Southland Law Firms Set Up Shop in Mexico : Trade: U.S. executives want attorneys close at hand to help guide them through bureaucracy and unfamiliar business practices.


Where American business goes, its lawyers follow.

U.S. law firms have been opening offices in Mexico City, many through their operations in Orange County and Los Angeles.

Attorneys say that their industry's interest in Mexico has picked up in the past six to 12 months. They say their presence has been requested by clients, who are uncomfortable with the informality of business agreements in Mexico.

South of the border, a person's word and a handshake have often been enough to seal a deal.

"It's a tightly woven economic network there, and lawyers have not been prominent," said Mike Joyce, whose firm is opening an office in Mexico City this week. He is with Allen, Matkins, Leck, Gamble & Mallory in Irvine.

Also, U.S. executives say that Mexico can be a morass of paperwork, business practices and laws that they don't understand. For that reason, they say, they need advice from U.S. lawyers.

"Americans are uncomfortable with the notion that you can sign an agreement that's only two pages," Joyce said.

Allen, Matkins is opening a one-person office in an executive suite with one of its biggest clients, Koll Co. in Newport Beach. The development and construction company is building resorts in Baja California and other parts of Mexico.

The firm will advise clients how to conduct business in Mexico without running afoul of the law there, but it will not be licensed to practice Mexican law.

Though the North American Free Trade Agreement has yet to be signed, presidential decrees have continued to open Mexico's economy to U.S. business, said Norman Gritsch, an Orange County lawyer who has been working with the Mexican government to revise its foreign investment laws.

Because of their proximity to the border, Southern California offices of national law firms are a natural jumping-off point for expansion. Hot areas are direct investment, international trade, real estate development and international services such as insurance.

Gritsch said his firm--Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in Los Angeles--is actively exploring the possibility of opening an office in Mexico City. The firm represents, among others, Cifra S.A. de C.V., which recently formed a 50-50 joint venture with WalMart to operate department stores.

Another big-name law firm--Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker in Los Angeles--is looking into the possibility of opening an office in Mexico, partner Michael Owen said. It may also form a correspondent office or associated office relationship with a Mexican law firm.

Mayer, Brown & Platt did that in June, said Robert Southern, managing partner of the Chicago firm's Los Angeles office. The firm has an affiliation with Jauregui, Navarrette & Nader, a 15-person firm in Mexico City, which makes it one of the largest in that city.

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