Resolving International Disputes
South Florida Legal Guide - 2010 Edition
When multinationals seek to resolve commercial disputes in Latin America, one of the top attorneys on that list is usually José Astigarraga. The founding partner of Astigarraga Davis in Miami is known for his ability to find solutions to high-stakes cases, often guiding legal teams in U.S. and Latin American courts.
What sets José above other lawyers is his ability to manage complex and sensitive cases that involve issues beyond laws, statutes and precedents to get the right results for his clients, says Marta Perez Pendas, banking security act (BSA) officer and senior vice president, BankUnited.
In a career spanning three decades, Astigarraga has been able to accurately predict economic changes that impact the legal profession, such as the growth in inter-American trade in the 1990s, and adjust his practice accordingly. “I believe every lawyer has to reinvent him or herself from time to time, given the evolution of the practice of law,” he says. “That’s certainly been true for me.”
Through the years, Astigarraga has been instrumental in establishing Miami as a hemispheric center for the arbitration of commercial disputes, a place where Latin American and U.S. interests can utilize experienced arbitrators to conveniently resolve their differences.
A leader in his field, Astigarraga has helped the commission implementing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) develop international arbitration and dispute resolution standards. He also advised the Organization of American States (OAS) on the adoption of a model secured lending law for member nations. He has lectured across the globe on arbitration topics, including Europe and China, and serves on the London Court of International Arbitration, the International Center for Dispute Resolution and the International Chamber of Commerce’s Latin American Arbitration Group.
Anyone who does any sort of international arbitration recognizes José as the standard bearer for international arbitration, says Ricardo Nuñez-Portuondo, senior vice president and general counsel, HD Supply in Orlando. Of course, he is also a superb litigator who is very insightful and meticulous in his approach to a case.
INTRODUCED TO LAW AT AN EARLY AGE
Born in Cuba in 1953, Astigarraga came to Miami in 1960 and attended Coral Gables Senior High as a teen. As an officer in the high school’s Key Club, Astigarraga met Judge Donald Stone, who was serving as chief justice in Dade County Juvenile Court. After graduation, the judge called Astigarraga, who had enrolled at Miami-Dade Community College, and asked him to serve as his bailiff during the day while going to school at night. “I was just 18, not much older than the juveniles seen in the court,” Astigarraga recalls. “While I could have also gone into science or math, I started seriously thinking about a career in law once I saw the judge’s dedication and the importance of his work.” After earning business degrees at Miami-Dade and the University of Miami, Astigarraga kept on studying, obtaining his juris doctor in 1978.
As a bailiff, Astigarraga met many of Miami’s top lawyers, including Joe Klock, co-founder of Steel Hector & Davis. Klock remembered the young bailiff and offered Astigarraga a job out of law school. “It was the start of 21 years with the firm,” recalls Astigarraga. “I was Joe’s right hand for much of my early career and that was a great opportunity to learn from an exceptional lawyer.”
In the early 1980s, Miami was beginning to become an international banking and business center, and Astigarraga saw there was a growing need for lawyers who could handle disputes involving Latin American parties. “With my background in finance and fluency in Spanish, I started getting asked to handle business disputes involving Latin American parties, either here or in Latin America,” he recalls.
In 1986 the South Florida commercial real estate landscape began to change after Congress put a halt to projects being developed as tax write-offs. Before long, many real estate developments went into bankruptcy, triggering a chain reaction that led to the S&L crisis. “As a lawyer you follow your clients’ needs,” says Astigarraga, who became head of Steel Hector’s bankruptcy practice. “Because the regional economy was much smaller than it is now, the 1988-93 bankruptcy boom was, pound for pound, even more acute than it is now.”
As the wave of S&L failures and takeovers by the Resolution Trust Company (RTC) generated more legal work, Astigarraga became vice president of the region’s bankruptcy bar association and began speaking nationally on these issues. At the same time, Astigarraga was looking ahead to an economic upturn. “I could see that this practice would wind down until the next cycle, and I told the members of our team that everyone needed to start thinking about the next phase.”
A SPECIALIZED FIRM
Astigarraga saw that the privatization of Latin American economies would create a greater flow of international trade and investment – and commercial disputes that would need to be resolved through litigation or arbitration. “Multinational investors usually prefer to resolve disputes in a neutral forum in front of arbitrators, rather than litigating in Latin American courts,” he says. “At the same time, Latin American companies don’t want to be in the U.S. courts facing a potential jury trial.”
Recognizing that advances in communications technology would make it possible for a boutique law firm in Miami to compete with major firms for international litigation and arbitration matters, Astigarraga and his partners, all of whom practiced together at Steel Hector, founded their firm in 2000.
“Our concept was similar to the field of medicine,” he says. “You can go to a mega-hospital, or a mega-law firm, with all the disciplines or to a specialized center that focuses on one area and does it really well.”
The firm, now with 17 attorneys, has handled a number of major cases, including arbitrations such as a $52.6 million award against a major shoe manufacturer arising out of a licensing dispute in the Mercosur territories. Court cases include the defense of a $200 million shareholder suit, and leading the defense of General Electric in a much-publicized claim by a distributor in Peru.
José did an extraordinary job for us, says Nuñez-Portuondo, who was with GE at the time. This was a highly sensitive case and he was able to handle it in an extremely professional manner.
As an international litigator, Astigarraga spends a great deal of time flying from one business center to another. Fortunately, he enjoys traveling. He and his wife Nancy, who recently celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary, have seen much of the world, along with their two daughters, Cristina and Carolina. “I enjoy adventure travel,” Astigarraga says, “I have camped in Iceland, rafted the Grand Canyon, canoed in Alaska and gone diving with whales in Tahiti. I love nature and have profound respect for the earth.”
Looking ahead to the next phase of his career, Astigarraga says, “I want this law firm to endure beyond my eventual retirement. And when I’m gone, I want my daughters to look back and say this firm was founded by my father and it has always stood for integrity and professionalism.”