Experts deliberate on legal field

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Experts deliberate on legal field


From left: David Waters, general counsel and managing director for GM Korea; Park Jin-won, attorney at O’Melveny & Myers; Yun Sai-ree, a managing partner at Yulchon; and Choi Seung-jae, head of the legislation research center at the Korean Bar Association, sit for roundtable talks with Cho Kang-soo of the JoongAng Ilbo. [Cho Mun-kyu]

The mismatch between the demand and supply of attorneys in Korea is the greatest threat to the legal market, a group of legal experts contended last week in a roundtable discussion with the JoongAng Ilbo.

The newspaper hosted the meeting Thursday at its headquarters in central Seoul, where it asked participants: “What are the means to fostering a legal market for the global era?”

The four experts, with varying legal backgrounds, each took time to weigh in on how to best resolve the current crisis for the country’s law firms to keep up with the changing domestic and international landscape.

In particular, they touched upon the lack of experts able to cater to the high-end legal market amid an over-saturated “low-end” market filled with inexperienced new lawyers.

The attorneys voiced concerns over the prospects of the Korean legal market, which will completely open to Europe starting next year and American firms by March 2017 - part of the third stage of the liberalization of the Korean legal market followings free-trade agreements with the European Union and the United States.

“The legal market’s size is likened to the economic growth rate and the GDP,” said Choi Seung-jae, who heads the legislation research center of the Korean Bar Association. “With the economic recession, and Korea’s [new Western-style] law school system, the number of cases per lawyer as well as law firm profits, are continuing to decline.”

“The problem is the mismatch between the supply and demand,” added Yun Sai-ree, a managing partner of Yulchon. “As our companies grew, the legal market’s demand for high-end attorneys grew, but the supply of attorneys with one to two years of experience under their belts, instead, is increasing at a sharp rate.

“More than anything else, our law school education is focused on passing the bar examination and this is not serving its original objective of introducing diversification and specialization in the legal sector.”

Park Jin-won, an adviser to the Foreign Law Firm Association and an attorney at O’Melveny & Myers, also weighed in on the state of Korea’s legal market.

“The optimum number of lawyers varies from country to country. Korea has 20,000 attorneys, which is much lower compared to the United States, but this number is high compared to Japan. The United States, however, demands a wide scope of attorneys in a systematic way, which makes it different from Korea.”

David Waters, general counsel and managing director for GM Korea, shared his experience over the past 10 years serving as counsel to large companies like IBM and GM, where he hired a number of Korean attorneys.

“We wanted to pick people who were fluent in English, but there weren’t many candidates,” he said.

Those candidates, he added, mostly opted to work at larger law firms with high salaries.

When asked if law firms should feel threatened amid an increase in in-house lawyers, Choi pointed to a KBA research report that states that Korean in-house attorneys “handle simple lawsuits in order to cut down on costs,” he said.

“That is a situation difficult to imagine happening in the United States. Korean law firms cannot help but feel threatened.”

Yun added: “I see the regular lawsuit market as being absorbed by the in-house attorneys, while the law firms are handling the high-end market. Korean companies, when they evaluate legal services, look at cost rather than value. There is some responsibility on lawyers who did not hone their expertise, allowing this to happen.”

Still, the attorneys also expressed that there was room for collaboration and cooperation between local and foreign law firms.

“From the company’s perspective, in outbound case, which attorney takes on the cases is more important than which law firm takes on the case,” Waters said. “That’s because each attorney has a different expertise. If there is a global issue, we tend to seek out that country first.”

“Strategically,” Yun said, “there are a lot of cases in which foreign law firms and Korean law firms need to collaborate.”

Park agreed.

“Generally, international transactions resort to Anglo-American law, so Korean law firms have a limit in carrying out the case. That’s why collaboration is the way to go these days.”

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