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The situation in Venezuela has – if anything – only become more difficult; the developments of the last year illustrating the country’s form of government descending into that of a dictatorship in all but name.

In March 2017 the country’s Supreme Court took over the powers of the opposition-controlled National Assembly; although this decision was subsequently reversed, the move sparked nationwide demonstrations during subsequent months; the inevitable clashes with police and government-backed militias resulted in numerous deaths. As a response to the protests, President Nicolás Maduro decreed elections for a new Constituent Assembly; boycotted by opposition parties, the July 2017 elections unsurprisingly resulted in a firmly pro-government Constituent National Assembly. Once established, the former National Assembly was stripped of its powers, effectively side-lining all congressional opposition.

Amidst such political turmoil, the life of Venezuelan citizens has been immensely challenging with both chronic shortages and hyperinflation rendering the national currency’s buying power virtually zero, forcing companies to pay their employees’ wages in extremely limited US dollars or in extreme cases, even food. The political uncertainty and the lack of basic food and medicines has led to hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans fleeing the country, the living proof of a humanitarian crisis the government claims does not exist.

All these negative developments have in turn influenced the business and legal markets dramatically. In general, legal firms’ main task has shifted from transactional matters towards administrative and public law issues, preventative advice and damage control/limitation, and contentious representation when arbitration or other forms of ADR have failed to keep an issue out of the courts. In addition to the general "brain drain" that has occurred over the last few years, numerous lawyers and law firm partners have left the country for security reasons.

On the corporate side, a general trend towards downsizing and the minimization of investments is clearly observable, with numerous companies closing or reducing their branches to limit their exposure in the jurisdiction. M&A activity is extremely limited and the banking and finance market has suffered due to a lack of investors as well as the volatility of the currency. Employment practices have been kept busy with collective bargaining and terminations; public law practitioners with the fallout from nationalisations and the generally thorny relations between the state and private business entities. As the regulatory framework is so complex, companies often turned to firms solely for advice.

International firms such as Norton Rose Fulbright (NRF), Baker & McKenzie, S.C. (BM), and the former Despacho de Abogados Miembro de Hogan Lovells (HL) have long been among the largest in the country and as such have been hit particularly hard by the chronic downturn in work. While both NRF and HL have also experienced partners seeking to relocate to other offices or simply opting to emigrate, BM recently suffered two significant spin-offs. July 2017 saw the departures of banking specialists Maritza Mészáros and Pedro Crisafulli, along with public law expert María Fernanda Zajía (all of whom had over 20 years’ experience at their former firm) to establish MCZ Legal Consultants. Just three months later, Alfonso Porras Machado, Jorge A Jraige R, María Eugenia Reyes and Martha Cohen left to establish Altum Abogados, S.C., taking a number of associates with them and subsequently incorporating a fifth former-BM partner, Álvaro Posada. Baker’s also lost Carlos Delgado who moved to InterJuris Abogados. Arguably, the fate of Hogan Lovells International LLP’s Caracas’ office was worse, with the firm announcing its withdrawal from the Venezuelan market in May 2018, after 12 years’ involvement. The legal market is, as such, suffering a double blow: losing depth due to the exodus of talent abroad, and, given the socio-economic extremity in which the country finds itself, suffering the immediate impact of an economic slowdown so severe as to undermine the very viability of large private practice firms, and driving lawyers to seek alternative structures better suited to the current economic reality. From a local point of view, the full-service law firms such as Araquereyna, D'Empaire, InterJuris Abogados and what is now Lega Abogados stand out. (The latter firm was formerly known as Hoet Pelaez Castillo & Duque, a name now retained only by the firm’s intellectual property practice). All of the aforementioned had significant roles in the key energy and natural resources market. Firms with notable tax strength such as Torres, Plaz & Araujo and Palacios, Torres & Korody were in demand, with tax, along with labour and public law capabilities being high on clients list of requirements. Bolet & Terrero consolidated its position in the IP market – another sector that has remained more buoyant than most – together with Antequera Parilli & Rodríguez. Grau García Hernández & Mónaco is trusted in competition matters, Benson, Pérez Matos, Antakly & Watts in environmental ones.

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