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GAR 100 - 10th Edition

Von Wobeser y Sierra

02 March 2017

Home to one of the most in-demand arbitrators in Latin America

People in Who’s Who Legal 1
Pending cases as counsel 9
Value of pending counsel work US$1.5 billion
Treaty cases 0
Current arbitrator appointments 7 (of which 2 are as sole or chair)
Lawyers sitting as arbitrator 2

GAR’s sister guide to law firms in Latin America, Latin Lawyer 250, singles out Von Wobeser y Sierra’s arbitration practice as one of the best options in Mexico – thanks, largely, it says, to the impressive international profile of the firm’s founder, Claus von Wobeser.

It’s hard to disagree. On top of multiple bar association roles, von Wobeser is a former vice president of the ICC Court and is regularly seen arbitrating commercial and investor-state disputes. He has lately been on ICSID panels hearing claims against Spain, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Peru, Poland and Romania. In addition, he has sat alone in a rare ICSID conciliation proceeding filed by Equatorial Guinea against CMS Energy Corporation.

The arbitration and litigation practice is headed by Marco Tulio Venegas, who has helped to build a team of around 12 lawyers versed in arbitration. Adrián Magallanes, who was promoted to partner in 2013, is considered a rising star.

In 2014, the firm promoted Diego Sierra to partner. Sierra combines international arbitration work with an anti-corruption practice and is the son of one of the firm’s founding partners.

Who uses it?

Anheuser-Busch InBev used the firm (with Skadden Arps and Sullivan & Cromwell) in a substantial case brought by Mexico’s Grupo Modelo.

Construction companies, including Mexican market leader ICA and former Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR), are regular clients, and the firm also represents businesses in negotiations with state oil company Pemex or electricity utility CFE. British American Tobacco has instructed the firm for a US$300 million dispute with a Japanese joint venture partner.

Track record

Anheuser-Busch won the arbitration with Grupo Modelo – prompting the boss to take the team on a night out. “When I received the award, I was compelled to find the arbitration team and celebrate,” von Wobeser says.

In another case – for a chemicals company in ICC proceedings brought by a competitor over an alleged breach of a purchase agreement – the team won its client full costs after the tribunal dismissed the claim (Hunton & Williams was co-counsel).

The firm also secured a win for its client ICA in a multimillion-dollar claim regarding the construction of a hydroelectric project. Following the win, ICA has instructed Von Wobeser y Sierra in a number of its most important arbitrations.

In 2015, the firm helped Siemens and South Korea’s SK Engineering & Construction settle a bitter dispute with Pemex over a refinery upgrade, with the state entity agreeing to pay US$295 million. The dispute had given rise to a decade-long ICC arbitration and a final award worth almost US$600 million, which Von Wobeser y Sierra helped to defend from attacks in the Mexican courts.

Lawyers from the firm also act as expert witnesses on Mexican law in arbitrations and related litigation. Von Wobeser gave testimony in US court proceedings on behalf of KBR, which led to the successful confirmation of a US$465 million ICC award against Pemex in 2013. Von Wobeser was also an expert witness in the underlying arbitration.

Recent events

The firm helped Modelo win an ICC case with costs against Guatemalan partners who had sold imitation Corona beers in the US and Australia. The tribunal concluded that the client had validly terminated its contract and dismissed a US$10 million counterclaim.

Von Wobeser y Sierra has proved particularly adept at winning interim relief for clients under the ICC’s emergency arbitrator provisions. In 2015, it helped a group of shareholders in Mexican insurer Seguros Argos win emergency relief against Dutch insurance group Aegon requiring it to comply with certain shareholder obligations – before leading the clients to victory in the ensuing arbitration.

In another case for ICA in 2016, the firm won interim relief that prevented Denmark’s APM Terminals from collecting US$40 million in performance bonds issued by ICA in connection with a deal to build a port terminal.

It also helped a joint venture between California’s Sempra Energy and Pemex settle an ICC dispute with Italian-Argentine engineering group Techint over the construction of a 220-kilometre ethane pipeline in southern Mexico.

Von Wobeser continues to be one of the most in-demand arbitrators in Latin America. He presided over an ICSID panel that rejected a US$350 million claim against Costa Rica as inadmissible, and chaired an ad hoc committee that upheld the Micula brothers' US$376 million award against Romania.

Counsel Victor Ruiz left the firm after four years to establish his own practice as an arbitrator in Mexico City. 

Client comment

Lee Huckstep, Houston-based assistant general counsel at KBR, says that he goes to the firm “again and again” for its “excellent work”, and that he has recommended Von Wobeser y Sierra to others.