US firms lead march on South Korea

Trade agreements with the EU and US prompt Western firms to look at Seoul

Seoul: four US firms are planning launches in 2012
Seoul: four US firms are planning launches in 2012

Asia in 2012 will be all about South Korea, a market that has long been closed to foreign firms – until recently. The country’s Free Trade Agreement with the EU, effective from 1 July 2011, and a similar agreement with the US, effective from 1 January 2012, have opened up the legal sector.

For the first time foreign firms are able to open offices in South Korea. These foreign firms are initially permitted to advise on the law of their home jurisdictions, but in five years they can hire Korean lawyers and practise Korean law.

A number of international firms have voiced their intention to enter the market in the near future, with a group of US firms among the vanguard leading the march. So far at least four US firms – Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, Paul Hastings, Sheppard Mullin and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett – have confirmed plans to launch in Seoul as soon as practicable in 2012.

All four have established Korea practices and their Seoul offices will be staffed initially with existing Korea teams from other offices.

Cleary plans to relocate a four-member Hong Kong-based Korean team led by partner Yong Guk Lee to Seoul. Paul Hastings is planning to relocate most, if not all, of its 10-lawyer Korea team in Hong Kong headed by partner Jong Han Kim. Sheppard Mullin will deploy the firm’s Korea practice chair Seth Kim to lead the new office, while Simpson Thacher New York partner Youngjin Sohn will head the firm’s Seoul office with backup from several associates from Hong Kong.
Ashurst, DLA Piper, Herbert Smith, McDermott Will & Emery, Pinsent Masons and Ropes & Gray are among the other Western firms that are considering their options in South Korea.

The presence of international firms will inevitably affect the future development of Korea’s local market, particularly the ’big four’ of Lee & Ko, Kim & Chang, Kim & Lee and Shin & Kim Bae.

While international firms are yet to move into Korea, a number of Korean firms have taken steps to increase their international offerings. Shin & Kim launched a Munich office headed by German-qualified lawyer Alexander Son in October 2011, while Seoul-based 120-lawyer firm Lee International has joined the MSI Global Alliance.