It’s long been clear that international law firms were eager to enter the Korean market. But exactly how many has turned out to be more of a surprise. Some 17 U.S. and U.K. firms have either applied to open an office in Korea or publicly stated their intention to do so since the free trade agreements liberalizing the Korean legal market came into effect at the beginning of 2012.
Can the Korean market support those kinds of numbers? That’s not so clear. According to the World Bank, the country of 49 million people had 2010 gross domestic product of roughly $1 trillion, less than one-fifth that of Japan or China. Moreover, unlike Hong Kong or Singapore, Seoul is not a global financial hub.
Several lawyers also note a major challenge for international firms: The Korean demand for legal servcies comes from a very small band of very big companies. Whereas Japan has a vast second tier of still-large companies, Korean companies tail off dramatically in size after the big names are counted. Jong Han Kim, the head of Paul Hastings’s Korea practice, says the number of Korean companies with a significant amount of international legal work may be as few as 15.
William Kim, who relocated from New York to lead Ropes & Gray’s Seoul office, agrees that the competition will be tough. “You’ve got a limited company list and a large pool of lawyers trying to service it,” he notes. But he adds that his firm has crunched numbers that show that Korean companies’ legal spending has more than doubled in the last six years. Much of that increase, he says, is from litigation—specifically U.S. litigation, and in particular, intellectual property disputes involving Korean giants like Samsung Group and LG Corp.
Whoever else comes in, one group has already won, says Paul Hastings’s Kim. “Korean corporations will receive excellent service all around,” he says. “Service will get much, much better because there will be so many more firms trying to get work.”