Winners can finally be named in the race among U.S.– and U.K.–based law firms to be the first to open an office in South Korea. Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton announced late Wednesday that it has opened an outpost in Seoul, its 16th location worldwide, with partner Byoung Soo “Seth” Kim at the helm in brand-new office space. Sheppard Mullin’s announcement comes about a month after Ropes & Gray announced its own on-the-ground opening with operations led by William Yongkyun Kim. At least 14 other firms—a dozen of them large international shops—have also applied to establish operations in Korea, though they are still awaiting the required approvals. For an international firm, the steps toward opening an office in the country include securing the blessings of both the South Korean Ministry of Justice and the Korean Bar Association for an individual lawyer to act as a foreign legal consultant. With that approval in hand, the lawyer then sponsors his or her firm before the same two agencies. The at-times breathless competition to be first into South Korea—which has seen competing firms issuing press releases announcing their every move, however minor, on the way to launching a new office—began earlier this year following the passage of a free trade agreement loosening restrictions on outsiders doing business in South Korea. Under that agreement, U.S. and U.K. firms can still only practice the law of their home countries, as well as international trade law, for the next several years. Beginning in 2017, foreign firms will be allowed to merge with South Korean firms and hire local lawyers. Sheppard Mullin chairman Guy Halgren says he feels a combination of “exhilaration and relief” now that the Seoul office is finally open following a years-long wait for the trade agreement to be ratified and then the relatively smooth approval process overseen by the Korean government. While the firm’s new office will initially have three lawyers and one staff member, Halgren says there are plans to expand the operation to include between 10 and 15 people within a year or two.
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