In a sign that Atlanta’s Korean-American legal community is gaining critical mass, a group of lawyers of Korean descent has launched the Korean-American Bar Association of Georgia.
One impetus for forming the new bar association is to mentor younger lawyers, said Jeong-Hwa Lee “June” Towery, a partner at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, who helped organize the group.
“For a few years I have been wanting to put the Korean-descent attorneys together for mutual support, information exchange and networking,” said Towery, who is KABA Georgia’s president.
“The main thing is the mentoring,” she added. “Typically these are the first attorneys from their families and they don’t have the exposure to lawyers. They can have a hard time adjusting to the big firm environment.”
Towery said about 45 lawyers and law students came to KABA Georgia’s first meeting in late August. About half the lawyers who attended were small practitioners serving Korean individuals, she said, and the other half work for corporate firms.
“The response was incredible,” she said, noting that a lot of law students attended, including some who had driven to Atlanta from the University of Georgia in Athens.
Towery estimated that there are more than 100 lawyers and law students of Korean descent in the Atlanta area, with about 50 Korean lawyers in Gwinnett, where there is a large Koreatown, and another 30 or more in corporate Atlanta firms.
“There is a general feeling of trying to help people out,” said Han Choi, a partner at Ballard Spahr, who is the new group’s vice president. “We’re trying to make sure younger Korean-American lawyers get some opportunities to meet people.”
He and Towery said major U.S. cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Washington and Chicago already have KABAs.
In Atlanta, the Georgia Asian-Pacific American Bar Association has been around since 1992, but until now there has been no bar association specifically focused on the growing Korean legal community.
Sara Hamilton, KABA Georgia’s treasurer, just graduated from Emory University’s law school in May and is working for national labor and employment firm Littler Mendelson. She said Towery and Choi, whom she met through the Asian law student association at Emory, have been mentors to her and she wants to do the same for law students.
“I hear how [older Korean-American lawyers] entered a tough profession like this without a mentor and I can’t imagine doing this without June and Han,” said Hamilton, who is of Korean descent and grew up in a small town in Oregon. She developed an interest in Korean culture after living in Korea after college.
Steve Park, a native of Korea who moved to the United States at 14, said he’s an example of the benefit of having a mentor. Park is a seventh-year associate in corporate finance at Nelson Mullins and works with Towery. He is up for partnership this year, which he attributed to “Ms. Towery looking out for my development,” by advising him on marketing himself, providing service to the right clients and other professional development issues.
Another KABA Georgia member, Alex Shin, who is a first-year corporate associate at Nelson Mullins, said he knew several Korean-American lawyers already — and after the KABA Georgia launch is “finding out there are a lot more than I thought.”
Shin, like Park, was born in Korea and came to the U.S. at 14. “My mentorship with Steve and Ms. Towrey has been huge so far in my short career,” he said. “I’m still learning the ropes.”
While most of the new bar association’s members are lawyers and law students of Korean descent, the organizers emphasized that the group is open to anyone with an interest in Korean culture.
An increasing number of South Korean companies are doing business in the Southeast, including auto manufacturers Kia and Hyundai.
Park said the Kia plant in LaGrange, Ga., and the Hyundai plant in Alabama have created a boom for Korean business locally. He represents Korean banks from New York that are financing deals for Korean companies starting U.S. operations. Many of them are parts suppliers to Hyundai and Kia, Park said.
The U.S. subsidiary of Doosan Infracore, a construction-equipment maker that owns Bobcat, is headquartered in Atlanta and electronics maker Samsung also does business here.
Choi said the free trade agreement between the Republic of Korea and the United States, which went into effect in March, could stimulate more business between South Korean and U.S. companies in manufacturing and electronics, as well as other areas that are “not quite ripe,” such as biotech and health sciences.
The Korean-American lawyers said helping Korean clients negotiate cultural differences is an important part of the job.
Towery, who advises Korean companies in setting up U.S. operations, said she’s seen situations where misunderstandings have caused deals to fall apart.
“Korean culture is very different from U.S. culture,” said Towery. “A lot of the Korean managers in charge of mergers and acquisitions sound fluent in English but only understand 50 to 70 percent of what’s being said. They go away thinking what they want to think.”
When they see the deal terms on paper, she said, they might feel misled. She recalled one situation where a Korean client believed the manager of economic development for an Alabama county had lied to him.
Towery said “emotions ran high and there was a lot of finger-pointing.” She said she was able to sort out the misunderstandings and the Korean business is now a major project for the county.
Park said cultural differences in body language also can create misunderstandings. “Koreans like to nod in meetings. To Americans, that means agreement. To a Korean, it’s just politeness, a way of saying ‘I hear you,’ and not ‘I agree with the terms that you just explained.’”
“There can be a lot of frustration and disconnect,” Hamilton said, adding that she’s seen this with the three Korean clients she is working with at Littler.
Hamilton said Korean businesspeople are surprised by U.S. employment law, because there’s nothing like it in Korea. She explained that in Korea, there is not a culture of suing one’s employer, adding that in a country where 99 percent of the population shares the same ethnicity, it is uncommon to sue for discrimination.
Sun Choy of Freeman Mathis & Gary is KABA Georgia’s other vice president besides Choi. Helen Kim Ho, the executive director of the Asian American Legal Advocacy Center, is secretary.
KABA Georgia’s next meeting will be toward the end of the law school semester, said Towery. For more information, check the group’s LinkedIn page or contact Park at firstname.lastname@example.org.