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A growing legal field

Aug 25, 2018

Traditionally, the “Big Five” Korean law firms dominated the legal landscape. In 2012, after the government signed free trade agreements with the United States and the European Union, smaller, and even foreign, law firms found a place in the market, with the number of lawyers significantly increasing and international firms setting up shop.

Kim & Chang is Korea's largest and most specialized law firm with a premier global practice. Based in Seoul, it is a full service law firm with over 1,500 dedicated professionals, advising the world's leading companies and financial institutions.

But to survive, firms had to identify their strengths. KL Partners chose to specialize in cross-border litigation and international arbitration. Coming from one of Korea’s “Big Five,” Managing Partner Kim Beom-su recalled: “We saw the need for experts in specific practice areas and thus focused only on international dispute resolution and corporate M&A.”

Seoul’s push to be the next hub for international dispute resolution among Northeast Asian countries puts the firm in a strong position.

For Kim, recent events in Korea proved its capabilities to be such: “Transparency is one of Korea’s main strengths. How Koreans react to wrongdoings only shows how Koreans value justice and how the country is capable of indicting and litigating even those who are in power.”

Lee & Ko Managing Partner Kim Jae-hoon

Coming from another “Big Five” firm, Tek & Law founder Ted Koo went on with opening his own law firm in 2012 and now sits at the forefront of Korean innovation.

“Tek is for technology. We are highly experienced in data protection, biomed, and fintech,” Koo

What sets Tek & Law apart is its focus on and expertise in blockchain and cryptocurrencies.

“Many are very interested in the new wave, but they aren’t quite sure what to expect in terms of government policies and regulations. We have found a niche area here in providing consulting services on this exciting but complex technology,” Koo said.

“We are the best in this area, and we have a strong potential to help foreign clients navigate their way through Korea,” he added.

Bae, Kim & Lee (BKL) Managing Partner Sungjin Kim

Meanwhile, traditionally strong firms aren’t letting their guard down. One of Korea’s original “Big Five,” Bae, Kim & Lee (BKL) has the largest geographical footprint among all Korean law firms, with seven locations abroad. Its international bases cover Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, Yangon and Dubai.

In its effort to assist companies through the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it also recently opened an office in Pangyo, Seongnam City, Korea’s so-called Silicon Valley.

Its strong foundation domestically helped power its success in international business.

Managing Partner Sungjin Kim said: “Our offices abroad are all client-led. We moved with our clients and thus expected more outward work from Korea.”

At the same time, BKL has seen more inbound work coming in, which now accounts for 70 percent of its business. The firm experienced 40 percent growth between 2014 and 2017.

Korea’s largest law firm, Kim & Chang, also sees the value in having offices abroad. Having set up its first overseas office in Hong Kong, the firm has recently opened its new office in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

“We find that an international office can be a great source of servicing existing clients more effectively while also enabling us to reach new and interesting work and clients,” Senior Partner Kye Sung Chung said.

As Korean companies look to find new growth opportunities through overseas M&As and investments, it will also expand into emerging markets, particularly in Southeast Asia and Russia.

At the same time, given Korea’s attractiveness as an investment destination, it expects an increase in inbound work too.

“Korea is the only country that has signed FTAs with the world’s three largest economies – the U.S., the EU, and China, as well as the ASEAN countries. For many multinational companies, Korea is a strategic market to enter into other key markets, such as China,” Chung said.

Korean firms’ dedication to client satisfaction and commitment to enhanced quality have allowed them to thrive and drive the economy along with them.

Named Managing Partner of the Year in 2017 by Asian Legal Business, Kim Jae-hoon heads Lee & Ko, another of Korea’s “Big Five”.

“When I entered the firm, we had four practice groups,” Kim recalled. Rising through the ranks, he saw the firm evolve and adapt.

With over 35 practice groups, Lee & Ko has become a one-stop shop for its clients.

It is recognized by international legal publications as top for all of its major practice areas.

“Because we have several practice areas, we get to form teams with a vast range of expertise, who can service our clients and guide them through different matters,” he said.

Lee & Ko’s story of growth mirrors that of Korea. “Our country went through a lot, and this allowed us as a nation to be equipped with the skills to face any challenge head on,” he added.

South Korea 2018 was prepared for and originally printed in Foreign Affairs magazine.

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