South Korea’s decision last year to lift restrictions barring U.S. and U.K. law firms from opening offices in the country resulted in some of the world’s leading firms applying to establish operations in that market.

Now, individual lawyers from three of the firms have received final approval from South Korea’s Ministry of Justice to be a foreign legal consultant—a key step toward opening offices in the country. The three are Ropes & Gray Korea practice chair William Yongkyun Kim, Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton finance partner Seth (Byoung Soo) Kim, and Clifford Chance finance counsel Brian Cassidy.

Clifford Chance announced in May that Cassidy had received preliminary approval as a foreign legal consultant. The U.K. firm is operating under the European Union’s free trade agreement with South Korea, which was ratified last summer. The U.S. free trade agreement with the Asian country was ratified in November.

Ropes’s Kim, who will eventually lead his firm’s Seoul office, tells The Am Law Daily that South Korea has stipulated that the lawyer designated to head a foreign firm’s office must be approved by the government—first by the ministry, then by the Korean Bar Association. (The three attorneys still need bar approval.)

“Assuming that’s all done,” Kim says, “the foreign legal consultant will take documents from the Korean bar, go back to ministry, and sponsor the law firm [for registration].” After both the ministry and the bar approve that registration, the firm can be licensed and then finally open up shop with the approved attorney at the helm. Kim adds that he knows of roughly 15 major international firms that have applied for preliminary review to be licensed in South Korea.

Aside from Ropes and Sheppard Mullin, the Am Law firms that have officially declared plans to open in South Korea include Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton; Simpson Thacher & Bartlett; McDermott Will & Emery; Covington & Burling; and Paul Hastings. Last year, The American Lawyer wrote about Cleary’s extensive history as an adviser to South Korean companies and the effect that a free trade agreement could have on the legal sector in a country where Cleary has been a go-to firm for capital markets work from its base in Hong Kong. 

Ropes’s Kim says his firm plans to focus on intellectual property litigation once it opens in Seoul, where it will cater to such Korean clients as LG, Samsung, and Daewoo. Other areas in which the firm will look to land work include antitrust, life sciences, government enforcement, and transactions.

By law, foreign firms entering the South Korean market will not be able to practice Korean law, but can advise clients in the country on U.S. laws as well as on international arbitration matters. The free trade agreement does not allow U.S. firms to hire Korean lawyers, or merge with Korean firms, until 2017.

Kim adds that Ropes hopes to obtain the necessary further approvals and officially open in Seoul in August. And while he says he has heard that some firms have already picked out real estate in the city, Ropes is still looking for the right permanent spot. As far as staffing goes, Kim says the firm plans to “start with several lawyers, and will probably quickly double that size, hopefully within a year, and double that size a year later.” 

Sara Randazzo contributed reporting.