The Firms

December 20, 2011 4:31 PM

Littler Heads South of the Border with Acquisition of 24 Mexican Lawyers

Posted by Sara Randazzo

A year after opening an outpost in Venezuela, Littler Mendelson is again expanding in Latin America, this time by opening a pair of offices in Mexico. 

The labor and employment specialty firm will gain 24 lawyers from full-service Mexican firm Basham, Ringe & Correa on January 2. Led by Oscar De la Vega, the group will set up shop in Mexico City and Monterrey and be known locally as Littler, De la Vega y Conde.

Littler president and managing director Marko Mrkonich calls the new offices "the next logical step in developing an ability to answer employers questions and provide their needs on a global basis." Increasingly, Mrkonich says, clients need multijurisdictional labor and employment advice covering everything from privacy policies and codes of ethics to workforce reductions and benefits planning.

But why Mexico? On a basic level, Mrkonich says the country represents fertile territory for Littler because "places with lots of people have employment law issues."

More immediately, he says, this move—like Littler's foray into Venezuela, its first expansion outside the U.S.—is the result of the firm identifying a group of local lawyers it trusts and wants to hire. Littler, Mrkonich adds, got to know De la Vega's group several years ago through Ius Laboris, a global alliance of labor and employment firms from 42 countries. (Littler replaced Seyfarth Shaw as Ius Laboris's U.S. member in 2008).

For his part, De la Vega compares the move from full-service firm to a labor and employment–specific practice to going from a family with five sons to one with a single child. "You get all the attention, all the support," he says, adding he first became interested in moving his team to Littler about a year ago.

De la Vega says most of his existing clients are publicly held U.S.–based companies doing business in Mexico, including 3M, General Electric, Hilton Hotels, MasterCard, Oracle, Ritz-Carlton, and Weyerhaeuser. He says he also expects his group to land assignments from the growing number of Mexican companies beginning to expand internationally.

Lance Compa, who teaches international labor law at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, says there is undoubtedly a market for labor and employment specialists south of the border. "American companies doing business in Mexico need careful legal counsel," says Compa, noting that while the country's labor laws tend to favor workers over management, local politics affect how strictly those laws are enforced from region to region.

And though Mexico's business climate is generally pro-union, according to Compa, many existing unions are management-friendly and therefore difficult to replace. Whether Littler, known domestically for helping companies combat and break up unions, extends that strategy into Mexico remains to be seen, Compa says.

Just a handful of Am Law 200 firms have offices in Mexico. Those that do include Texas-based Haynes and Boone, New York–based Chadbourne & Parke, and megafirms such as Baker & McKenzie, White & Case, and Jones Day.

In addition to De la Vega, Littler is also gaining shareholders Enrique Garcia Conde, Monica Schiaffino, and Javiera Medina Reza. De la Vega notes that another benefit from the move to Littler is the chance to promote Schiaffino and Reza, who were senior associates at the old firm, where there were no women among the partners.

The two Mexico offices will give Littler roughly 850 attorneys in 55 locations. The firm announced another new office last week, this one in Morgantown, West Virginia. That location is being launched via the relocation of shareholder Nick Linn, a West Virginia native currently based in Dallas. According to the most recent Am Law 100 figures, Littler had gross revenue of $381.5 million and profits per partner of $485,000 in 2010.

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