Claudia Benavides, Head of the Colombian Dispute Resolution practice and Chair of Dispute Resolution Latin America for Baker McKenzie has been recognized as a “litigation star” since the launch of Benchmark Latin America. Her expertise includes advising and representing international and domestic companies on all aspects of dispute resolution throughout the course of her 19-year career. As a highly-regarded authority in transnational litigation and domestic and international arbitration, Benavides speaks to Benchmark Latin America editor Shailyn Tirado about her practice history, memorable cases, and the future of the litigation market in Colombia.
Baker McKenzie is recognized for its global practice. How does the firm differ from its competitors in the Colombian market, but also its competitors across the globe?
At Baker McKenzie, we accompany our clients through the entire lifecycle of a transaction, project or product. We advise on how to conduct operations to minimize exposure to risk and avoid disputes. If a dispute does arise, we help with pre-contentious negotiations and choosing the best dispute resolution option. We then accompany through the process, whether this involves litigation, international arbitration, or any other alternative dispute resolution mechanism. In our role as trusted adviser to our clients, our priority is to make sure that our clients commercial objectives are achieved, no matter how complex the circumstances are.
We have over 900 dispute resolution lawyers based all around the world, across the main financial centers and in key emerging markets. Chances are, wherever your dispute might arise, we will have had experience there. We will be familiar with the legal and regulatory environment, language, culture, and way of doing business. A leading practice worldwide.
Each country where we are present has its own legal and regulatory regime, including different approaches to issues such as privilege, privacy and data protection. There are also important cultural issues that require local knowledge and sensitivity. Because our lawyers are leaders in their local jurisdictions but also function across our offices as one team, we are positioned to deliver local insight, or a regional or global perspective to meet our clients’ interests in cross-border and multi-jurisdictional disputes. Our close working relationships across jurisdictions ensure that we can respond quickly to litigation and regulatory concerns.
Our lawyers partner with clients to identify and implement the most appropriate business solutions, either by pursuing or defending litigation, arbitration or other alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, such as mediation. We also work closely with other practice areas to develop compliance programs and perform risk assessments to help reduce overall litigation exposure.
You have served as head of the dispute resolution practice for the firm in Colombia for the last eight years and were recently appointed Chair for Dispute Resolution Latin America. This is the first time a women is appointed in this position within the Latin American dispute resolution practice group. What does this new role mean for you, and for the future of women lawyers in the profession?
Our Dispute Resolution practice is already very strong in the various countries in which Baker McKenzie has offices in Latin America. I am thrilled and honored to have the responsibility of bringing our regional practice to the next level. The work we do in Latin America is very international as we often represent clients in disputes that involve cross border issues. Our aim is to further enhance and strengthen our one-regional-team approach to provide the best service to our clients throughout Latin America and worldwide. Given our presence in the most dynamic economies of Latin America, we are the firm best positioned in the region to structure top multijurisdictional teams for complex and challenging cases. International arbitration, investment arbitration and transnational litigation are just a few examples where these strengths become very evident.
Being the first women appointed as Chair for Dispute Resolution Latin America is a wonderful opportunity to foster more diversity and inclusion within our regional practice. Having this position in a global firm implies great responsibility, as you become a role model for the younger generations of partners and associates. Diversity and inclusion is a top priority for Baker McKenzie worldwide and our region is committed to D&I too. This is why we have already incorporated D&I as part of our Dispute Resolution LatAm business plan.
What part of this profession do you personally find most satisfying? Most challenging?
Serving our clients to solve their most complex problems is what I personally find most satisfying. This is always very rewarding.
Our world is in constant change and our clients require accurate responsive advice. In my view, one of our major challenges is to provide timely sophisticated advice to complex issues in ever changing circumstances.
Throughout the course of your longstanding career, what has been your most memorable case to date?
I have had the opportunity of working in very challenging, complex and demanding cases. I do recall though one case many years ago, where I was the only women in the room and perhaps the youngest. Very tough discussions started between both parties. My role in that meeting was to support the team if necessary but not to lead the meeting. However, aside of being the only women and perhaps the youngest, I was also the only one in the room who had both the relevant expertise in Colombian law and spoke English. Given the topics placed by the other party at the center of the discussion, very quickly I started to lead the meeting with a successful outcome for our client. I always think about the senior partner that was there with me in that meeting, as the wisest, most self-assured and inspiring person, focused on providing the best service to our clients and capable of letting others shine.
What is one thing the public should understand about litigation in/across Latin America, compared to the rest of the world?
The amount of time it takes to come to final resolution of a case. Unfortunately, in many LatAm countries courts are overloaded and cannot resolve the cases at a reasonable speed. There are also certain recourses (such as constitutional actions to protect fundamental rights) that may extend the regular duration of a case in court when used in addition to regular remedies and appeals. Sometimes final resolution may take more than ten years.
What changes, if any, do you anticipate relating to arbitration in Colombia in the next five years, and how will the practice group prepare for those changes?
Colombia has a long-standing tradition of domestic arbitration. However, international commercial arbitration has been on the rise and I believe will continue increasing as has been the trend in other LatAm countries. Continued foreign investment and a more globalized economy support this trend. Colombia is working towards becoming a recognized seat for international arbitration cases. The appropriate legal framework is already in place as we have a modern international arbitration law based on the UNCITRAL Model Law. Although there are still certain relevant topics that our higher courts have not addressed yet, such courts have issued important precedents that incorporate international standards to international commercial arbitrations seated in Colombia. This is fundamental in paving the way for more international arbitrations seated in our country.
Our practice group in Colombia has been at the forefront of such change. We have developed very relevant experience in international arbitrations seated in Colombia and have provided thorough interpretation to several of the key provisions of our international arbitration statute, shaping the application of such law to international standards. The constant international exposure of the members of our team and the broad experience we have in this field prepares us for the change to come.
How important is mentorship in this profession and what advice, if any, would you give lawyers who are just starting their legal careers?
I believe mentorship plays a crucial role. To better serve our clients and progress in our careers we must navigate through a series of complexities not described in the books. This is when the experience of those who had faced such situations become critical. Not necessarily to do the same your mentor did or to follow the same course of action, but to have candid discussions about what went well and what did not. In my view, such interaction allows to build together, between mentor and mentee, the best possible solution for our clients and to take the best decisions and steps to advance your career.