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Legal Market Overview

Over two years on since the election of Ivan Duque as president, Colombia finds itself facing multiple crisis with the economic slump derived from the Covid-19 pandemic widening social divisions, fuelling unrest, while increased concerns about the excessive use of coercive force by the state security forces during the country’s lockdown has received international attention. The Supreme Court urged the Duque government to apologise for its handling of the social protests that broke out in late 2019.

Both the political and judicial spheres were shocked in August when a house arrest order against ex-president Alvaro Uribe was issued for allegedly engaging in witness tampering (in an attempt to discredit statements tying the former president to right-wing paramilitary organisations). It has been left to Colombia’s Supreme Court to establish whether a judge or the attorney general’s office is responsible for deciding the future of Uribe. Given the former president’s proximity to, and political patronage of Duque, instrumental to the latter’s victory, the matter has nevertheless increased political tensions.

A sharp increase in violence against social, political and community leaders has also brought increasing criticism from the international community and non-governmental organisations demanding action to stop the deaths. According to a study by the Electoral Observation Mission (MOE), the assassination of community leaders was up 32.7% during the first half of 2020 compared to the year before.

Clearly, in terms of post-conflict recuperation, the country still has a significant way to travel. Additionally, the pressures caused by the enormous numbers of arrivals from neighbouring Venezuela remain an on-going -if now half-forgotten- issue of genuinely regional proportions, to which the unforeseen calamity of Covid-19 has added an entirely new level of complexity.

The Colombian economy registered a contraction of 0.5% in July, compared to the same month in 2019, according to government figures released in September. The country’s central bank projected the economy to contract between 6% and 10% overall in 2020, compared to the government’s slightly less negative 5.5% figure.

Among the measures the government has taken in a bid to create jobs during the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, its launch of a concerted effort to attract $11.5 billion in non-energy related foreign investment between now and 2022 stands out. In an attempt to take advantage of strained US-China relations, the plan, which includes tax incentives and bureaucratic simplifications, is meant to encourage multinationals from the United States and other countries to relocate their operations from Asia. There are hopes the success story of e-commerce delivery company Rappi, which received a $1bn investment in Colombia from Japan’s Softbank, can be repeated.

Transport infrastructure will be another of pillars of the national government’s attempts to reactivate the economy and generate employment. Work on the construction of Bogota’s first metro line (approximate cost $4bn) are expected to start in the second half of 2021 and last around seven years. On the road construction front, the fifth generation of road concessions (5G), are in the structuring and bidding stages.

In terms of the legal market, while there have not been any major developments – such as Norton Rose Fulbright departure from the jurisdiction, reported last year – there have been some high-profile splits and spin-offs during the past 12 months, most notably Posse Herrera Ruiz (PHR) decision at the beginning of 2020 to conclude its three-year association with Spanish firm Cuatrecasas, which -in turn- continues to establish it own operations across the region. Indeed, since publication the firm has confirmed a number of heavywight hires in Bogotá, including Manuel Quinche (and members of his team) from Brigard Urrutia; Juan Felipe Vega, from Baker McKenzie S.A.S.; and  Alessia Abello from Financiera de Desarrollo Nacional (effective as of January 2021).

In general, however, the legal landscape, apart from ever greater fee pressure, remains largely unchanged in terms of the dominant position of the leading group of full -service firms, with Brigard Urrutia leading the charge. The firm remains at the top of the pack, while each of its competitors has engaged in recent years in differing types of regional or international association. Gómez-Pinzón Abogados (GPA) has sought to expand the scope of its regional activity with the longstanding Affinitas alliance. Philippi Prietocarrizosa Ferrero DU & Uría continues to consolidate its tri-national (Colombia-Peru-Chile) operation – with a possible tie up in Mexico remaining a pending issue; and PHR, as noted above, finally opting to retain its independence, as noted above. To this group, should be added Baker Mckenzie; long on the shoulder of “the big four”, it is increasingly relevant, particularly in terms of transactional matters.

Individual lawyer moves have also continued, perhaps most notably in the key projects sector, where the international firms, in particular, sought to strengthen their capabilities. August 2019 saw Baker McKenzie S.A.S. hire Carolina Duque, a former PPU senior associate who had subsequently established her own firm. DLA Piper Martinez Beltrán, in turn, hired Sebastián Lora as a partner in October 2019, from Posse Herrera Ruiz – which simultaneously endured the departure of Alessia Abello who joined state development agency, Financiera de Desarrollo Nacional. More recently, Garrigues incorporated well-regarded young partner Adriana Espinosa from specialist firm Arrieta Mantilla & Asociados, in March 2020.

In the local market, mid-sized firms with a broad (if not full) service offering – such as Muñoz Tamayo & Asociados and Palacios Lleras – 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, Esguerra Asesores Jurídicos in competition, and Goh -formerly Godoy Hoyos- which has grown over the past years, broadening its offering beyond its core strength, tax; moreover, since publication the firm has added an office in Costa Caribe.

The international firms, led by Baker McKenzie S.A.S., also continue to grow their market share. Dentons Cardenas & Cardenas, DLA Piper Martinez Beltrán, Garrigues and Holland & Knight have all strengthened or continue to consolidate their positions.

At the other end of the market (in terms of size), sector-specialisation continues to pay dividends 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; and Durán & Osorio Abogados Asociados and Arrieta Mantilla & Asociados in construction, infrastructure and projects. Oil, gas and energy remain Sanclemente Fernández Abogados S.A. ‘s core specialty; Araújo Ibarra Consultores Internacionales is a key layer in international trade; and Cavelier, OlarteMoure and Castellanos & Co all shine in IP and life sciences.

This year’s market coverage also sees the introduction of both a number of new practice-area sections -namely capital markets, environment, life sciences and public law; and two new City Focus sections, centring on the markets of Cali and Medellin. Research there was hard hit by the onset of Covid but we nevertheless look forward to both extending these rankings further and taking the Baranquilla market into consideration, conditions permitting, next year.

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