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Two weeks ago, Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker lawyer Jong Han Kim was once again on a plane from Hong Kong to South Korea. It was a three-hour flight, made necessary because the head of the firm’s South Korea practice can’t have an office there. He has to fly out for each client meeting — a couple of times a month, at least. He will cut his commute significantly if the free-trade agreement announced in early April between the United States and South Korea becomes law. Under the pact, American law firms could have South Korean offices next year, though the legal market wouldn’t fully open for five years. “Paul, Hastings is going to have an office in Seoul as soon as we’re allowed,” Kim enthused before boarding his plane. With the 10th largest economy in the world, powered by global companies like Samsung and Hyundai, South Korea is an attractive proposition for some big firms. But if the trade pact is ratified, firms still working on aggressive expansions into China and Japan will have to consider whether — and how — South Korea fits into their strategies. Firms like Paul, Hastings; Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld; and DLA Piper are enthusiastic about opening in Seoul. Others, like Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, aren’t going to make the leap right away. Christopher Stephens, Orrick’s Asia managing partner, praises opportunities in South Korea but says China, where Orrick has three offices, is on a whole different scale. “All manner of companies are looking at the massive potential of the Chinese market,” says Stephens. “That potential is unique on the planet.” South Korea does have one feature in common with China: The opening of its legal markets would be a slow process. The first step would let U.S. firms open offices and practice foreign law. Over the following five years, firms would be able to first pursue alliances with Korean firms and then, finally, hire Korean lawyers and practice independently, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Trade Representative and others who have followed the process. “I think the Korean bar is saying that they need time to adjust and make a smooth transition,” says Sukhan Kim, who heads up Akin Gump’s Korean practice in Washington, D.C. “From their perspective I understand that, but from our perspective, we’d like for it to be a little quicker.” The free-trade agreement has already generated a considerable amount of work for a couple of D.C. firms that advised the Korean government on the pact. South Korea’s Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy and the Korea International Trade Association hired D.C. firm Steptoe & Johnson to advise it on the negotiations. Partner Grace Parke Fremlin, who moved to the firm 18 months ago to help build its Korean practice, and international trade partner Richard Cunningham led the Steptoe team. The firm counseled the government on various areas of the deal, including autos, textiles, trade remedies, electronic commerce, and investment, says Fremlin, who had worked for KITA in the past. Meanwhile, South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Trade and Affairs retained D.C.-based Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg to advise it on a wide range of issues that surfaced during the negotiations, says John Kingery, of counsel at the firm, who knew Korean Trade Minister Kim Hyun-Chong from his years as a senior legal adviser to the World Trade Organization. Sandler, Travis is an international-trade boutique that has a long history of advising industry associations and foreign countries, including El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and Panama, in their free-trade negotiations with the United States, says Kingery, who worked on the deal with Ronald Sorini, Nicole Bivens Collinson, and Andrew Samet. THE ROAD TOO TRAVELED Attorneys in the United States do a lot of work advising on deals between Korean and American companies and litigating disputes for South Korean companies on U.S. shores. Lawyers say it takes a lot of travel to keep their clients happy. “When it comes to commercial issues, they really would like someone right next to them,” says Kim of Akin Gump, which has done work for both Samsung and Hyundai. “In the corporate area, particularly, it would be constructive and helpful for us to be there.” Local offices will not only let lawyers spend less time in airports and hotels but also will cut costs for clients, says Paul Hastings’ Kim, whose firm does work for U.S. companies in South Korea, including Merrill Lynch & Co., Morgan Stanley, and Wal-Mart, as well as Korean companies operating in the United States, such as SK Telecom and Samsung. “All the travel expenses add up for clients,” says Kim. “In any given transaction [a South Korean office] could result in a 15 to 20 percent savings for a client.” DUE DILIGENCE Even with its economic prospects, South Korea may not be for everyone. “The expansion into Korea will be a cautious one and somewhat limited, because only a handful of U.S. firms have a long history of a Korea practice,” Paul, Hastings’ Kim predicts. “It won’t be like China, where you have 100 law firms going in right away.” Orrick’s Stephens says his firm, which already has offices in China, Japan, and Taiwan, has no immediate plans to open in South Korea. Orrick has done work for Samsung and Korea Development Bank and will continue to serve South Korean clients from its current locations, he says. “We’re much narrower in our focus,” says Stephens. “We’re not trying to be everything everywhere.” O’Melveny & Myers, another firm with a big presence in China and Japan, has no immediate plans in South Korea, though it has clients there. “We probably wouldn’t be the first wave to go in,” says Howard Chao, who runs the firm’s Asia/international practice. “Right now we have a lot of resources in China and Japan, and we’re trying to get those markets right.” New York firms such as Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett have strong South Korea practices. Neither firm responded to requests for comment. Approval of that free-trade deal is not certain, however. It took more than a year, complete with extended deadlines, for the two countries to hammer out the pact. And now it must gain approval from both American and Korean politicians. Although some are still skeptical, Paul, Hastings’ Kim says his hopes were buoyed after watching South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun on television two weeks ago. “Everything was about automobiles and beef, but in his address to the nation he said that he told the Korean negotiators to be aggressive with opening up the legal services market,” says Kim. “I was stunned.”
Zusha Elinson is a reporter for The Recorder , the ALM publication in which this story first appeared. Legal Times reporter Alexia Garamfalvi contributed to this article.

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