Asia Business Law Journal presents our best law firms for 2019.
The Philippine economy had an interesting 2019, starting off the year on a slow note as its economic growth was down to the lowest in eight years, but soon picking up the pace in the second half on the back of strong consumption growth.
As the year drew to a close, the country’s economy was one of the brighter spots in a region that has otherwise had a forgettable year.
The country’s GDP is expected to grow by 5.8% in 2019, and is likely to register 6.1% growth in 2020 and 6.2% in 2021, according to a World Bank report from October.
The economy is bustling with strong consumption growth, increased remittances, moderate inflation, growing infrastructure spending and foreign investment. Its corporate market is buzzing, too, and the healthy business environment and positive outlook has spurred demand for corporate legal services.
The Philippines’ legal market is an exciting mix of both old, long-established firms that are widely respected, in the country and outside, as well as bold new firms that are challenging the status quo. Law firms that are known and recognized for their expertise and experience are having to compete with younger firms that bring energy, new ideas and specialist knowledge.
It is with this backdrop that we present Asia Business Law Journal’s Philippines Law Firm Awards 2019. We have identified one law firm of the year and four winners each in 22 practice areas. We have also identified the best newcomer law firm.
No matter the vintage or the size, one thing that can be said about all of the firms in the list is that their clients trust them and the quality of their counsel.
SyCip Salazar Hernandez & Gatmaitan (SyCip) is one of the oldest and most respected firms in the Philippines. This is the second year in a row SyCip is being adjudged the best law firm in the country by Asia Business Law Journal.
Founded in 1945, SyCip has built a portfolio of transactions that include some of the biggest and most complex deals in the Philippines.
In 2019, the firm worked on several major transactions including the PHP40 billion (US$784 million) loan facility for the Vertis North Solaire Hotel and Resorts project, and the Bank of the Philippine Island’s US$600 million bond offering.
One of the most notable deals that SyCip was involved in was San Miguel Corporation’s (SMC) approximately US$15 billion unsolicited proposal for the financing, design, construction, and operation and maintenance of the New Manila International Airport, including an airport toll road in Bulacan.
SyCip provided structuring advice to SMC, and assisted in drafting and negotiating the concession agreement and related documentation, and with the requirements for the submission of an unsolicited proposal under the Build-Operate-Transfer Law. The firm also advised SMC on the initial preparations for the financing of the project, including its discussions with financial advisers and potential lenders.
A notable development for SyCip this year was the election of executive committee members in January 2019, which resulted in women forming a majority of the firm’s governing body.
SMC’s associate general counsel Paula Katherina Gan lauds SyCip’s competition practice. “Special mention must be made of Franco Aristotle G Larcina,” she says. “Franco’s knowledge and experience in what is a relatively new practice area in the Philippines is quite impressive. Franco’s views are practical and effective, and service is delivered at the drop of a hat. His team is quick and efficient, and yet without sacrificing the quality of advice. Franco is quite the rising star in this area.”
An in-house counsel at a leading mining company in the Philippines commends the firm’s banking and financial services practices, adding that the firm’s partner, “Aaron Riturban is very responsive and provides legally sound and practical advice”.
Aquende Yebra Aniag Loon & Associates (AYALA Law) is one of the young law firms in the Philippines that is attracting attention for the quality of their work and their expertise. AYALA Law’s taxation practice, spearheaded by founding partner Hardy Aquende, is admired by both clients and the firm’s peers.
Apart from the firm’s four founding partners, including Aquende, Anson Lapuz-Yebra Bernard Benjamin Aniag and Jose Martin Loon, the firm has 13 lawyers.
While taxation is its area of primary expertise, it has other practices such as litigation, corporate law, telecoms, environmental law, family law, banking and financial regulation, election law, national security and defence.
Founded in 1972, ACCRALAW is among the largest firms in the country, with more than 160 lawyers and about 50 partners. The Manila-based firm also has offices in Cebu and Davao.
ACCRALAW has an enviable list of clients including some large Filipino business houses and multinational giants. While it is a full-service firm, ACCRALAW has built a formidable reputation for both conventional practice areas such as dispute resolution, litigation, capital markets and shipping, as well as areas such as data compliance.
Picazo Buyco Tan Fider and Santos is one of the most respected capital markets practices in the country, and has over the years built a strong name for itself in other practice areas such as M&A, banking, finance and securitization, as well as for competition and antitrust. Picazo’s clients laud the firm for the “quality of its advice and for the dedication of its lawyers”.
“I would say that Picazo has a firm grasp on the capital markets practice, cementing itself as perhaps the leading law firm for this area,” says Gan of San Miguel. “They are creative, consistent, quick to act and facilitative of clients’ needs.
“Picazo had helped us in successfully setting up a shelf registration of equity securities – the first ever in the Philippines,” she says. “More recently, Picazo also assisted us in the consolidation of the food and beverage businesses of San Miguel, a project that presented various timing hurdles and legal issues that, with the ready help of Picazo, we were able to address.
Highly regarded full-service law firm Romulo Mabanta Buenaventura Sayoc & de los Angeles has built a name for its M&A, capital markets, private equity and venture funding, real estate and competition practices.
The firm, which traces its roots to 1902, today has about 90 lawyers, making it one of the largest in the country. Local and international clients recommend Romulo highly, especially for their “professionalism, diligence, thoroughness and knowledge”. Romulo has offices in Manila, Cebu and an overseas presence in Hong Kong.
Quisumbing Torres, a member firm of Baker McKenzie International, is a highly sought-after firm in the Philippines, both for its domestic reputation and for its international network. The full-service firm, headed by Ramon J Quisumbing, has had a notable year especially in dispute resolution and arbitration practices, as well as its traditional strong area of aviation.
A noteworthy deal that Quisumbing worked on last year was a commercial arbitration under the rules of the Philippine Dispute Resolution Centre (PDRCI), obtaining a favourable decision for its client, a multinational company in a PHP1.8 billion dispute, from an emergency arbitrator. This was the first emergency arbitration under the PDRCI and the question whether the emergency arbitrator can revoke a court-
issued garnishment is novel and will likely reach the Supreme Court.Lawyers from Quisumbing Torres were involved in the revision of the 2015 PDRCI Arbitration Rules.
On the human resource front, Quisumbing has had a busy year with six new industry heads assigned and nine associate level hires.
Led by the Philippines’ former secretary of defence, Avelino J Cruz Jr, and former ombudsman and solicitor-general Simeon V Marcelo, Cruz Marcelo & Tenefrancia is perhaps the country’s most respected litigation and dispute resolution firm.
The firm has the expertise to counsel and guide their clients in every step of the dispute resolution process, including assistance in drafting arbitration/submission agreements, taking a proactive approach to avoidance and settlement of disputes, vigorous representation before ad hoc or institutional arbitral tribunals, seeking specific court reliefs for both domestic and international arbitration seated in the Philippines or abroad, including interim measures of protection, recognition, vacation, enforcement and execution of arbitral awards, and in other post-rendition of award remedies including appellate representation.
A notable deal for the firm this year was advising Sagittarius Mines, one of five holders of financial and technical assistance agreements in the Philippines, on legal hurdles preventing their US$37 billion project from continuing.
As part of its expansion plans, the firm admitted four lawyers to partnership level in the past 12 months.
Ocampo Manalo Valdez and Lim is best known for its aviation practice and is counted among the best in the business. The firm has an enviable list of clients in the aviation sector, both from the Philippines and overseas. It assists companies across the sector value chain, and has made a name for its “expertise” and “practical experience”, and ability to provide “tailored solutions”.
The 22-year-old full-service firm has in the past represented major aviation companies such as AirAsia, Xiamen Airlines, Juneyao Airlines, Jeju Air, Hong Kong Airlines, Air Seoul and Turkish Airlines, among others.
This year, the firm promoted one lawyer to partnership and three to senior associates. The firm is part of the JLPW Legal Group, a law firm network with Malaysian firm Jeff Leong Poon & Wong, which has affiliations with firms in ASEAN countries as well as China, Japan and Korea.
Platon Martinez Flores San Pedro Leaño Law Offices is a 24-year-old firm that is highly regarded for its aviation expertise. The firm advises and acts as counsel for several top carriers such as Philippine Airlines, Air France/KLM, Emirates, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific in civil cases involving varying claims for damages. The firm also handles matters before the Civil Aeronautics Board for these airlines. It beefed up its legal team with the hiring of six new lawyers and the promotion of one lawyer to partnership earlier this year.
The full-service firm also has a strong list of non-aviation clients including Coca-Cola Beverages Philippines, Siemens, DHL Worldwide, Sumitomo, the ArtNature Group of Companies, ON Semiconductor Philippines, Motorola Solutions, JFE Group, Shearwater Health and Perstima Philippines, among others.
In some notable recent deals, the firm advised IKEA in connection with the establishment of an outlet in Manila, and provided assistance in the corporate restructuring of Kinetic Worldwide Media Philippines, as well as the restructuring of the Philippine branch of Omnicom.
DivinaLaw is one of the most reputable full-service firms in the country, carving out a name for itself in just over a decade since its founding. Among the fastest growing firms in the country, DivinaLaw recently hired nine new lawyers, including notably two Chinese speakers to add to its China expertise.
The firm has also adopted cloud-based technology for its library of case files, billing system and document courier system, to improve overall efficiency and reduce costs. Embracing cloud-based technology slashed the firm’s document reproduction costs in half and provides a reliable and quick way for lawyers to access case files even when they are out of town.
DivinaLaw played a key role in helping Industrial and Commercial Bank of China to establish its presence in the Philippines by serving as its labour and immigration counsel. DivinaLaw served as this bank’s sole and exclusive counsel from the ground up, assisting it in all aspects.
PunoLaw, the 35-year-old firm founded by Ricardo Puno Sr, a former minister of justice and his son Ricardo Puno Jr, is widely admired for its energy and litigation practices. The firm claims to have worked on almost every major energy and power transaction in the country in the past couple of decades. It has also been commended for its competition practice by clients. It has a deep roster of clients in both domestic and international business.
Though most known for its energy practice, it is a full-service firm that has a strong reputation for its banking, litigation, taxation and M&A practices.
Led by managing partner Roderico Puno, the firm has 10 senior partners, one partner, 11 senior associates and 26 associates.
Manila-based law firm Castillo Laman Tan Pantaleon & San Jose is a four-decades-old, full-service firm with more than 50 lawyers, including 27 partners. It has built a reputation for its corporate and commercial practice, as well as for its expertise in dispute resolution, intellectual property, and labour and employment.
Its roster of clients, domestic and international, are spread across many industry sectors, from banking and finance to chemicals and manufacturing, construction and real estate, entertainment and education, and transportation, among others. Its clients recommend the firm for “attention to the client”, and “value and quality of output”.
Founded in 2014, Abad Alcantara and Associates (also known as Trade Lawyers) is a specialist law firm that has deep expertise in emerging areas of business law such as competition and antitrust, trade law, data privacy and other technology practices.
The firm is heavily involved in data privacy compliance, counting a large number of fintech, big data and peer-to-peer startups in its portfolio. Associate Abraham Alonzo Guiyab is a member of the National Association of Data Protection Officers and Fintech PH, and is involved in the registration of the Philippines’ first crowdfunding intermediary and platform, in addition to being part of the first batch of the Philippines’ Data Privacy Protection Auditors certified by TUV Rheinland, and is a certified data protection officer from the same organization.
The firm has secured advisory opinions from the National Privacy Commission on behalf of an employee-integrated benefits platform, and handled one of the Philippines’ first online lending startups licensed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and registered with the Privacy Commission.
Other matters handled by the firm include privacy advisory for a major big data and AI analytics startup, compliance with cross-border data privacy rules for a human resources platform, and it has also tackled privacy compliance for a startup incubator. The firm’s lawyers have been involved in technical committees and working groups responsible for the drafting and preparation of the Innovative Startup Act, and the Innovation Law, as well as its implementing rules and regulations.
Disini & Disini is one of the earliest firms in the country to build a niche in emerging sectors such technology, e-commerce, cyberspace law, social networks, peer-to-peer media, online advertising, and e-learning. The 20-year-old firm has an enviable track record in its niche, and is one of the most preferred firms for startups and technology companies in the country, and for international firms in the Philippines.
The firm has three partners, including founders JJ Disini and Rowena Disini, and about 20 employees, including lawyers, legal staff and business process analysts.
Dime & Eviota is a leading full-service firm that is best known for its energy and aviation practices. “Dime & Eviota is a very reliable and professional law firm in the Philippines,” says Justin Wu, director of the power station division of Sungrow Power in China. “The partners always seek most suitable legal solutions to us. They address our concerns always, and timely, for our projects in the Philippines. Dime & Eviota is a firm that I’ll strongly recommend.”
The firm has taken interesting initiatives to expand its business, such as the launch of the Energy Lawyers Association of the Philippines which, as the name implies, is an organization of legal professionals focused on energy practice. It also has developed Deal Kitchen, a network of strategic alliances with pools of advisers from commercial fields, which allows the firm to provide more well-rounded advice.
This year, Dime & Eviota assisted parties affected by the Supreme Court decision in Alyansa v ERC in dialogues with the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) and the Department of Energy (DOE), specifically on questions and challenges in the implementation of competitive selection process (CSP) policy.
It has also advised the Philippine affiliate of a European solar rooftop developer in structuring its changing relationship, and at the same time advising on the engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) arrangements with their two key solar rooftop projects, including one of the largest mall operators and one of the biggest agricultural firms in the country.
Puyat Jacinto & Santos Law Offices (PJS) is among the largest firms in the country, with nearly 50 lawyers. The two-decades-old firm is best known for its energy, and banking and finance practices.
Its services include providing assistance in applications to the ERC, drafting and reviewing of operational contracts, dispute resolution as well as representation before government agencies and private entities including the DOE, the National Transmission Corporation, National Power Corporation, the Power Sector Assets and Liabilities Management Corporation, the ERC, and the Philippine Electricity Market Corporation.
Bengzon Negre Untalan (BNU) is an IP-focused law firm that has stood out for its formidable experience and expertise in this practice area. It has an enviable roster of clients including some of the biggest brands such as Apple, AstraZeneca, Novartis, Ajinomoto, and Nestle Philippines, as well as domestic businesses such as San Miguel.
Editha Hechanova-led Hechanova Group is among the top IP firms in the country. The firm is organized differently from other law firms. The group has two businesses, a consulting firm, Hechanova & Co, which does IP prosecution, and Hechanova Bugay Vilchez & Andaya-Racadio, a law firm that does contentious aspects of IP such as litigation, as well as non-IP matters. It has been the top patent filer in the Philippines since 2015, and has a team of lawyers as well as technical experts.
Federis & Associates is a boutique IP firm and deservedly one of the top intellectual property firms in the country.
Its services include patent and industrial design, copyright registration, transfer and licensing, anti-counterfeiting advice, cease and desist letters, reviews of surveillance reports, raids, search warrants, trademark filings and maintenance, as well as IP litigation.
Siguion Reyna Montecillo & Ongsiako, a century-old firm, is best known for its employment, dispute resolution and aviation practices. The firm’s clients include some of the top 200 companies in the Philippines as well as several Fortune 500 companies. It has about 50 lawyers and is a member of TAGLaw, a global alliance of law firms with 150 member firms based in more than 90 countries.
Poblador Bautista & Reyes is widely recognized as among the country’s best litigation and dispute resolution firms. The firm, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, focuses on arbitration and civil, commercial, administrative and criminal litigation, corporate, tax and special projects, industrial and intellectual property, and employment and immigration.
Within the litigation practice, it has built a reputation for its commercial and criminal litigation, real estate litigation, and insolvency and rehabilitation. Its commercial litigation practice covers contracts, torts and damages, commercial debt collection, product liability, bankruptcy and insolvency. It has also represented numerous clients in domestic and international arbitration, as well as disputes with government agencies and regulators. It provides IP services including litigation and has a successful track record of patent and copyright enforcement actions, as well as counselling clients on addressing internet piracy and pursuing customs enforcement.
MOSVELDTT is a full-service firm that is noted for its litigation and dispute resolution expertise. The firm recently marked its 10th anniversary, and has worked on some notable dispute resolution deals in the past year.
It advised an internationally awarded journalist and her team on how to best protect her rights against current and future political persecution, and successfully defended against an interim relief application involving one of the country’s major transportation operators.
In other practice areas, it advised a Philippine conglomerate in its PHP2 billion acquisition of a global online fashion retailer and a multinational electric company on Philippine Competition Law and other regulatory issues relating to its multibillion-peso acquisition of a domestic electronics company.
Founded in 1980 by young lawyers, including Antonio T Carpio, former acting chief justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines, Villaraza & Angangco has quite naturally built a formidable reputation for its litigation expertise. It is a go-to firm for domestic and international companies for their dispute resolution and litigation needs in the country.
In recent deals, the firm advised on the rehabilitation of HHIC-PHIL in the largest financial default in Philippine history, involving claims worth more than US$1.5 billion. The petition for rehabilitation was filed by HHIC-Phil only in January 2019, and involves more than 100 creditors including foreign and local banks, foreign and local suppliers, and foreign ship buyers.
The firm also represented Rizal Commercial Banking Corporation and its officers in various suits involving the alleged hacking of the system of the Bangladesh Bank, the central bank of Bangladesh, which resulted in it giving several payment instructions to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the central bank in New York, to remit over US$81 million from Bangladesh Bank’s account to several accounts of various individuals in RCBC.
It is also assisting the bank’s New York counsel. It is also the counsel for ChinaTel for preserving the status of the consortium of China Telecommunications Corporation, Mindanao Islamic Telecommunications, Udenna Corporation, and Chelsea Corporation as the third major player in the Philippine telecommunications industry.
Gulapa Law is a Manila-based international law firm with a presence in New York and San Francisco. The five-year-old firm has carved a spot for itself among the country’s best law firms in a short span of time. The firm set up a New York office through its affiliate, Gulapa & Baclay, in 2017 and followed up with a representative office in San Francisco in 2018. The firm’s strengths are its general corporate and infrastructure practices. It has also built a reputation for its international expertise, especially on US and ASEAN-related matters.
Gatmaytan Yap Patacsil Gutierrez & Protacio (C&G Law), which was founded in 2007 with six lawyers, has grown to about 50 lawyers and fee earners, making it among the 10 largest law firms in the Philippines. It added a partner and counsel in 2019.
The firm, which is part of Singaporean law firm Rajah & Tann Asia’s legal network, has a strong client list in the Philippines, in other ASEAN countries, and in China.
C&G Law is one of the strongest real estate law firms in the country. Its real estate clientele includes some of the largest realty players in the country. In a recent notable deal, the firm assisted Ayala Land and its subsidiaries, Cebu Holdings and Cebu Property Ventures and Development Corporation, in the merger of these subsidiaries. The merging firms’ total assets exceed PHP25 billion.
The firm also assisted Aboitiz Power Corporation, one of the Philippines’ largest power generation companies, with the acquisition of several parcels of land in Luzon for the purpose of developing power plants.
DelRosario & DelRosario Law Offices started out as a maritime law firm in 1977, and has in the past four decades established itself as one of the most respected shipping law firms in the country. Recently it has diversified into other practice areas such as litigation, labour, M&A and IP. It advises international shipowners’ and protection and indemnity (P&I) clubs on labour law issues, collisions, oil pollution and spills, bill of lading disputes, ship acquisitions, and sales and ship. The firm is also the exclusive Manila correspondent of the Through Transport Club, the largest club for non-vessel common carriers, terminal operators and freight forwarders/consolidators.
Ortega Bacorro Odulio Calma & Carbonell is among the oldest law firms in the Philippines, starting out as Pillsbury & Sutro in 1901. It is most recognized for its expertise in maritime law, but has diversified into general law practice recently. Its other practice areas include IP, litigation, taxation, aviation, and estates and trusts. It has an illustrious list of alumni including former Philippine president Diosdado Pangan Macapagal, former Supreme Court chief justice Ricardo Paras, and former ambassador to the US Amelito Mutuc.
Abuda Asis & Associates is one of the most respected banking and finance firms in the Philippines, with a special reputation for its structured finance and securitization expertise. The boutique firm has extensive experience in banking and finance, project and acquisition finance, power, water and infrastructure development, M&A and taxation. Abuda Asis & Associates acts as counsel and legal adviser to several lenders, especially on project finance transactions. It has earned the trust of its clients, especially in the power, energy, water and infrastructure sectors. It also has expertise in handling public-private partnership (PPP) transactions, notably in water utility and renewable energy sectors.
The firm has five partners including founders Cornelio B Abuda and Genaro Jehremiah Wilfred C Asis, and three associates.
Du-Baladad and Associates (BDB Law), founded by Benedicta Du-Baladad, is a taxation-focused boutique firm. The decade-old firm has established itself as one of the most respected taxation firms in the country. It offers a wide array of tax-related services including litigation, advisory and planning, transfer pricing, handling assessments, disputes and tax claims, tax compliance, advocacy, and international tax advisory and expatriate services. It also has a consulting division that advises on M&A and corporate restructuring.
Baniqued Layug & Bello is also widely recognized as one of the best tax law firms in the country. The firm has focused exclusively on taxation and offers services across tax-related areas. Apart from the three named partners, Carlos Baniqued, Laura Victoria Yuson-Layug and Terence Conrad Bello, it has two partners and 10 other lawyers.
Mata-Perez Tamayo & Francisco is a full-service firm that is most recognized for its taxation expertise. Apart from taxation, it also has a strong customs advisory service. It is recognized by clients and its peers as both a top taxation firm as well as a general corporate advisory firm. The firm is led by managing partner Euney Marie Mata-Perez and has two other named partners, Mark Anthony Tamayo and Gerardo Maximo Francisco. The firm also has two senior associates.
Gorriceta Africa Cauton & Saavedra has made a name for itself as a go-to firm for technology companies, especially for startups looking to navigate the complex regulatory landscape. It has proven expertise in advising companies in cutting-edge technology areas such as fintech, artificial intelligence, blockchain, virtual currency, data privacy and security, cybersecurity and intellectual property protection. Its clients include some of the most exciting technology startups in the region.