Jorge Alers is Dentons’ CEO for Latin America and the Caribbean since 2014, helping to position Dentons for presence, client service, and growth in the region. In this interview, Jorge Alers tells us how Dentons expanded in Latin America and the Carribean so rapidly and successfully as well as the firm's future expansions in these regions.
In South America, you decided to open first in Mexico & Colombia in 2015, then in Peru in 2017, later in Chile in 2019. Recently you announced, combinations with an Argentinian firm, Rattagan Macchiavello Arocena and Uruguay-based Jiménez de Aréchaga, Viana & Brause. What was the rationale behind expanding in this particular order? Was it done according to the opportunities Dentons identified in these markets?
Jorge Alers: We started about three years ago both in Mexico and Colombia and then we continued to expand in Central America. We then started moving further into South America and the Caribbean. In all of these cases, our strategy has been dictated, not because we were driven by a particular client but by the opportunities presented with different local law firms. We are always looking for law firms of the highest quality but also firms that share our values and our vision. What we have found is that the countries that are best integrated into the global economy are the ones that offer the best opportunities for local law firms to take advantage of our platform. Our reach into so many countries allows our offices throughout Latin America and the Caribbean to tap into opportunities around the world. So, if the local economy is integrated into the global economy, it just naturally follows that it’ll present the greatest opportunity for our offices and also for our client’s businesses. Accordingly, our strategy was largely dictated by identifying the right firms for us. So far, we have offices in Mexico, Central America, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Venezuela, Brazil, and across the Caribbean. As you mentioned, most recently we have announced two new whole-firm combinations in Argentina and Uruguay.
I’d also like to highlight what we have elected to do in Venezuela, where we were able to identify the right fit for us. We combined with Despacho de Abogados miembros de Dentons. It may not seem like an obvious choice to enter the Venezuelan legal market at this time, but our new colleagues share our passion and vision. That’s why this combination was such a great fit – both for them and for us. Venezuela is not going through the best times right now but for us, it was important to have the most talented lawyers as part of our firm.
Dentons is now present in almost every country in the Latin American and the Caribbean region with the exception of Paraguay, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, and Bolivia. Are these countries next on Dentons’ radar for expansion or are these markets too small for the firm?
No market is too small for Dentons. We are driven to build a presence in jurisdictions where our international clients are eager for us to have a physical presence or where clients in those jurisdictions can take advantage of our global platform.
Are there ongoing discussions with local law firms in these markets?
We are always looking for opportunities and actively engage in conversations with local law firms in these jurisdictions. It is very important for us that we follow our process. While combining with a firm, we need to make sure the firm shares our values and vision. We look for a firm that wants to integrate into and collaboratively work with their colleagues throughout Latin America and around the world at Dentons.
Ultimately, this process requires extensive discussions with these firms; they have to get to know us and we have to get to know them. This process takes some time and it’s not like an M&A transaction where you identify the target, agree on a price, and move forward. Our focus is on building true partnerships.
We are looking to grow in both new and existing markets. In Brazil, for example, there are lots of growth opportunities.
Some international law firms prefer to have a single LatAm headquarters or have a best-friend relationship with local firms. Why is it important for Dentons to have offices all over the continent?
We are very proud of our polycentric model based on the notion that to offer the highest quality legal service, you have to able to count on the talented lawyers that have “in and of the community” connections and knowledge to ensure that you are not merely trying to do things in the ways they are done in other jurisdictions, like in New York or London. You want to make sure that you are considering the nuances of each jurisdiction. Having an office in Peru to cover Argentina or Brazil doesn’t make sense. Peruvian lawyers in Lima would not have the in-depth “in and out of the community” knowledge and experience that lawyers in Brazil or Argentina would have. Since we value and respect the legal requirements and traditions of each market in which we have an office, we will not have any headquarters in Latin America or the Caribbean, just as we don’t have headquarters for the global firm.
You decided to combine with Argentinian and Uruguayan firms just before presidential elections in those countries, which is inevitably a time of instability. What was the thinking here?
Our objective is not to take advantage of the short-term opportunities in a particular market, but rather to invest time in finding the most talented lawyers who share our vision and values. We decided to move forward with these combinations, even though the immediate environment may seem less stable. That doesn’t mean that we don’t recognize the tremendous potential in both Argentina and Uruguay. In Argentina and Uruguay, our conversations got to the point where both sides were comfortable with each other. We were sure this was a combination that would be successful in the longer term. We have the right people in both countries, but we also recognize that in the long term the markets themselves are going to provide many opportunities to grow and provide the level of service our clients require in those jurisdictions.
What was most difficult about expanding in Latin America?
Clearly, in Venezuela, because of the US sanctions, we had to very carefully work through a variety of issues.
That said, when we first started our project, Dentons was a relatively new law firm in Latin America and the Caribbean, having established only a year and a half prior to my joining. The market understandably did not know about our polycentric model or our commitment to combining with firms with the most talented lawyers in the respective market. So, it was something that the market had to come to understand. The market has understood that now, so it’s become less difficult to interest firms in exploring a possible combination with Dentons. When I travel to different jurisdictions in Latin America and the Caribbean, people are interested, they want to know about Dentons and they approach me. This was not the case five years ago.
What is the firm’s expansion vision in Brazil, given the restrictions by laws governing the legal profession?
We have a strategic alliance with Vella Pugliese Buosi e Guidoni Advogados (VPBG) in Brazil. Thanks to this alliance, today our clients have access to offices in São Paulo and Brasília. In the long term for a country of the size and importance of Brazil, we are actively hoping to continue to grow in Brazil – through Vella Pugliese Buosi e Guidoni Advogados as it is also the largest economy in Latin America. Strategically, it’s a very important market. Our partners in Brazil share and are fully aligned with this vision to grow, conquer and prosper within Brazil.
However, there have been challenges due to restrictions on the presence of international law firms in the Brazilian legal market. Foreign law firms are mostly established as international consultancies. They are intended to provide non-Brazilian legal services that are modeled on those in New York and London. For us, it's essential to recognize the value and talent and allow the Brazilian lawyers to take advantage of the Dentons platform and then provide independent support under Brazilian law that both local and international Dentons clients are looking for.
Our polycentric model is in tune with the requirements and restrictions in Brazil. We recognize and respect the independence of the VPBG partners in Brazil contrary to many other firms that are not polycentric in nature. In that regard, we are uniquely positioned in the Brazilian market to provide the highest-level possible service to our clients.
- Sneha Ashtikar