Latin America poised for onslaught from US firms

US lawyers are targeting Latin America as a major growth area for legal work, in response to the business spin-off from the increasing numbers of US and British companies setting up there.

Delegates from US-based Commercial Law Affiliates (CLA), the world's largest law firm network, met in Sao Paulo, Brazil, earlier this month to consider current and future opportunities for their firms.

Delegates from 26 firms representing 15 countries predicted that investment and legal business in Latin America – and Brazil in particular – would “dramatically” increase within the next few years.

CLA founder and president Leon Steinberg, partner at Minneapolis firm Maslon Edelman Borman & Brand, says Latin America has changed greatly since the end of the Cold War.

“All of the region's countries, with the exception of Cuba, have democratic governments and are committed to open market policies. This, combined with the region's interest in establishing a Free Trade Area of the Americas by 2005, reveals its commitment to compete with other areas of the world for foreign investment dollars.”

Brazil's appeal stems in part from a huge fall in its tariffs – from 35 per cent to around 14 per cent – and economic growth in 1993 of 4.9 per cent, says Steinberg. A South American Free Trade Zone, to which Brazil is perceived to be committed, would eliminate tariffs completely.

However, Brazil's financial instability, lack of intellectual property protection and need for greater privatisation were cited by delegates as major barriers that the country must overcome before becoming a true international investment haven.

CLA is based in Minneapolis. Its membership comprises 175 medium-sized corporate, commercial and litigation firms. These members provide access to more than 60 countries.