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Legal Market Overview

Overlaying the global uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, Bolivia’s political unrest was drawn out in 2020, with postponements to its general election following the overthrowing of Evo Morales’ government and the swearing-in of Jeanine Áñez as acting president. The election was finally held on October 18th 2020 and resulted in a landslide return to power for the Movement for Socialism (MAS) party, with Luis Arce elected president.

With the prolonged pandemic to manage, the country has not seen an immediate swing back to the socialist policies of previous MAS governments, but in February 2021 Arce did make a significant statement in returning an almost $350m loan to the IMF that had been obtained by Áñez’s regime. This had been framed as a loan to aid the country’s Covid-19 response but MAS judged the conditions of the loan to be economically disadvantageous and mismanaged by Áñez and her team.

This issue notwithstanding, the Bolivian economy is under significant pressure. The human cost of the pandemic includes tens of thousands of deaths, and the inevitable social and psychological impact comes amid the turbulent switch between political extremes. On top of this, the pandemic has weakened demand for Bolivia’s gas exports, with global gas prices [at the time of writing] also declining.

Poverty and unemployment rose through 2020 and Arce may need to attract new foreign investment to help the country recover. The administration has sought to tackle the economic crisis by taxing the wealthy, implementing a new tax on large fortunes. The discovery of a new natural gas field in December 2020 was also major news; the exploitation of the country’s natural resources looks set to remain a key part of the economic plan but there are obvious concerns around sustainability and environmental issues.

While there has been activity in various sectors from international and multinational companies, for the most part this has been in distressed M&A, restructurings or contractual disputes arising out of the pandemic. On a positive note and in a trend reflected in other jurisdictions in the region, agribusiness has remained strong, and the leading corporate law practices in the country were busy advising on international distribution agreements, although the pandemic has also led to an increase in contentious issues arising in relation to such accords.

Elsewhere in the legal market, labour and employment work was unsurprisingly dominated by issues arising from the State-imposed lockdown, with the country’s pro-employee legislation providing a challenge for firms’ corporate clients. The country’s first laws on working from home were also hastily implemented to deal with the shift in the employment landscape.

the most recent notable development in the legal market was Guevara & Gutiérrez S.C‘s March-2021 announcement of a tie-up with Dentons; prior to which, the July-2020 emergence of PPO Abogados was the market’s othe major development, leaving the firm of which it has formerly been a part,  Ferrere, to re-establish its presence and  full-service offering.

The market is otherwise little changed in terms of its key players. Moreno Baldivieso Estudio De Abogados, Indacochea & Asociados and Bufete Aguirre, Quintanilla, Soria & Nishizawa Sociedad Civil – (BAQSN) remain the other key full-service players, with C.R. & F. Rojas – Abogados and Serrate Paz y Asociados also keeping a strong presence across a range of practice areas. A relatively small number of boutique firms also make their presence felt – most notably in the labour, IP and tax markets.

Since publication, the Bolivian market has seen a novel entrant with the merger of local firm Bernal & Franco Abogados into Central American regional firm Aguilar Castillo Love, which also has an established office in Ecuador.