When Lawrence Wiener and his partners decided to open up the doors for Wiener-Soto-Caparrós in Buenos Aires in April 2010, they declared it was not going to be a conventional law firm and legal services provider. Instead, they wanted to emulate the best features of a US-style practice, and at the same time capitalise their local expertise.
With a client focus on individuals and companies mostly from English-speaking countries, they offer service driven legal help. Foreign Latin American investors make a big part of their clientele, but they also work with helping start-up companies in Argentina.
We spoke to Laurence Wiener, who is Co-Chair of the Buenos Aires City Chapter of the American Bar Association, about the experience of starting a law firm in the Argentine capital.
What’s your background?
I grew up in California. After graduating from UCLA I moved to Northern California and graduated from U.C. Davis law school. I then became an associate of the San Francisco office of a large law firm. I worked as a trial lawyer but grew restless with pushing paper and not spending enough time in the courtroom. In 1991 I took a one-year sabbatical to study at the University of Buenos Aires. This choice eventually turned into a permanent re-location.
From 1993 to 2001, I worked at a Buenos Aires boutique law firm specialising in corporate finance and mergers and acquisitions, eventually becoming a partner and achieving a ground-breaking precedent for US lawyers in Argentina. From December 2001 through April 2010 I was Of Counsel to a large, traditional Argentine law firm. In the context of Argentina’s default, devaluation, economic collapse and recovery I adapted my experience in two legal systems to benefit foreign investors.
Why did you decide to start a law practice in Argentina?
More than anything, the decision reflected the culmination of over 20 years trying to make my professional life work in someone else’s framework. It took me a long time but I realised I could only be satisfied by working with people similarly committed to an intense, principled, fun, challenging and healthy work environment with a great sense of humour. It’s harder to find than you would think, especially with lawyers.
In what way are you different from Argentine attorneys?
The most obvious difference is the bi-cultural (US and Argentine) leadership. At times, other Argentine firms may have US attorneys but ours is the only one having them in leadership positions. The truly bi-cultural mix makes a huge difference on our worldview: the way we approach problems and resolutions, treat attorneys, staff and clients, and the quality of our work product, particularly as viewed from abroad.
What is the biggest difference with practising here compared to the US?
The differences are many. Argentina is based on the Continental European legal system inherited from the Napoleonic Code, whereas the US is a Common Law system based on judicial pronouncements inherited, in some cases, from the English courts predating the founding of the US. In substantive terms, the rules are often similar. Procedurally, however, they are worlds apart. The biggest difference is trying to predict judicial outcomes. Because the Common Law system is based on precedent, it is much easier for the lawyer to assess a likely decision. With Argentina’s Code-based system, you lose much of that predictability. The judge acts as a scientist, applying statutes to a case but largely unrestricted by decisions of other courts. That proves very frustrating to clients used to lawyers giving a probability assessment.
Are there any shocking or surprising differences in laws used here compared to the US that bother you?
Not really. What is troubling is the way laws can be manipulated or overturned to accommodate political objectives. Courts as political instruments are perhaps inevitable in any system but the more judges serve political interests the greater the harm to the judiciary and to the rule of law.
What is the hardest part of handling Argentine bureaucracy in your everyday work?
There is no avoiding it. That’s why in Argentina there are job categories (gestor, cadete) that exist in response to that bureaucracy.
How well is your idea of being an unconventional attorney here in Argentina received? What reactions do you encounter?
Twenty years ago, it was received as an oddity but largely ignored. With success comes suspicion and jealousy and I found myself attacked from several corners because I was not an abogado, i.e. licensed to practise in Argentina. Even to this day, despite a global tendency to have lawyers qualified in one jurisdiction but living and working in another, there are some who still express their disdain by addressing me as “Señor” and not the more conventional title of “Doctor”. That’s okay, though. I am still convinced that the title of “doctor” should be reserved for someone who can use a stethoscope and save a life.
Why do clients choose you instead of a traditional Argentine attorney?
More than anything, I am convinced that it is the trust factor. Clients are eased by the feeling that they are accompanied by someone who knows what they are doing and looking out for their best interests in a place that is largely unfamiliar to them. Shared language and culture are keys to building understanding and trust. Simple references to popular culture: like Sean Connery said in The Untouchables, “you have to do it the Chicago Way”, well here we have to do it the Buenos Aires Way, or shared idioms like “that just ain’t clear,” accelerate that bond. After that, it’s all about professional skill and maintaining good communication.
What’s your best advice for moving your business from abroad to Argentina?
Talk to a lawyer first. It is important to assess whether moving your business is required or if you can capitalise on local human and other resources, while lawfully maintaining the business structure abroad.