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Costa Rican Public Group’s Regulatory & Competition Head Returns to Private Practice

After five years at public services company Empresa de Servicios Públicos de Heredia (ESPH), William Villalobos felt he needed a new challenge, and a return to private practice at this stage in his career seemed a good avenue to take. “Since the beginning, the negotiations and my incorporation process [to join local firm Hulbert Volio Montero] was spontaneous and natural,” he explains, adding that the acknowledgement and support he received from Hulbert Volio Montero partner Andrea Hulbert, who co-heads the public law and economic regulation practice now with Villalobos, was “extraordinary.” “We quickly agreed on the values and principles to lead the group, and on where we want to take the firm. That’s how, on 14 June, I officially joined the firm.”

Villalobos has said goodbye to ESPH, a Costa Rican public company that offers services spanning electricity, potable water, waste water, sanitation, telecoms and IT services. During his time at ESPH, Villalobos was in charge of all regulation and competition matters. He reported directly to the general manager and he also worked closely with the energy and telecoms business director, offering legal advice on projects within these fields. Specifically, he oversaw all regulatory compliance and the legal structuring of important technology, media and telecoms (TMT) projects, some under public procurement models and others through the structuring of public-private alliances.

Before ESPH, Villalobos had worked at Costa Rican business consultancy VSI as its legal director since 2010. When he joined local law firm Artavia & Barrantes a year later, he continued to advise VSI alongside his other associate duties. He held both positions until 2014. Since then, Villalobos has also served as a senior professor of administrative law and constitutional law at the Universidad Latina in Costa Rica.

Knowing how a public entity functions backstage – how the different departments think and operate – is something not all private practice lawyers have the privilege of understanding during their careers. Villalobos notes that this experience will enhance how he will advise clients from the other side of the table. “It’s a core advantage for strategic planning not only in terms of legal advice on business structures, but also when designing claims and litigation strategies,” he says.

After qualifying as a telecoms operator the year before he joined ESPH, Villalobos found himself approaching the way he gave legal counsel differently. He saw telecoms projects from a new perspective thanks to the more holistic viewpoint his qualification had exposed him to in terms of how telecoms projects operate in practical terms. “I wanted to incorporate regulatory improvements before venturing into several liberalised markets when I was responsible for those energy and TMT projects,” he says.

Leading the regulation and competition processes in a public company has prepared him well for his new role as leader of the public law and economic regulation division at Hulbert Volio Montero. He is now responsible for helping private and public companies with various tasks that include designing private initiative proposals; handling public concession processes; contract negotiations and renegotiation with the state; as well as leading disputes on administrative procedures and claims processes. This next stage in his career is opening his perspective to a regional approach as he and his team look set to work on more cross-border transactions in the region. “My biggest challenge will be helping to regionalise the firm’s services in the energy and TMT sectors – the firm has already provided a talented team to help support this goal,” he notes.

For Villalobos, working with the administrative law and economic regulation arenas means working in a dynamic environment. “It means I have to be immersed in a series of subjects that are not limited exclusively to legal knowledge; on the contrary, it requires full knowledge of the sector a project is part of,” he says. The holistic experience gained at ESPH will be a strength Villalobos plays to. “Leading the regulation and competition processes for five years in a public company that provides different services at the same time across industries certainly constitutes an important added value to offer our clients as a firm,” he says.

Costa Rica has always been a desirable destination for foreign investment, thanks to its business climate, geographical location, democratic stability and robust institutions, among other factors. Several sectors, including telecoms, energy, transport and infrastructure, are expected to undergo a process of regulatory transformation as the government seeks to improve competitiveness in these areas. Villalobos highlights that the new regulatory challenge for the country is “to rethink new forms of economic intervention from the State,” which could help improve many public services – high levels of foreign direct investment (FDI) needs to go hand-in-hand with state support so the country does not to rely on FDI alone. “We need this intervention if we want to improve competitiveness and quality in terms of service provision,” he says.

The regulatory challenges in Costa Rica are changing, and companies would do well to know in what direction the ship is sailing. Changes like the recent reforms to the General Law on Concession of Public Works with Public Services enacted in July, have improved the environment to make it more attractive to foreign and local investment; the reforms have also given the government more capacity to manage public works; the changes are expected to make investors feel more secure, which will prompt even more interest in the Costa Rican market.

Like Villalobos, lawyers working in Costa Rica’s dynamic energy and telecoms sectors need to be aware of the new reality businesses in these areas face. In the telecoms sector specifically, Villalobos highlights how the country is finally seeing the benefits of the opening of the market, which took place 11 years ago, as increased competition has led to falling prices and a greater efficiency from the use of technologies. In-house counsel and private practice lawyers that can help navigate their companies’ legal business in the new open market characterising Costa Rica have the best chance of succeeding. “The market has taken a dramatic turn; flexibility and adaptability to multiple services and technologies is the new paradigm,” says Villalobos. “Whoever has the capacity to adapt to this environment will survive in this increasingly complex field.”

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Hulbert Volio Montero's picture

Hulbert Volio Montero was born as a Dispute Resolution Boutique Law Firm, providing the country with specialized services in complex judicial and arbitration cases in civil and commercial law. With time, multi-national clients approached the firm with diverse needs which allowed the growth and opening of the following areas of work: (i) Banking Law & Finance, (ii) Competition & Antitrust, (iii) Corporate / M&A, (iv) Dispute Resolution, (v) Energy Law & Renewables, (vi) Intellectual Property, (vii) Litigation & Arbitration, (viii) Public Law, Public Procurement and Regulation, (ix) Real Estate Investment and Development, (x) Telecommunications, Media & Technologies. The combination of experts in substantive law and dispute resolution provides a complete service with outstanding risk control in every transaction. Also, the firm offers a personal, innovative, and affordable service.

This evolution comes hand in hand with the incorporation into the firm of two new partners that increase the concentration of knowledge and experience that strengthen our work. In 2018 the firm was honored by having Fernando Montero Piña as a partner, a recognized leader in litigation and arbitration, as well as civil and commercial substantive law. Recently we were praised adding William Villalobos Herrera as our new partner, an expert in Public Law, Energy, and TMT, amongst other areas.

In addition, the firm is now a partner of Pragma International, an international network of law and consulting firms established in 2001, to help our clients in the process of internationalization through the highest quality legal services and with more than 30 offices opened around the world.

Costa Rica

San José