Making lobbying legal

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Making lobbying legal

A law firm is a legal entity comprised of a group of lawyers, and its primary role is providing its clients with professional legal services on civil and criminal cases. Yet many firms have become companies crowded with former high-ranking government officials who retired from powerful organizations such as the Fair Trade Commission, the Financial Supervisory Commission and the National Tax Service.

Law firms pay their recruits monthly salaries of more than100 million won ($92,100) for their role as a “special adviser” in settling court cases. If they were not professional lawyers, what would they do for their employers - except lobby for their clients?

Retired officials who migrate to law firms have constantly been under suspicion for their secret involvement in lobbying not only to win lawsuits but also intervene in the National Assembly’s legislative process and the administration’s policy making efforts. Officials who retired from economic ministries, for example, help their law firms’ client companies when they have to go through a tax investigation or pay massive fines through their personal connections in the government and their expertise in the field.

According to the latest data released by the Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice, more than half of the special advisers to six major law firms - including Kim & Chang, the largest - came from the FTC, FSS and NTS, taking up 55.3 percent of a total of 96 special advisers. The latest corruption case with Busan Savings Bank also originated from shady connections between the FSS and former FSS employees who worked for the bank.

Employment through a revolving door is also worrisome. Lee Jae-hoon, who was nominated as minister of knowledge economy after retiring from the ministry, for example, had to resign because it turned out he was a special adviser to a big law firm he helped with a lawsuit from an oil refinery. If former government officials shuttle between officialdom and law firms, they will never be free of corruption.

We should instead establish a legal system that can prevent law firms’ transformation into lobby firms. The government must first remedy the loopholes in its official ethics code and bar officials from being recruited by law firms, accounting firms and financial holding companies. The law, however, is not a panacea for rooting out corruption. We need to consider legitimizing lobbying, as in the United States, so that government officials’ expertise is not wasted.

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