Following an extensive nominations process, Asia Business Law Journal reveals the A-List of the Philippines’ legal profession. Lim Miran and Putro Harnowo reports

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fter a battering from the pandemic, the Philippines is likely to exit from recession this year. However, the nation’s sluggish vaccination programme and continual lockdowns have taken a tough toll on businesses, and legal considerations and opinions are more crucial than ever when venturing forward.

The Asian Development Bank’s report, Asian Development Outlook 2021, released in April, forecast the country’s economy to grow by 4.5% this year compared to a 9.6% contraction last year, the worst recession since the second world war. The government mounted a two-pronged relief effort, Bayanihan 1 and 2, repurposing unallocated funds towards priority areas including monthly subsidies for vulnerable households and businesses.

The rollout of the Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises Bill in March has also been expected to keep foreign direct investment steady and improve the unemployment rate. In February, the government issued the Financial Institutions Strategic Transfer Act to strengthen the financial sector and enable banks and financial institutions to extend credit to more sectors, thus stimulating much needed economic growth.

But the languishing vaccination rate, new highly transmissible virus variants and targeted mobility restrictions have sent a further shiver through the economy. Fitch Ratings revised its outlook for the Philippines from stable to negative in July, citing the impact of a long-term impact and potential scarring from the pandemic. While Fitch still affirms the country’s investment-grade status at BBB, or medium credit quality, its rating remains below the median for BBB-rated peers.

Against this backdrop, Asia Business Law Journal presents its A-List of the top 100 lawyers practising in the Philippines (see the list of all 100 lawyers and the key practice areas for which they are endorsed here). The list is based on extensive research conducted and nominations received from in-house counsel in the country and elsewhere, as well as Philippine-focused partners at international law firms based outside the jurisdiction.

Comments submitted to Asia Business Law Journal suggest that clients demand lawyers who master novel concepts in the ever-changing industry, apart from extensive legal knowledge, and are equipped with a forward-thinking approach to solving complex problems.

Nearly all of the A-List lawyers are located in the national capital, Metro Manila, where global firms, local conglomerates, startups and policymakers are headquartered. This metropolis is a critical entry point for the region’s markets and international trade, and the centre of government.

Guiding the giants

During the tumult that is the pandemic, the uncertainty has significantly affected the ability of enterprises to function effectively. Corporate lawyers who can advise on practical impacts in volatile circumstances, scaling up businesses, controlling the damage or drawing up exit strategies are highly sought after.

Nilo Divina, managing partner of DivinaLaw, has been praised as “intelligent, honest and extremely competent” by Rene Buenaventura, vice chairman of conglomerate Equicom Group in Manila.

“When we consult him on certain legal issues, it is almost immediate that he is able to cite the applicable law, regulations or previous court decisions that directly impact on the issues,” says Buenaventura. “He is then able to recommend sound and effective solutions.”

Ace Devino Custodio, vice president and corporate secretary for affiliates at insurance company Philam Life, agrees. “Divina has been our external counsel for several years now, and it suffices to say that he is a very reliable lawyer and has amply provided the needed services of our company,” says Custodio. “His dedication to his field has been so remarkable that his clients rely upon him even for their most extreme legal problems, which he has proven he can resolve with ease.”

Divina’s colleague, senior partner Danny Bunyi, was also commended as instrumental in the success of a project managed by his client, Paolo Macapagal, senior counsel and head of special projects at Sun Life in Metro Manila. “While we retain several counsel, Danny has been our go-to counsel for his exemplary service, expertise in his field and overall responsiveness,” says Macapagal.

Kaye Marisse Cawili, vice president of project marketing and investment at List Sotheby’s International Realty in Metro Manila, says Bunyi “is a straightforward yet approachable legal counsel, which my principals and I appreciate. He walks us through scenarios that help us come up with the best solutions for our legal requirements.”

Another senior partner at the firm, Estrella Elamparo, is applauded by Marcelo Cacho, head of consumer engagement and government affairs at utility company Panay Electric Co in Iloilo City, as “one of the sharpest people I have ever met”.

“Her ability to think on her feet and come up with rebuttals during a live trial is amazing to watch,” says Cacho. “She is an exemplary trial lawyer and debater who also goes above and beyond for her clients.”

After working together for six years, Ryan Tulio, vice president of operations at The Manila Times College in Subic, is impressed with the skills of Kristjan Vicente Gargantiel, the founding partner of Gargantiel Ilagan & Atanante.

“From the beginning of our relationship to the present, Kristjan has provided reliable, dedicated and excellent services for all our legal needs,” says Tulio. “While his expertise is in litigation, we can also count on him and his firm for labour, corporate and tax matters.”

Shiela Marie Ramirez, country manager of water treatment company Mattenplant in Singapore, also backs Gargantiel. “Kristjan is dependable, very responsive, accommodating and trustworthy,” she says.

Rapid and engaged responsiveness is a key point for many clients. Francis Wee, the CEO of real estate company W Group in Metro Manila, applauds Pancho Umali, senior partner at Cruz Marcelo & Tenefrancia, for being “very responsive in terms of work turnaround, and clear in terms of positions and factors in the commercial aspect of the transaction.”

Tranquil Gervacio Salvador III, a partner at Romulo Mabanta Buenaventura Sayoc and de los Angeles, is hailed as “one of the top lawyers in Asia” by Leah Yolo, president of healthcare provider Kaiser International Healthgroup in Metro Manila. “The dedication, intelligence, and compassion with a passion of this humble but great lawyer cannot be exemplified through words,” says Yolo.

Working with a huge caseload and maintaining excellent reliability and accuracy are attributes of a great lawyer. “If there is one clear demonstration of the work quality of Sylvette, it is thoroughness,” says Gerard Martin Garcia, chief financial officer (CFO) of asset management company Fountel Corp about Sylvette Tankiang, partner and CFO at Villaraza & Angangco. “She and her team provided sufficient insight and counsel for us to reflect and discern how we will move forward, fully aware of the legal and commercial risks involved,” says Garcia. “Because of her counsel, I am confident that my partners and I will make an informed and judicious decision.”

Allan Ang, first senior vice president at the Philippine National Bank in Metro Manila, describes SyCip Salazar Hernandez & Gatmaitan’s senior partner, Marievic Ramos-Anonuevo, as a lawyer with a high-level quality of work. “She works on full attention to detail, which is usually neglected by most lawyers when facing voluminous documents pertaining to the project being funded,” says Ang. “She knows how to balance sticky issues that would cross between business and legal frameworks, and also provide workarounds and solutions.”

Marvellous mavens

As businesses evolve into ever more complex and specialist industries, lawyers with niche sets of knowledge are needed more than ever. These practitioners are recommended by their clients as A-List lawyers for the specific expertise they bring to the table.

Euney Marie Mata-Perez, managing partner at Mata-Perez Tamayo & Francisco, is a perfect example. Mata-Perez is recommended for her expertise in taxation by Joseph Tugonon, first vice president of tax advisory and compliance services of Philippine holding company Aboitiz Equity Ventures. “She is actively involved in various tax organisations and is a subject matter expert in the field of corporate tax law, tax estate planning, and mergers and acquisitions,” says Tugonon. “She is also one of the resource persons on important tax rules and regulations, and has been consulted by tax authorities for tax policies and tax reform legislation from lawmakers.”

Georgina Carolina Martinez, senior vice president of compliance and corporate support services at mining company Nickel Asia Corporation, says she always seeks advice from Mata-Perez for various transactions and taxation issues. “[Mata-Perez] is always abreast of the various regulations issued by tax authorities, which she shares with her clients for their information,” says Martinez. “She provides sound and timely legal advice, applicable and relevant to the transaction or issue at hand.”

Many clients have commended Mark Gorriceta, managing partner at Gorriceta Africa Cauton & Saavedra, as the go-to person in the tech and digital industry. “He is at the leading edge of tech laws,” says Ian Sanchez, ventures principal at Philippine-based conglomerate Filinvest Development. “He is able to mentor his team well, and enables them to give us the best legal advice. His team has bleeding-edge insights because of their expertise, and delivers well beyond the results we expect from law practice.”

Gerald Chua, venture strategy and investment principal at digital innovation and venture company f(dev) Digital Foundry, recommends Gorriceta for going “above and beyond” what is expected of him. “If we are, for example, considering a matter in relation to one specific issue, he already takes into account other matters that may indirectly or directly be triggered by any action that we decide to pursue,” says Chua. “I can say that his output is nothing short of exemplary. One doesn’t have to fear missing anything out, or not being able to take something into consideration.”

In the power and energy sector, Cornelio Abuda, the co-founder and partner at Abuda Asis & Associates, is highly regarded by his clients. “Abuda is one of the best Philippine lawyers, with a good understanding of the power sector,” says Ang of the Philippine National Bank. “He provides extensive legal support to complex regulatory paper work. [He] makes it a point to comb the documents line by line, and will flag us on unacceptable items. This is an added layer of protection for lenders, making the whole deal airtight, and that can stand the test of court.”

PJS Law senior partner Monalisa Dimalanta is another prominent lawyer in this sector. Frank Thiel, managing director of an independent electricity producer and distributor Quezon Power (Philippines), says Dimalanta has been instrumental in helping the company to launch its first renewable energy venture in the Philippines.

“Mona is very knowledgeable on Philippine regulations relating to power projects, whether on the permit process, regulatory, local contracting practices, and/or claims,” says Thiel. “She has worked with our existing thermal projects for many years, using her vast experience to help us achieve the required milestones in order to make the projects successful. She has the ability to communicate in clear terms what may be required, and offers timely advice when needed.”

Compiling the A-List

The A-List is based on extensive research conducted by Asia Business Law Journal. To identify the top 100 lawyers in the Philippines, we turned to thousands of in-house counsel in the Philippines and around the world – as well as partners at international law firms – and asked them to tell us which lawyers should make the cut, and why.

Nominations were made by professionals at a wide range of Philippine and global companies, financial institutions and law firms, including Aboitiz Equity Ventures, Accenture, ARMCO Healthcare Services, Century Properties, Cotecna Elite Philippines, Equicom Group, Equicom Savings Bank, f(dev) Digital Foundry, Filinvest Development Corp, Fountel Corp, Frontken Philippines, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, Kaiser International Healthgroup, Keysys, Les Gervil Organica, List Sotheby’s International Realty, MA McDermott Holdings, NetApp, Nickel Asia Corporation, Panay Electric Co, Philam Life, Philippine Seven, the Philippine National Bank, Quezon Power Philippines, REED Elsevier Shared Services Philippines, Rustan’s, Sun Life of Canada, Telework PH, the Manila Times College, TransUnion Philippines, W Group, and many more. Thorough editorial research followed the nomination process.

The final list reflects the nominations received, combined with Asia Business Law Journal editorial team’s more than 30 years of collective experience in documenting and analyzing the Philippines legal market.

All Filipino private practice lawyers were automatically eligible for inclusion in the nominations process and, as always, there were no fees or any other requirements for entry.

The names and photographs of all 100 A-List lawyers are published here. In addition, each A-List lawyer was given the opportunity to include their biography and contact details, for which a publishing fee was charged.

It is important to note that while the compilation of the A-List was based solely on independent editorial research, the biographies and contact details that appear alongside many of the listings have been written by the participating lawyers, and the content has not been independently verified by Asia Business Law Journal.

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