36 ASIAN LEGAL BUSINESS – JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2024 WWW.LEGALBUSINESSONLINE.COM The Philippines, a closed, wellcontrolled market through most of its history, started dipping its toes into the waters of foreign investment towards the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rebalancing ownership restrictions to allow more international players onto its shores became a major state objective, with the government last year even opening up certain previously controlled public infrastructure sectors, including airports, railways, expressways and telecommunications, to 100 percent foreign ownership. This dream of transforming the islands into an “ideal investment hub” may still be a far cry for the legal sector, where the license to practice law in the country remains a privilege only citizens can enjoy. But as more eyes have turned to the Philippines’ growing market, foreign law firms have found their way in, setting up collaborations with local law firms to support their global clients. PJS Law, a 60-lawyer Manila firm, took the leap last year, announcing a first-of-its-kind combination with the world’s largest global law firm by numbers – Dentons. After a year of planning, the combination is set to launch in February and will pave the way for other law firms in the country to form similar arrangements with large international players. This is a game changer for the industry, say PJS founding partner Regina Jacinto-Barrientos and Dentons CEO Elliot Portnoy. While international law firm mergers are still restricted in the Philippines, the Dentons Swiss verein model – combining profit-sharing in how local law firms are run and controlled by local lawyers – has passed regulatory scrutiny. Others, including Japan’s Nishimura & Asahi and Mori Hamada & Matsumoto, and KPMG Legal, have also announced similar associations with law firms in the country. For Dentons, the decision to enter the Philippines market through this collaboration was client-driven. “Our strategy is driven by our clients. One of the markets that our clients have been most insistent that we focus on in order to meet their needs better is the Philippines. It’s one of the world’s fastestgrowing economies. It’s a market of very significant strategic and economic importance to our clients,” Portnoy explains. OPEN FOR BUSINESS Erosion of foreign ownership limits, better corporate tax regimes, and fastimproving infrastructure have forced global capital to look at the Philippines as an important economic hub, says Wilma Cua, a senior partner in the corporate practice at Philippine law firm Romulo Mabanta Buenaventura Sayoc & de los Angeles. Over the last few years, the government has reduced corporate tax rate PHILIPPINE REPORT OPEN HORIZONS The increased liberalisation of markets in the Philippines is driving more international business and law firms to its shores, as the legal market prepares for increased billing, growing in-house capabilities and a talent war. BY NIMITT DIXIT Image: r.nagy/