Most foreign lawyers not properly registeredThere are estimated to be over a thousand foreign lawyers active in Korea, but currently only 89 are properly registered as foreign legal consultants, according to numbers from the Ministry of Justice.
In 2012, there were 38 foreigners registered with the Korean Bar Association (KBA), 28 in 2013, 12 in 2014 and 11 as of October, totaling just 89 foreign legal consultants in the country registered with the Justice Ministry over the past four years.
However, in the top law firms and companies here, there are hundreds of active foreign lawyers, as well as a slew of foreign attorneys from countries like the United States, Japan and China who offer legal services online.
Na Seung-gi, the chief secretary to Lotte Group founder Shin Kyuk-ho, found himself embroiled in controversy last month when he was described in official press releases as a lawyer. The KBA, however, confirmed that Na was not properly registered as an attorney.
Na, who graduated from Minnesota State University Law School, claimed the press release was wrong and that he was actually a foreign legal consultant at a firm in Korea. Still, the Seoul Bar Association (SBA) filed his case with prosecution, citing that it was illegal to claim to be a foreign legal consultant and offer legal advice without proper registration.
There are estimated to be around 400 foreign legal consultants working in the country’s top 10 law firms, and another 600 with large companies. Small and midsize companies also often hire one or two foreign legal consultants.
Under the Foreign Legal Consultant Act of 2009, lawyers who are licensed overseas must obtain approval from Korea’s Justice Ministry and register with the KBA to be recognized as foreign legal consultants here.
However, the process is often a vigorous one - foreign legal consultants are required to have at least three years of experience in the legal sector in the country in which they are licensed.
A foreign legal consultant - or anyone who claims to be one - who violates the act’s provisions faces a prison sentence of up to seven years with penal labor, a fine of up to 50 million won ($43,250), or both.
One unregistered foreign attorney working at a large law firm previously introduced himself as an American lawyer to a client and took on a case that involved setting up a special purpose entity.
The SBA subsequently filed the case with the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, and last month, the prosecution requested a summary order and for the attorney to stand trial. The KBA also fined the supervising lawyer at the firm 5 million won.
Similarly, another man who marketed himself as an international lawyer online was reported to Seoul prosecutors by the SBA for violating violating the Foreign Legal Consultant Act. He is currently being investigated.
“The 89 registered foreign lawyers are mostly working with foreign law firms,” said Kim Han-kyu, the head of the SBA. “So some 90 percent of the people calling themselves foreign legal consultants are in reality not so.”
However, one legal attorney at a large law firm here pointed out, “In order not to have jobs taken away by foreign lawyers, local lawyers have raised the bar too high.”
BY BAEK MIN-JEONG [firstname.lastname@example.org]