My (Unconventional) Practice in Argentina
On April 6, 2010, my partners and I opened the doors of a law practice in Buenos Aires, Argentina. We declared publicly and privately this would be no conventional law firm. Instead, we looked at our professional association as a new paradigm for legal services. We would emulate the best features of a U.S.-style practice (e.g., open-ended professional partnership, objective criteria in hiring and promotion) but recognize our "organic" origins as a local service provider.
Current Legal Practice
As a legal professional licensed only by the State Bar of California, I am careful to not hold myself out as an Argentine attorney. Still, long gone are the times when Argentina enjoyed fluid access to foreign capital and I could spend most of my time working on U.S.-law financing transactions. To survive professionally I had to find a new place in a completely different Argentine economy. Largely cut off from capital, Argentina prompted me to become a caretaker of long-term foreign investment.
The (necessary) transition from specialist to generalist proved remarkably enriching. Moved from my comfort zone of corporate finance and mergers and acquisitions (M&A), I broadened my knowledge of Argentine corporate, labor, taxation, intellectual property, and regulatory matters This work typically begins with either an M&A transaction or with forming a subsidiary. Either way, clients place a premium on retaining counsel who help them understand local custom and practice, as well as local law.
Our clients are broadly organized in two groups. Large foreign companies with long-term investment horizons comprise one category; local companies round out the client list. Because of the country's natural wealth and sizable population, our clients span a wide range of manufacturing and production of goods (e.g., mining, fishing, software, alcoholic and soft drink beverages, dairy, and other consumer goods) and services (medical and industrial supplies, tourism, oil and gas support, business consulting, business office services). Not surprisingly, my client focus is directed toward companies and individuals from common law (North America, Oceania, Europe) jurisdictions.
What role does technology play in the specific needs of having to apply U.S. law and/or interact with clients in a different country from where you work?
Technology is essential to our ability to respond to clients. Because our clients are literally located around the world, being "connected" at all times is hugely important. We place great reliance on both handheld and laptop devices to access e-mail, the web, and telephones.
What is the most surprising difference you have encountered between the laws of the U.S. and the country where you currently practice?
I have spent a significant amount of time writing and lecturing on differences between common law and civil jurisdictions. While substantive law concepts are generally familiar to the practitioner from either system, procedural law is a whole different world. It is no mean feat explaining to the common law counterpart why a seemingly meritless claim can proceed to final judgment (no summary judgment) or why all evidence must be declared to the court at the pleadings stage (no party-driven discovery) and why there is no opportunity to cross-examine a witness.
How did you bridge the cultural differences on the practice of law in the U.S. and in the place where you currently practice?
I am not sure that I have bridged cultural differences. I do know that I have made a career of attempting to do so. One prominent tactic I favor is to organize information conceptually to explain context. As an example, there is a fundamental difference between simply telling a client that terminating a poorly performing employee will end up costing thousands of dollars and being able to place that seemingly absurd result in perspective (Argentina labor law is protectionist, employees accrue statutory severance based on years of service, and the job market is liquid compared to more developed economies). I have found that being able to anticipate and manage client expectations through your own knowledge of the client's cultural mindset is a huge competitive advantage.
Another telling anecdote is when a U.S. client withdrew from Argentina and I and colleagues at my former firm were sued personally for more than US$500,000 in employment claims. While the claim was meritless, the client was unwilling to give an indemnity, which my colleagues interpreted as a sign of bad faith and prompted them to want to take action adverse to the client. My comprehension of the client's perceptions allowed me to convince my colleagues that the client, although frightened of an unlimited contingency, would act reasonably and fairly. Eventually calmer heads prevailed and by subordinating our personal interests in favor of the client's we managed to broker a reasonable settlement, collect sizable legal fees, and achieve the client's sincerest appreciation. I lost nights of sleep from worry but the outcome upheld my judgment.
Based on your personal experience, please share a word of advice to the solo and small firm practitioners in the U.S. on how to better interact with foreign attorneys, both as opposing counsel and as cocounsel.Laurence P. Wiener practices with the law firm of Wiener Soto Caparros in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.wsclegal.com.
Language and cultural fluency. We have a huge advantage over our competitors by being able to express ourselves fluently in both English and Spanish. Even in the age of electronic mail, the written word remains potent. Clear expression and occasional subtlety are handy tools. As with any meeting of different cultures, understanding the other's perceptions, ways of thinking, and social mores are essential. That, and learning how to properly use a knife and fork (Argentines are very well-mannered), can go a long way.