Legal Market Overview
One year on in the presidency of Iván Duque, Colombia is in an enviable position compared to many other jurisdictions in the region; while his election victory was narrow and there remain certain mid-to-long term preoccupations on the economic front, the country nevertheless enjoys an enviable degree of political and economic stability. With the demise of the Venezuelan economy, Colombia has become one of the main destinations for those fleeing the Maduro dictatorship – since September 2018 over 1.2 millon have arrived – and, to a lesser degree, its business activity and capital.
While economic challenges including high public debt and low productivity remain a preoccupation and a political priority, the country has nevertheless weathered the 2014-16 slump in oil prices better than many predicted and the hydrocarbons sector is now benefitting from the government’s push to attract new international investment to finance further development. To that end – and after consultation with key sector participants – regulator ANH has modified its contracts for offshore oil-and-gas exploration, relaunched bidding for more than 20 possible concessions, and launched a permanent bidding process.
The economy expanded by 2.7% in 2018 – a considerable increase from the 1.4% registered in 2017 – and the growth trend is expected to remain positive during the 2019-21 period as a result of strengthening private consumption and increased investment expenditure boosted by lower corporate taxes. The development of infrastructure projects will also play its part; while the future of many projects was thrown into doubt in the immediate wake of the Odebrecht (Lava Jato) corruption scandal, there has since been a significant pick-up in the execution of existing projects and a notable increase in the number of successful financial closings for projects.
Although the Colombian legal market registered the notable departure of Norton Rose Fulbright, the event has not unduly shaken the established market structure: the legal scene continues to register the advance of firms challenging the dominance of the so-called traditional ‘big four’ full-service firms – Brigard Urrutia, Gómez-Pinzón Abogados (GPA), Philippi Prietocarrizosa Ferrero DU & Uría and Posse Herrera Ruiz. While their standing remains largely undisputed (except perhaps by Baker McKenzie S.A.S.), there has nevertheless been a degree of re-accommodation: ‘national champion’ Brigard has emerged as primus inter pares, while each of its competitors has engaged in differing types of regional or transnational association. GPA has sought to expand the scope of its regional activity with the longstanding Affinitas alliance, and PHR retains its relationship – and attendant network possibilities – with Spanish firm Cuatrecasas. As for PPU, in addition to betting on the region through the group’s offices in Chile, Peru and a long-promised but now reputedly imminent tie-up in Mexico, the Bogotá office undertook perhaps the most important market moves of 2019 by incorporating two independent boutiques, strengthening its environmental and white-collar capabilities with the absorption of (corporate environmental law-focused) Macías Gómez Abogados and (corporate criminal and compliance-focused) Forero Ramírez Abogados; as result, the firm has three new partners.
Among the market’s global players, Baker McKenzie S.A.S. is very much on the heels of the market leaders, closely followed by Dentons Cardenas & Cardenas and, increasingly, DLA Piper Martinez Beltrán. The local office of Spanish giant Garrigues has consolidated its position, growing its corporate and tax teams, while CMS Rodríguez-Azuero is also a developing presence. However, in a demonstration of the degree of the competitiveness of the Colombian market, February 2019 saw the departure of Norton Rose Fulbright from the jurisdiction, with senior partner Leopoldo Olavarria relocating to the firm’s Mexico City office as part of a refocusing of its Latin America practice on Brazil and Mexico. The Anglo-American firm was hit hard by the depth of its focus – in Colombia – on the mining sector, which has endured virtual paralysis in recent years as a result of environmental and community challenges to project development, as well as other legal uncertainties. Indeed, the office had already suffered the October 2017 departure of five members of the energy and natural resources department – led by Jorge Neher – to the above mentioned Dentons Cardenas & Cardenas, and Holland & Knight also took advantage of the office’s subsequent demise by hiring oil-and-gas area director Inés Elvira Vesga and labour practice leader Isabella Gandini – both as senior counsels – in March 2019.
In the local market, mid-sized firms with a broad (if not full) service offering – such as Muñoz Tamayo & Asociados, Palacios Lleras and Medellín-based Contexto Legal Abogados – continue to offer stiff competition to their more sizeable and/or international rivals; some have long-standing reputations in particular fields such as Lloreda Camacho & Co. in IP and Esguerra Asesores Jurídicos in competition. Nevertheless, specialisation continues to pay and boutiques continue to boom, with a significant market share taken by the likes of Suescún Abogados in dispute resolution and ZULETA Abogados Asociados S.A.S in arbitration and international public law; Ibarra Abogados and JAECKEL/MONTOYA ABOGADOS in competition; Durán & Osorio Abogados Asociados and Arrieta Mantilla & Asociados in construction, infrastructure and projects; Sanclemente Fernández Abogados S.A. in oil, gas and energy; Araújo Ibarra Consultores Internacionales in international trade; and Cavelier Abogados and OlarteMoure in IP.