Excluding the professional fees we earn, we don’t take possession or custody of clients’ money, or have anything to do with any of the direct financial aspects related to operating these businesses’, the statement reads.
Despite this spotlight-stealing scandal, Panama’s macroeconomic indicators remain immensely positive and the nation continues to boast one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. International businesses increasingly view the country as the main business hub in Central America and a gateway to South America. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increased an estimated 6.2 per cent to reach $46.21bn in 2014, and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the country went from approximately $1bn in 2009 to more than $5bn in 2014, according to the World Bank. Meanwhile, the real estate boom has continued in full-force and many Panamanian lawyers are assisting with the development of high-end condominiums, beachfront resorts and other luxury mixed-use properties. Major infrastructure projects, including the Panama Canal expansion and re-development of the city’s Old Quarter, have also resulted in significant Panama-based work for lawyers around the world.
Most complex, cross-border, big-money legal matters are handled by Alemán, Cordero, Galindo & Lee, Arias, Fábrega & Fábrega, Galindo, Arias & López, and Morgan & Morgan. These leading firms employ numerous US-educated lawyers who have experience working in multiple jurisdictions and are sensitive to the needs of international clients. Typical work of late includes transactions and disputes related to banking and finance, real estate, construction, intellectual property, M&A and day-to-day corporate matters.
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