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Following years of speculation the South Korean legal market is finally set for liberalisation.
The move comes after an EU-South Korea free trade agreement (FTA) was signed earlier this month.
The European Parliament approved the FTA on 17 February, more than a year after the accord was first initialled by EU trade commissioner Catherine Ashton and Korean trade minister Kim Jong-hoon.
Foreign firms, including DLA Piper and Pinsent Masons, have already started to consider their options, with the prospect of opening up offices within five years.
A Korea-US FTA was signed in 2007 and updated by the Obama administration in late 2010, but it is yet to be ratified by either country. The EU’s rapid movement on its FTA could give European lawyers a head start in breaking into the competitive Korean legal market.
South Korea has already passed legislation providing a framework for foreign lawyers to operate in the country. Under the terms of the legislation and the FTA, the liberalisation process will have three stages.
In July 2011 European law firms will have the right to establish branch offices in South Korea, offering foreign and international legal advice.
By July 2013 at the latest European firms will be able to fee-share with Korean law firms, either on a project-by-project or an ongoing basis.
By July 2016 European and Korean lawyers will be able to enter into partnerships and European firms will be free to employ Korean lawyers.
European lawyers have welcomed the developments, but believe expansion into Korea is likely to be slow.
Hyun Chul Cho, a partner and leader of the South Korea team at French firm Cotty Vivant Marchisio & Lauzeral, said the Korean legal market was extremely concentrated. Cho said the top tier of Korean firms attracted the bulk of international work in the country.
“All companies have to go through one of these five to 10 firms,” he said.
Cho added that this would make it difficult for international firms to enter into partnership with local firms, although he expected UK and US firms to take advantage of the law to open representative offices in Korea.
Pinsents partner Mark Raymont said his firm already had a lot of Korean clients, particularly in the construction and engineering sectors.
“Any chance we get to drill down in the market must be looked at seriously,” said Raymont. “We’ve got China and Singapore tied up, and Japan and Hong Kong, so Korea’s the fifth peg.“A lot of big international firms do work for Kuwait companies but source that work from other offices in the region. So just simply being able to establish an office in the country but do the same work doesn’t make much sense.
“But things will get more interesting down the line.”
DLA Piper Asia managing partner Alastair Da Costa said his firm has served Korean clients from its Hong Kong, Tokyo and London offices for some time.
“Our strategic vision will necessarily have us look at G20 economies to service our clients, and we’ll be interested to consider our Korean options when the market opens,” commented Da Costa.