David Gutiérrez is a founding partner of BLP, one of the leading firms in Central America. We talked with him about the Central American region and what makes it different from the rest of Latin America. We also analyze the importance of maintaining and reinforcing the regional identity of firms in the global economy, without missing the train of trends and opportunities.
Could you identify any quality or skill that has been the catalyst for your success?
Teamwork. This implies giving credit where credit is due so that professionals can have direct contact with clients and colleagues. The best solutions come from multiple heads, not just one.
What have been the main challenges as co-founder of his firm?
The first has been to select and retain the best legal talent. To afford to choose, the firm must offer a series of benefits and advantages. Among these advantages are fair and adequate compensation, but also clients and interesting work, coaching, personal and professional development, training, high-profile transactions, a balance between work and personal life, a pleasant and enjoyable work environment, the flexibility to work at a distance, and many more. Without the best talent, the firm cannot grow. That is the key.
The second has been to be able to maintain throughout these 14 years the culture of providing legal advice with a business sense. It is that culture of negotiation (deal making), of thinking about “how to” do things and, therefore, of generating space for innovation and creativity. This also forces us to maintain a culture of customer service, of always being available and responding quickly and efficiently.
Globalization and the dynamism of these times have forced firms to innovate and adopt a series of changes in their policies and procedures at all levels. Changes ranging from the client/attorney relationship to attracting and retaining talent. What changes have you been or are you implementing in your firm to face the new reality?
Many. One of the central axes has been to understand the generational differences that exist between the lawyers who founded the firm, now the oldest, and the younger lawyers —who also form the majority of the firm. Rather than ignore those differences, we have sought to understand and leverage them to make the most of that diversity. The setting of personal and group objectives, performance evaluation, compensation, the possibility of participating in decisions that impact the progress of the firm, feedback, and training are things that we have adapted based on this reality.
We also start with the flexibility of working hours, since not everyone is equally efficient from 9 to 5. The key is to be able to create the conditions for professionals to give their best for the benefit of clients and the firm. Each lawyer is a world unto himself. The firm should help one enhance his/her talent. Similarly, being able to work from home or another place allows for a very good balance between work life and personal life. For that, however, first-class technological platforms are needed, through which we don’t even know who is in the office and who is out.
BLP has distinguished itself in the Central American region as one of the young firms that has developed a successful regional model. What has been the formula?
Attract partners who fully share our culture. In other words, partners who are not only excellent lawyers, but also value customer service, a good work environment, the importance of environmental and social sustainability, community relations, and a diverse, innovative, and creative environment. We don’t like legal “geniuses” who lack interpersonal skills. Nor are those who are only interested in financial profit, or who do not care about serving customers or getting along with their collaborators.
Similarly, we believe that the success of a service firm is that it is fully integrated. That is to say, the clients are from the firm, the income is one and the expenses are too. The administrative apparatus and technological resources must be one. Otherwise, in regional firm models that are not integrated (which are more like alliances or networks, for example) conflicts of interest with clients and between partners can be generated —in addition to not creating the conditions or incentives to generate business in other practice areas. This is what we have done at BLP since we opened in Costa Rica and now in all the other Central American countries.
It is equally important that we see ourselves as a single firm, without borders and with knowledge of all areas of law and business. That is, we are “BLP”; we are not “BLP Nicaragua” or “BLP Honduras”.
The presence of international firms and the emergence of regional firms is a new trend in the Latin American legal market. Will the independent firm survive in Central America?
In all parts of the world, independent firms have survived and in Latin America, they are the leading firms. Good competition is always welcome and in this sense, international firms force us to improve even more.
However, we highly value our own institutional culture, which we firmly believe has been key to our growth and positioning. We feel that, inevitably, the independent firm that allies itself with an international one will lose its own culture.
The model of the Latin American regional firms is something that draws our attention a lot. We are following it very closely.
What do you think of the regional firm model that is gaining ground in Latin America, following to a certain extent the Central American model, and the impact of the entry of global firms in Central America?
The Central American signature model is a bit different. Central America is made up of very small countries that are not united by a legal or political issue but by a commercial issue. This includes regional (Central American Common Market) and international trade agreements with the US and the EU. That is why the concept of a “Central American law firm” has been very well received by companies that do business in more than one country in the area.
This is not the case of the rest of Latin America, where there is a great diversity of countries, in every sense. However, the aspiration of South American firms is to be that point of contact for Latin America, with a whole base in the same place (one-stop source). It seems to me that it is a very intelligent model that will be enormously successful.
Would you and your partners consider merging or combining with a global and/or international firm, or with a Latin American firm?
As an open-minded firm, of course, we will always value it. However, as I mentioned before, what we must protect the most is our DNA or our institutional culture. It would be necessary to understand well what the conditions are in which this merger would take place. Likewise, we highly value working in an integrated manner. It would also be necessary to understand the conditions in which this international firm works with its people, the environment, and the community. The key is our own DNA.
Likewise, BLP has many and very close relationships with law firms throughout Latin America, the United States, and Europe, which is why a good part of the businesses to which we attend originate precisely from those relationships. As small countries where most of the legal workflow is inbound, we would never want to jeopardize those relationships without a strong economic justification.
Although the presence of women in the practice of law in Latin America is significantly high, their positioning as a partner and in management positions in Latin American firms is very low. Because?
This is an issue that is radically changing in the region. Our firm is a leader in inclusion issues and gender equality issues. Of the nearly 140 lawyers we have in the region, 60 are women, but of the 27 partners, only 6 are women.
Although we are regional leaders on the subject, there is clearly much more to do. For this reason, in Costa Rica, we are advancing in the process to obtain the Gender Equality Seal granted by the National Institute for Women (INAMU) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). As part of this program, we are pinpointing where gender gaps still exist and putting specific plans in place to progressively reduce those gaps.
We believe this is important, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because as a long-term business strategy, it is essential to continue to attract and retain the best talent.
Could you share an anecdote or defining moment from your early years as a lawyer that set you on the path that brought you here?
My first job as a lawyer was within a law firm now called WilmerHale in Washington, D.C. That experience, alongside very talented lawyers, taught me profoundly in three ways: a) the work has to be excellent; b) customer service is as essential as excellent legal work; c) the environment in the office is key to being able to comply with a and b.
I think that starting my professional life in a firm of that international level was a privilege and a great lesson.