Mauricio Salas, Director of BLP's regional Dispute Resolution practice, has maintained an active 20-plus year practice in the areas of environment, health and safety, compliance & anti-corruption and international trade. He is an active trial lawyer in cases related to natural resources, compliance, and application of sanctions, permits, and remediation, and provides representation and supervision before regulatory entities. Salas speaks to Benchmark Latin America editor Shailyn Tirado about his role as an active litigant in Costa Rican courts, how his group stands out amongst its competitors, and insight into the Central American legal market.
Tell us how BLP's dispute resolution practice differs from its competitors.
BLP´s dispute resolution practice is very diverse. You can find law firms with a very good commercial dispute practice. Or boutiques specialized in criminal or labor law. But our firm, aside from having excellent practitioners in all these areas, also has full-time, specialized dispute lawyers in every field. To give a few examples, we have teams in antitrust, insurance, tax, IP, environmental, administrative law, trade remedies and arbitration. Moreover, a sister company dedicated only to collections. As an integrated firm, we can combine these specialists. We can set up a multidisciplinary team for a tax case in administrative court, or an environmental case in criminal court. This with over 25 full-time litigators, plus support and technical staff. I believe no other firm in the region has such a wide reach. For these reasons, I believe we are not only the largest dispute practice in terms of number of files and lawyers, but also in terms of practice areas.
You have an academic background in natural sciences, and are actively involved in environmental, natural resources, and regulatory disputes. Can you talk about this area of practice and why you decided to get involved in these matters?
I had to choose between biology and law while in college. I chose the law, and became a lawyer in a corporate law firm, but kept looking back to that choice. Later in my professional career, when I began practicing environmental litigation, I felt I was missing the scientific background to really understand the issues in question. I took the decision to go back to school, after my LL.M in international trade, and study national resource management. This decision permitted me to get a glimpse of the fields of tropical ecology and environmental management which I regretted missing out back in my college years. It also helped my practice considerably, as environmental law cannot be practiced in substance without the corresponding scientific and technical backing.
My studies made me very aware of the importance of prevention, environmental compliance and community outreach, pillars which form the basis of our legal advice. I understood that lawyers in our field, particularly in the context of Costa Rica, need to switch from a focus of dispute resolution to one of dispute prevention and community engagement. With these lessons picked up along the way, we also founded a sister company named Zone, which supports our firm’s environmental practice from a technical standpoint, and also provides integrated consulting services in sustainability, compliance and carbon-neutrality, all with a preventive focus.
In your opinion, what does it mean to be a litigator? What skills do you think a litigator needs to have in order to be successful?
For me, a litigator is a well-rounded, all around, lawyer. Every case is different, so a litigator has to have a good general understanding of the law, so as to pick up key issues and themes from the start. A successful litigator is a good researcher, that always supports arguments as best as possible. I would also mention that a litigator needs to be persistent. A case in our court system takes years to be processed from start to finish. It is not sufficient to start strong just to abandon the case soon after. So a litigator needs to carry on, and plan and prepare for the end game, which may come years later. A successful litigator also needs to be attuned to the psychology of parties, judges and other stakeholders to identify what is really driving the litigation.
What accomplishments as a litigator are you most proud of? Tell us about a memorable case you participated in.
I had the opportunity to work for the Appellate Body Secretariat of the World Trade Organization. There I helped in the handling of the appeal in a case brought by the European Union against Chilean taxes on alcoholic beverages. It was a memorable experience, learning and working with top international trade lawyers from around the world.
In what ways has BLP identified trends and stayed ahead of the law?
Innovation and a can-do attitude make BLP a great place to work at. A mindset of sustainability for example, contrasts with the rest of the market. We have developed our own picture of what a sustainable law firm should look like, and what we should strive for. Both inside our firm and in how our firm should fit into Costa Rican society on the long term. We saw intrinsic value in becoming a carbon neutral firm. We have also found a place and reputation in our community with our pro bono work, which was recently ranked as a top initiative within the larger Latin American legal community by IFLR. This positioning allows us, for example, to contribute to new regulations coming into the horizon, in marine conservation for example. Our award-winning inclusion and gender programs also add value to the firm and support our talent retention. Our next challenge will certainly be artificial intelligence and the law, where we hope to innovate with home-grown solutions and ways of doing things.
What is one thing the public should understand about litigation in Costa Rica, compared to the rest of the world?
We live in times in which institutions all around the world are looked at with distrust and cynicism. This is specially the case in the Central American region. But Costa Rican courts are quite accessible to the general population, as suits are relatively inexpensive to bring on, and people still have confidence in the legal system. Costa Ricans are then quite active in court. Cases, particularly small claims abound, which makes the courts function quite slowly, despite efforts to make them more efficient. After 25 years of handling disputes around the country, I find that delays are disappointing, but that generally you can expect a final decision which is reasoned and fair.
What are some things you wish you knew as a first-year litigator that you know now?
Some lessons I wished to have received in plain language when I was starting out would be: Keep your cool, big drama does not sell. Choose your battles and fight in your high ground, don’t try to win every single point. And most important, your main idea has to be front and center in every brief and presentation, don’t hide it within the standard formats or the legalese.