Last week, Baker & McKenzie was the most recent name in a long line of firms that have been beating a path to South Korea now that the country has begun to liberalize its legal market. Currently, at least 16 U.S. and U.K. firms have either opened branches in Korea or have announced that they intend to do so.
What a difference a year makes! It was just a year ago that Cleary Gottlieb became the first U.S. firm to announce plans to enter the market, after the US-Korea free trade agreement resulted in the Korean legal services market opening for the first time to U.S.-based firms. Cleary’s disclosure was quickly followed by similar announcements from Sheppard Mullin and Simpson Thacher to open offices in Seoul in 2012. All three firms are now open for business in South Korea — Sheppard Mullin in August; Cleary Gottlieb and Simpson Thacher in October.
In February, McDermott Will & Emery signaled its intention to open an office and there was also a flurry of activity in March – the first time that international firms could actually begin applying for approval to set up offices. Covington & Burling, Paul Hastings, Ropes & Gray, and Squire Sanders, all submitted applications to South Korea’s Ministry of Justice. Ropes & Gray’s office opened in July, followed by McDermott’s office in September, Squire Sanders’ office in October, and in November, the offices of both Covington & Burling and Paul Hastings.
In June, O’Melveny & Myers signaled its intention to open an office, filing an application with the Korean Ministry of Justice; the office subsequently opened in November. It was also reported in June by Thomson Reuters News & Insight that DLA Piper, K&L Gates, and McKenna Long & Aldridge had applied to open offices. K&L Gates was granted approval for its office in mid-November and pending registration with the Korean Bar Association, the firm intends to formally launch in January 2013.
New York boutique Cohen & Gresser also joined the drive into Korea, launching its first overseas office in October. The firm focuses on complex litigation and corporate transactions, counting Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Rotem among its Korean clients.
So far, Clifford Chance is the only U.K. firm to open an office in Korea. One of the reasons for the lag in branch office openings by U.K. firms may be due to demographics. According to a report in The Asian Lawyer, U.S. firms have an edge in meeting the requirement that foreign firms have a representative qualified to practice in South Korea, due to the number of Korean immigrants to the U.S.
However, it has been reported that Ashurst is gearing up to launch in Seoul, and firms such as Allen & Overy and Linklaters are known to be active with Korea work. And recently, Norton Rose chief executive Peter Martyr, shared plans for the further expansion of the firm following the announcement of its merger with Fulbright & Jaworski. These plans include South Korea as well as other markets such as Brazil, Turkey and the expansion of the New York office.
Posted by Marianne Purzycki