Law firm that began on a gamble on globalization
From Sept. 22 to 27, 6,000 to 8,000 lawyers from 130 different countries will descend on Coex in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, to attend the annual conference of the International Bar Association. It will be Seoul’s first time hosting the most prestigious international gathering of lawyers. To lead up to that special event, the Korea JoongAng Daily is running a series of interviews of managing partners of South Korea’s leading law firms to hear how they’re embracing globalization and what it means to the legal industry to think beyond borders. - Ed.
Shortly after starting his legal career at a big-name law firm in Korea, Yang Young-tae felt the urge to leave. He wanted bold new challenges - and so, fortuitously, did nine of his colleagues. They all quit, and in 2000, co-founded Jipyong LLC.
Their mission: to go global.
Five years later, Yang saw potential in Vietnam. But this time, he was alone.
In 2005, there was only one Korean law firm with an office in the Southeast Asian country. Other major Korean law firms were focusing on the booming Chinese market and opened or were preparing to open offices in Shanghai or Beijing.
“There’s too much risk for a small law firm like us to go to Vietnam,” Yang’s coworkers warned him. “How can we hire local lawyers in a foreign country we barely even know?” they questioned.
Yang didn’t give up.
While his friends and juniors all went to the United States for master’s degrees in law, Yang went to Ho Chi Minh City to prove he was right.
In the end, Yang managed to convince his partners about establishing an office in Ho Chi Minh City. It opened in September 2007, becoming the fourth Korean law firm office in Vietnam. It wasn’t until about a decade later that many other Korean law firms followed, as Korean investments shifted from China to Vietnam.
Yang was right about Vietnam. And after opening seven more offices in six other countries - becoming the Korean law firm with the most foreign offices - Yang hopes to stay right about other plans to expand.
“We’re currently eyeing India, Europe, the United States, Japan and Brazil,” Yang said during a recent interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily at his office in Seodaemun District, western Seoul. “Our goal is to cover the legal services of our Korean clients all over the world and to internationalize our clientele.”
During the hour-long interview, Yang explained how Jipyong is finding new markets and how its lawyers are coming to call the foreign countries their new homes. The following are excerpts of the interview.
Q. Can you tell us about Jipyong’s foreign offices?
A. We have offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam; Shanghai; Phnom Penh in Cambodia; Vientiane, Laos; Jakarta, Indonesia; Yangon, Myanmar; and Moscow. In Korea, we have offices in Seoul, Busan and Suncheon, South Jeolla.
In Vietnam, we advised Shinhan Bank on the merger between Shinhan Vietnam Bank and Shinhan Vina Bank. In Myanmar, we advised Lotte Group on various legal issues, contract-related matters and due diligence for the acquisition of Myanmar Golden Star Beverage, and advised on the joint venture agreement and hotel management agreement with regard to Daewoo Amara Hotel Project.
Why do you have so many foreign offices?
First of all, we want to provide our Korean corporate clients with the legal help they need as they expand their overseas businesses, and through that process, contribute to Korea’s economic development. Second, we value the happiness and self-improvement of members of the Jipyong family, and many of our lawyers have high aspirations for working abroad, so we try to help them fulfill that dream by opening new offices in foreign countries and sending them there.
In terms of global work and operating foreign offices, what do you think sets Jipyong apart from other Korean law firms?
Our lawyers really enjoy their work there and have a lot of affection for their host countries. They don’t think lightly of the working-abroad experience, like considering it as a vacation getaway. And I think a large part of that has to do with feeling a sense of accomplishment. Here in Korea, there are many law firms and lawyers, so it’s not easy for lawyers to bond with their clients. Lawyers often handle their work via email. Even a merger and acquisition deal sometimes gets signed without a single face-to-face encounter between lawyers and their clients.
But our lawyers dispatched to foreign offices say they genuinely feel like legal advisors because they’re more engaged in intimate conversations with whomever they’re legally helping, and through that process, grow really close to those people like becoming friends. Because they’re so satisfied with their work environment, they want to stay on in their foreign offices, which, in turn, is helpful to our law firm. The longer they stay abroad, the more knowledge and regional expertise they build. We have lawyers who have been working 15 years in the Shanghai office, nine years in Ho Chi Minh City, seven years in Hanoi, nine years in Indonesia, eight years in Myanmar and five years in Russia.
What’s Jipyong’s globalization strategy?
In terms of outbound work, we try to localize our foreign offices by recruiting people with great personal connections with influential members of that society. And to do that, we’re now thinking about hiring advisers like we do for our Korean offices. We’re also aiming to diversify our clientele like the way we’re offering legal help to Japanese, Thai and Chinese companies in Myanmar.
For inbound work, we want to expand cooperation with foreign law firms in the Korean legal market and provide legal work to local branches of foreign companies. We’re also considering forming a joint venture with a British or U.S. law firm here.
Jipyong’s North Korea team has 35 members I think it’s surprising you have so many members on the team. Also, the foreign attorneys on that team received their law degrees in the United States, Russia, China or Britain. Is there a special reason why the team is so diverse?
When North Korea’s economy opens up, companies from all over the world - such as South Korea, China, the United States, Japan, Russia and Europe - will want to invest and open offices there. In doing so, they will need lawyers who can speak Korean, which is why our North Korea Investment Consulting Center is composed of lawyers who know the Korean language and earned a law degree from countries we think will most likely be interested in making investments in the North. We’re currently compiling a book on North Korean investment and it will likely be published in English and Japanese first.
Your profile says you directly overlook global work in Southeast Asia, China and Russia. Have you had any memorable moments?
I’ll never forget our Yangon office in Myanmar. In 2010, two years before the United States started easing sanctions on Myanmar, we expected the sanctions to be lifted and started early preparations to open an office there. We booked a hotel room and made it our temporary Yangon office, asking the managing director of our Phnom Penh office in Cambodia to spend half of every month there. Before the Yangon office officially opened in 2012, I personally went there about 10 times to help with management.
Myanmar had undergone sanctions for nearly a decade before they were revoked, so the country barely had any law firms when we first went in. There were thousands of Burmese with legal licenses, but there weren’t many lawyers who had experience advising companies on international trade. After a rigorous recruitment process, we chose about 10 highly competent Burmese lawyers and local staff members for our Yangon office. Our Korean lawyers and new Burmese recruits shared knowledge about the Burmese law system and foreign investment agreements.
When a Japanese company later came knocking on our doors in Yangon for legal help, I was really proud of all the hard work we had accomplished there because a foreign company was asking for legal assistance from us in a third country.
BY LEE SUNG-EUN [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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