UK law firms are 15 to 20 years behind where they need to be to take advantage of the economic growth and investment potential of South America.

That picture of competitive disadvantage emerged from a roundtable discussion at an American Bar Association fringe meeting to discuss the ‘untapped potential’ of South America for UK legal services.

Those in attendance included lawyers from magic circle firm Allen & Overy, US-origin firm Latham & Watkins, and partners from leading firms in Chile, Brazil and Argentina.

The meeting heard that UK firms have proved adept over the past two decades at building links with lawyers in China, Russia, south and south-east Asia, and Africa. But efforts to build links with lawyers in South American jurisdictions through study, internships and secondments have been few compared to those offered by US law schools and firms.

Jose Miguel Carvajal, partner at Santiago-based Morales y Besa, said: ‘Of our partners, 80% have studied in the US or have had opportunities such as internships at New York law firms. That is something for UK law firms to work toward.’

Khawar Qureshi QC, chair of TheCityUK’s legal services and dispute resolution group, said: ‘We plainly can and should be doing more to develop links with our South American colleagues.’

A white paper published by the event organiser, consultancy MD Communications, confirmed that at stake is the ability of UK firms to advise on $131bn of mining investment expected to go in to copper-rich Peru and Chile by 2020.