U.S. Law Firms can Practice in South Korea in 2012
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Ever since allowing foreign law firms into Seoul, South Korea, Clear Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP is planning an office in the city. The firm is based in New York and will be opened in the first half of 2012, led by Yong Guk Lee, who is moving from Hong Kong to the new office.

The free trade agreement was negotiated with the United States government four years ago but it was not ratified by South Korean lawmakers until last week. The law should take effect by January 1, 2012 and will permit United States lawyers to enter a rich market. The market is so saturated that over $119 billion has been raised from debt and equity sales in 2011 alone. This is compared to $92 billion back in 2005.


Europe approved its free trade accord with South Korea on July 1 but no law firms have moved into the country as of yet. Paul Hastings LLP, from Los Angeles, could be the other United States law firm moving into Seoul within the next couple of months.

The majority of Korean-speaking lawyers are trained by the United States, which makes it difficult for European and United Kingdom firms to send qualified lawyers to the fourth-largest economy in Asia.

“You just don’t see that many Korean lawyers that are U.K.-trained,” said Evan Jowers of Kinney Recruiting.

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DLA Piper is performing research as to whether or not they should open an office in South Korean. DLA Piper is the world’s largest law firm, employing more than 4,000 lawyers. DLA is headquartered in London while running its U.S. and international units separately. DLA is allowed to use either the United States or the Europe trade agreements with South Korea to enter into business in the country.

“Korea is definitely a market a firm like ours wants a presence in,” Alastair Da Costa, DLA’s Asia Pacific managing director said.

Once a law firm sets up shop in South Korea, it can offer advice on law to its residents. Once the firm has been operating for two years in South Korea, the firm can form alliances local law firms and begin to offer advice on South Korean law. Once the firm has been operating in South Korea for five years, it can hire lawyers residing in Korea in an effort to offer advice on Korean law independently.

There are higher tax rates on legal fees and a regulatory government for firms looking to move to South Korea. Jeffrey Jones is the former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce but now works for a South Korean law firm, one of many lawyers doing so right now in South Korea.

“There’s a learning curve, and in the meantime the domestic firms will get better from the competition,” he said.


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