Grapevine

Here’s a tip to any international law firm with ambitions in Asia: South Korea is about to open up its legal services market.

As we reveal today (see story), the South Korean Ministry of Justice is about to publish a draft bill that singles out the legal market for liberalisation. If the bill is passed, it will allow foreign law firms to open in the country for the first time – by mid-2008.

The Law Society, which has seen plenty of false dawns in this sort of thing, is delighted. When we spoke to Alison Hook, who runs the international policy division, she said: ” This is a very exciting time. Once the bill goes through parliament it is happening. It has never been concrete before.”

It’s not just the professional proponents of cross-border liberalisation who are delighted. On a much less abstract level, a handful of major global practices are going to be rubbing their hands at the prospect of getting closer to the market.

The US firms are ecstatic at the prospect. Simpson Thacher & Bartlett and Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton are among the two Wall Street giants with an eye on South Korea – not that their model would easily allow them to open up a representative office there.

More likely to make a move are White & Case and Paul Hastings Janofsky & Walker. Paul Hastings Korea practice head Jong Han Kim tells us: “As soon the law allows it, we will open an office in Korea.”

And among the UK firms? The odds-on favourite to make a move is Linklaters, which has already advised on the UK end of big-ticket M&A transactions out of Korea for clients such as Citigroup. “We’re very serious about Korea,” confides a senior Linklaters partner.

That’s true enough: the magic circle firm has charged Hong Kong-based Korean-American partner Sang Lee with developing the firm’s Korean relationships. What’s more, in the very week the news of his appointment broke, where was the new head of Linklaters’ Asia practice Giles White?

Why, Seoul, of course.

Catrin Griffiths, editor