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Los Angeles-based Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton is making a run for the border. The firm has launched a special Mexico practice team to tap into the growing cross-border business activity. Spearheaded by Jerry Gumpel, the team consists of nine “bicultural” lawyers spread out in offices in Los Angeles, San Diego, Del Mar Heights and Santa Barbara. The practice operates as a subgroup of Sheppard Mullin’s corporate practice. The goal of the group, says Gumpel, is to allow clients doing business deals on the other side of the border to have the same level of confidence as if they were in their own country. This applies to both U.S. companies striking deals in Mexico, and Mexican companies looking north for business opportunities. “Part of the huge concern of U.S. clients going abroad is that they not get blindsided,” says Gumpel. “That their lawyers understand the culture — when somebody says ABC that it really means XYZ — that they understand the subtle differences.” These same fears and concerns exist for a Mexican company buying a U.S. business, he adds. That’s where the new team’s bicultural background comes in. All of the senior-level attorneys on the Mexico team have done significant work in Latin America. Many are fluent in Spanish and have lived somewhere in Latin America in the past. Taking one semester of Spanish in college doesn’t cut it, says Gumpel, who is originally from Ecuador and has represented Mexican corporate clients for nearly 20 years. It turns out that there were a handful of attorneys at Sheppard Mullin with the right skill set, and involved in the right type of work, to organize and promote a special Mexico-focused practice. And the timing seemed ideal. Mexico’s economy has rebounded nicely in the last few years and their sovereign debt is investment grade again, Gumpel explains. Moreover, many of the “maquiladoras,” the factories on the Mexican side of the border, are upgrading for more sophisticated manufacturing. The upshot is an environment ripe for entrepreneurism. And where there’s entrepreneurism, there are lawyers. L.A.-based Manatt, Phelps & Phillips opened a pair of outposts in Mexico a few years ago and Chicago-based Baker & McKenzie maintains five offices in Mexico. But Gumpel doesn’t foresee opening up shop in Mexico anytime soon. Sheppard Mullin’s approach is to cooperate with local counsel in Mexico, rather than to compete with them, he explains. Attorneys on Sheppard Mullin’s Mexico practice team travel to Mexico for business at least three times a year. And being in San Diego, they’re pretty favorably situated. “We’re in a location where people are terribly happy to come,” says Gumpel. “You rarely find people who say ‘No, I don’t want to meet in San Diego.’”

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