Foreign law firms given go-ahead to open offices

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Foreign law firms given go-ahead to open offices

After months of preparation following the Korea-U.S. and Korea-EU free trade agreements, three lawyers from foreign law firms finally have the green light to open offices here, having cleared final approval by the Ministry of Justice to be foreign legal consultants and registering with the Korean Bar Association.

The heads of practices from New York-based Ropes & Gray, Los Angeles-based Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton and London-based Clifford Chance completed the final procedure yesterday in order to enable them to open offices in the country, officially registering with the Korean Bar Association.

"I am honored to have been selected as the first lawyer from any country outside of Korea to receive permission to work in Korea," 56-year-old Ropes & Gray corporate partner William Yongkyun Kim, who will head the Korean office, said yesterday in a press release by the firm.

Kim is Korean-born and moved to the United States in elementary school.

"This is a historic moment for Korea, for the legal industry, for Ropes & Gray and for me," he said.

With 10 offices around the world and some 1,000 attorneys, Ropes & Gray stated it will focus on corporate transactions, intellectual property, complex business litigation and arbitration, and U.S. government regulatory issues.

Kim, along with 56-year-old Sheppard Mullin finance partner Seth Byoung-soo Kim and 44-year-old Clifford Chance finance counsel Brian Cassidy, were approved by the Ministry of Justice on June 7 according to the ministry last week.

These three firms received preliminary approval at the beginning of May. And now with bar approval, offices can be up and running as early as next month.

According to the current regulations, foreign law firms can only act as consultants for the first two years after the FTAs go into effect.

After two years, they can take cases in cooperation with local law firms. Under the FTAs, foreign firms can hire local lawyers after five years.

Hence, once they open their offices, these foreign firms will not be able to practice Korean law but can advise clients in the country on U.S. laws or on international arbitration matters under Korean law.

Sheppard Mullin has 14 offices around the world and more than 570 attorneys, while Clifford Chance, the third-largest global law firm with 34 offices in 24 countries, was the first firm to apply to open an office in South Korea, as the EU's free trade agreement with Korea was approved almost a year ago, earlier than the November Korea-U.S. agreement.

Clifford Chance will open an office in Ferrum Tower in central Seoul, and their ten Korean attorneys based in Hong Kong will be transferred to Seoul soon.

Peter Charlton, Clifford Chance's managing partner for Asia Pacific, indicated that the firm had closely cooperated with Korea for the past three decades, hence they are familiar with deals here.

"There is a high possibility that the Korean financial market will develop into a market like that of Tokyo or London, so it is attractive."

With more foreign law firms to follow suit as the legal market in Korea is opened, an attorney at a top local law firm who asked to stay anonymous stated, "A limitless competition system has begun in the Korean legal market."

By Sarah Kim, Chae Yoon-kyung [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]
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