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Need a lawyer? Check out Seocho-dong

[Glimpse of Business in Seoul 20th in the series: Seocho Judicial Town]

Oct 20,2008
A lobby directory shows the lawyers’offices housed in one building in Seocho Judicial Town. By Oh Sang-min
Need a lawyer? Check out Seocho-dong
There’s no excuse for not being able to find legal representation in Seoul, because one third of the lawyers practicing in the capital have offices jammed into one southern neighborhood - Seocho-dong.

The road between the Seocho and Seoul National University of Education subway stations is packed with office buildings emblazoned with advertisements for legal firms.

The area is known as Seocho Judicial Town, so called due to its inordinately high concentration of legal institutions.

The judicial town in this upmarket part of Seoul is the biggest in the nation because it is home to some of the country’s most important institutions of law. Here you’ll find the Supreme Court, the Supreme Public Prosecutors’ Office, the Seoul Central District Court, and the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency. The buildings were put up in the mid-1980s under a redevelopment agenda pushed forward by the Seoul city government.

Out of 6,294 practicing lawyers in Seoul, more than one-third work out of Seocho-dong, according to the Korean Bar Association.

So it’s no surprise that the area also hosts a string of small businesses offering a plethora of legal services, such as stenographers and tax accountants.

Everywhere you look there are ads for legal services plastered on walls and lampposts, in much the same way you come across ads for plastic surgeons and dentists in Apgujeong-dong, another wealthy part of the southern side of the capital.

Law is a stressful profession and it’s no surprise that the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, a rare spot for refreshment in the middle of Seocho Boulevard, is usually packed with forty-something men, cigarette in one hand, deep in conversation over coffee.

Even lenders here such as the Industrial Bank of Korea, Shinhan Bank and Kookmin Bank brand themselves as “Seocho Judicial Town branches.”

It’s interesting to note, though, that the country’s giant law firms like Kim and Chang are scattered across other parts of the capital and Seocho Judicial Town is comprised mainly of private law offices run by either one or two lawyers.

The walls of Seocho Subway Station are covered with advertising for law firms clustered in the Seocho Judicial Town. By Oh Sang-min
Spoiled for choice, how do you choose from this ocean of attorneys?

“There are numerous law offices here but no client would simply walk in to bring a case to a lawyer he doesn’t even know,” said Park Young-man, a lawyer who represents the law firm Beopyeoul. “The business here is all based on personal networks, whereby clients are introduced to a lawyer by their friends or acquaintances.”

At Park’s, a relatively large firm in the area, corporate clients make up 70 percent of business and private clients account for the rest. “Law firms mostly deal with companies while smaller law offices have more dealings with more dealings with individuals,” he said.

But Seocho Judicial Town is feeling the crunch of the economic downturn as keenly as any other profession.

There’s been an explosion in the number of lawyers in the past several years and the economy has left many firms reeling.

According to real estate agencies here, law offices are increasingly fleeing the area, priced out by landlords. Some lawyers who couldn’t afford to make ends meet have formed partnerships to share offices.

But times are tough. In 2002, there were 5,000 lawyers in Korea but that figure had doubled to 10,000 as of April this year. Yet the amount of work has not increased by the same rate: The number of cases they took only increased around 40 percent in the same time span.

“One of my friends opened a law office here but shut it down later as it did not turn out to be as profitable as he expected.

“He now works as an in-house lawyer at a large corporation,” said lawyer Park Young-shin, of Nae Eun, a law firm. Park used to run his own practice as a divorce lawyer until a year ago.

“It’s always difficult to aim to break from reliance on lawsuits, which I can take only after certain affairs have happened. Preventive practice such as legal consultation could be one option,” he said.

Park of Beopyeoul emphasized the positives. “The law market will get bigger and bigger,” he said.

Statistics show that demand for legal services surged at the initial point of the recent economic downturn; it also does better in boom periods. As a slew of companies collapsed during the Asian currency crisis in the late 1990s, the law market had a lot of work, dealing with corporate bankruptcy as well as mergers and acquisitions, Park said. “Lawyers should take the lead in creating a new demand in law,” he said.

His firm, for example, signed an exclusive contract with Yonhap News, a wire service provider, to protect the copyright of its news content, an industry first. Traditional legal services concerning real estate, debt obligations, inheritance and divorce have also been diversifying. For instance, divorce now covers census registration change to compensation, property division and custody rights.

“I can only trust a lawyer who keeps making the effort to gain expertise, especially in finance and economy-related matters, my major concerns. Having a conscience would of course be the priority,” said Ryu Gwang-yeol, a corporate retiree in his early 60s who was on a visit to the law firm.

He is now engaged in a lawsuit over a bill payment against a company.


By Seo Ji-eun Staff Reporter [spring@joongang.co.kr]



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