The already-small pool of available clients could grow even smaller if firms need to worry about conflicts, both actual and business related. Business conflicts are a major reason Morrison & Foerster, which has a large IP litigation practice advising Japanese electronics giants, gets little work from their Korean rivals like Samsung, says Max Olson, the firm's Tokyo litigation chief. The firm, which has no plans to open in Korea, is also currently representing Apple Inc. in its smartphone patent dispute with Samsung.
But Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, the firm advising Samsung in the smartphone dispute, also has no current plans for a Seoul office to go with the one it has in Tokyo. "While the major Korean tech companies are important global players," says managing partner John Quinn, "there aren't as many of them as in Japan, and we have not had difficulty servicing them without an office in Korea."
Another competitive complication is the relatively large number of U.S.-qualified Korean lawyers working at Korean law firms as foreign counsel. Large Korean firms like Kim & Chang, Shin & Kim, and Bae, Kim & Lee literally have dozens of U.S.-trained lawyers on staff, many at the partner level and many who have previously worked in the Korea practices of international firms. Though such lawyers could not represent Korean clients overseas, Jong Han Kim says, they could handle a number of tasks that might otherwise be handled by international firms. They are also likely to play a major role in referring matters from all but the very biggest companies.
The large population of U.S.-trained Korean and Korean-American lawyers is undoubtedly a factor in the high level of interest in Korea among American firms, who can rely on a big talent pool to service their practices.
The lack of a similar population may also be hampering firms based in the United Kingdom, which has historically drawn far fewer Korean students or immigrants. Firms opening offices in Korea are required under the regulations to be represented by a lawyer who has practiced law for seven years, three of which must be in the firm's home country jurisdiction. Many Korean-American lawyers fit that bill, but British firms, most of whose Korea practice heads are U.S.-qualified, have had to dig a little deeper.
As a result, although the earlier ratification of the FTA between Korea and European Union meant British firms might have gotten to Korea sooner than their American counterparts, they have actually lagged. Clifford Chance is so far the only British firm to have applied to open in Korea, relocating Beijing energy counsel Brian Cassidy to serve as its chief representative in Seoul, though U.S.-trained Hyun Kim will continue to serve as Korea practice head. Herbert Smith has announced plans to open in Korea later this year though it has yet to say who will staff it. Allen & Overy, which has a well-regarded Korea practice, says it is still weighing its options.
Whoever else comes in, one group has already won, says Jong Han 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."
The 16 firms that have so far either applied to open in Korea or said they will are Cleary, Simpson Thacher, Paul Hastings, Clifford Chance, Ropes & Gray, Covington & Burling, Sheppard Mullin, Squire Sanders, McDermott Will & Emery, O'Melveny & Myers, Herbert Smith, DLA Piper, K&L Gates, McKenna Long, Cohen & Gresser, and H. C. Park & Associates.