South Korea is open for business. They’ve just lifted their bar on foreign law offices, signing a free-trade agreement last year, and as of Monday three firms have received an initial approval, and after the Korean Bar Association gives a final approval, they will be able to move into South Korea’s lucrative market. Two of the firms are U.S. based, Ropes & Gray and Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, along with “Magic Circle” firm Clifford Chance from the U.K.
These firms will slowly be eased into the pool. At first they will be allowed only to advise clients regarding home jurisdictions and international arbitration; two years hence they will be allowed to work with Korean law firms to advise on cases; three years hence they will be allowed to hire local lawyers or make mergers. Furthermore, no lawyer is granted permission to practice who lacks at least three years of experience.
A dozen other U.S. firms have applied to enter South Korea, including Steen & Hamilton, Paul Hastings, and Covington & Burling. There are more U.S. firms than U.K. able to set up practice because there are more U.S. lawyers of Korean background or who otherwise speak Korean.
Head of Clifford Chance’s Korea practice located in Hong Kong Practice Hyun Kim has applied to be a foreign registered lawyer. He has said “Our on-the-ground presence will allow us to be closer to our clients as well as many Korean law firms we have worked with over the years. We look forward to becoming an active member of the Korean legal community, while continuing to act as a trusted legal advisor to our Korean clients on a wide range of international legal matters.”
William Kim, a partner from Ropes & Gray, will be leading the new Seoul firm, bringing his experience working with large Korean corporations in IP and antitrust litigation. He has noted that these firms are “coming in with huge dollar investments” and already have worked significantly with Korean practices.
The Lawyer, a publication citing Bank of Korea Data, noted that Korea companies spent $678 million on services with foreign law firms in 2006, and more than $1 billion in 2010.