AsiaOne News reports in a February 17, 2012 article by Yang Sung-jin entitled Foreign Law Firms Rush into Korea that “Major American and European law firms plan to enter the Korean market in the coming months…sparked by the Korea-U.S. and Korea-EU FTAs, which will allow foreign lawyers to serve Korean clients.”

A Substantial Legal Market

“Interest toward the Korean legal market, which is estimated to be worth 2 trillion Won (S$2.26 billion), is also in line with the rapid growth of Korean companies on the global market.  The article continues:  “In addition, as the Korean market will open up further under the bilateral trade deal, American [and European] companies are expected to tap into the legal services provided by American [and European] law firms specializing in the local market.”

Market Liberalization Timeline

“Under the FTA with Europe, the Korean market will be opened up in three phases. On July 1 this year, the second phase will start, allowing Korean and European law firms to jointly handle cases and share profits.  The third and final phase will take effect on July 1, 2016, which will allow EU law firms to form joint ventures with Korean partners and hire Korean lawyers.”

Foreign firms already acting

Importantly, as AsiaOne News reports:  “To secure potentially big corporate clients in Korea, American and European law firms are planning to form partnership with Korean law firms, heralding a round of heated competition for forging better networks.”  “Korean law firms are hiring more lawyers and establishing more foreign partnerships to strengthen their competitiveness to better compete with American and European law firms” the articled concluded.

Which foreign firms have plans for the market?

Currently, US law firms Sheppard Mullin, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, Paul Hastings and McDermott Will & Emery have announced plans to open offices in South Korea. British Law firm Clifford Chance will likely be the first foreign law firm to make a formal debut.

What can your law firm do to benefit?

If you are a foreign firm not planning to establish a practice in South Korea, this is an excellent opportunity to either: Establish a productive referral relationship with a domestic Korean law firm In Korea — or establish a representative business development office in Korea.

If you are a domestic South Korean law firm, this is an excellent opportunity for you to tap into the heightened interest in the South Korean market by:  Establishing revenue-generation focused referral relationships with foreign law firms from multiple jurisdictions — or establishing a new business development initiative aimed at securing new clients seeking to expand in South Korea as a result of KORUS. 

Well planned efforts will reap reward

Broadly speaking, the liberalization of the South Korean legal market highlights the ever-increasing internationalization of the legal market.  Legal services providers, including law firms, have more opportunity to gain market share from overseas markets using a variety of creative methods than ever before.  Properly conducted, an effort to gain market share from a foreign market by an overseas law firm can be highly lucrative. 


Posted by John Grimley

John Grimley edits and publishes Asia Law Portal. An independent writer & editor, he's the author of: A Comprehensive Guide to the Asia-Pacific Legal Markets (Ark Group 2014).

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