Paul Hastings plans South Korea push as it awaits green light for US free trade deal

Paul Hastings Janofsky & Walker is the latest international firm to eye South Korea as a prime location for a future office opening and further expansion into the Asian market.

The US-headquartered firm said it intends to open an office in Seoul as soon as the country lifts its restrictions on foreign law firms, and admits it is keen to assert more of a presence in South Korea’s burgeoning capital markets and M&A scene.

Chair of Paul Hastings’ London office Ronan ­O’Sullivan said Seoul was the next natural step for the firm’s Asian network, which is already tapping into the explosion of capital markets and IPO work in Hong Kong.

“We have a fantastic Hong Kong office that is ­riding the wave of the ­capital markets boom over there, and we have a great Korea practice that we run out of Hong Kong, but as soon as the regulation allows we’ll open in Seoul,” he said.

Paul Hastings already has offices in Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo, but O’Sullivan admitted that the firm is keen to be among the first foreign law firms to plant a flag in Korea.

“There’s a lot going on in Korea in terms of M&A and capital markets, and a lot of outward investment,” he added.

O’Sullivan’s comments follow expressions of ­interest in South Korea by DLA Piper and Pinsent Masons, which both plan to launch an office in the country within five years.

The surge of interest ­follows the signing of an EU-South Korea free trade agreement in February that will allow European law firms to establish branch offices in the country, ­offering foreign and international legal advice from July this year.

In contrast, a US-Korea free trade agreement was signed in 2007 but is yet to be ratified by either ­country, meaning European firms may get a head start into the market.
O’Sullivan, though, is ­optimistic that restrictions on US law firms are also close to being lifted.

“Ever since we’ve been practising in Hong Kong we’ve been told it’ll be two years until the regulations are changed in Korea, but I’ve been told by our Hong Kong guys that this is now imminent,” he said. “As soon as it happens it will be a bit like Tokyo, where we were among the first in – as soon as we’re able to be in Seoul we’ll be there.”

The spike in interest ­follows an influx of firms into Hong Kong, keen to capitalise on the IPO boom and use the country as a gateway to mainland China.

Berwin Leighton Paisner announced plans to open an office in Hong Kong earlier this month, while US firm Sullivan & Cromwell is poised to launch a Hong Kong local law practice later this year.

Other firms announcing Hong Kong local law ­capabilities in the past few months include Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and Davis Polk & Wardwell.