Wanted: Former gov’t officials for law firm jobs

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Wanted: Former gov’t officials for law firm jobs

When the Gangwon provincial government was preparing a bid to host the Special Olympics Winter Games in 2013, the Special Olympics headquarters in Washington recommended it hire Seoul-based law firm Yulchon, known for expertise in the fields of culture and sports. One of Yulchon’s advisers is former Deputy Culture Minister Oh Jee-chul.

To win the bid, Oh contacted the Special Olympics headquarters directly and used his experience and personal connections in the United States to form a close relationship with the organization. In February, Gangwon’s Pyeongchang County was chosen to host the 2013 games.

Law firms in Korea are branching into consulting, and snapping up former government officials to bring them contacts and experience. And although the law prohibits officials from joining private industry in a similar field for two years after leaving service - to keep them from lobbying their former ministry or department - there’s no restriction on joining law firms.

Although recruiting former government officials isn’t entirely new for law firms, in the past they concentrated on key officials in the fields of economics, trade or industry. Today, they’re interested in non-economic fields, and want junior-level officials who worked on individual projects and issues.

Former Navy Chief of Staff Adm. Song Young-moo retired last year and now works at Yulchon as an advisor for the defense industry.

“If a defense contractor plans to build a navy vessel, I give the company advice about construction schedules and quality control,” Song said.

Yulchon said its understanding of the defense industry broadened after it hired Song and the level of clients’ satisfaction increased.

In 2008, law firm Jisung Horizon hired former career diplomat Kim Kyun-seop, who had served as ambassador to the South Africa and board chairman of Korea Energy Management Corporation. Jisung Horizon said Kim brings knowledge of resources, energy and environment fields, which are increasingly important issues.

“As the legal service market opens up, local firms need to compete with foreign firms that give specific and technical services to clients,” said Oh Cheon-seok, an official with Korea’s largest law firm, Kim and Chang, “and that’s why it’s important for local firms to hire experts in various fields.”

Veterans of the Fair Trade Commission are being sought for clients who want to challenge judgments or fines levied by the commission. In the last three years, 14 retired high-ranking fair trade commission officials have joined law firms.

Last year, when the Fair Trade Commission itself recruited two attorneys, 133 attorneys and judicial apprentices at the Judicial Research and Training Center applied for the positions. There was a widely-held view among judicial apprentices that after they worked for the commission, they would get good jobs at private law firms.

A local law firm official who declined to be named said firms pay more than 300 million won ($270,000) a year to hire someone who headed a division of the Fair Trade Commission.

Some critics have expressed concern that former officials at law firms don’t just give advice, but also serve as lobbyists to their former ministry or department.

Another law firm official who declined to be named said: “The tasks given to former senior government officials is basically maintaining close ties with his former colleagues and subordinates who still work for the government so that they can serve as a channel between a law firm and a government office.”

By Hong Hye-jin, Kim Mi-ju [mijukim@joongang.co.kr]
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