Simpson Thacher & Bartlett will close its Seoul office by the end of the year, the first major global firm to pull out of South Korea since the country opened up its legal market in 2012. The firm already relocated its Korea practice back to Hong Kong earlier this year.
Youngjin Sohn, a corporate partner and head of Simpson Thacher’s Seoul office, will leave the firm. Sohn, who relocated from New York to open the office six years ago, is the only lawyer remaining in the Seoul office after the departures of corporate associates John Hahn earlier this year and Iksoo Kim in 2017. Kim is now a shareholder at Greenberg Traurig’s Seoul office. Sohn said he has no immediate plans.
Simpson Thacher, which has one of the more established Korean practices, was among the first batch of U.S. firms to launch physical presences in Seoul in 2012, following the ratification of the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement. The office, led by Sohn, has focused on capital markets, cross-border mergers and acquisitions, and private equity investments. In April, Sohn advised the underwriters of a $1 billion securities offer by Hanwha Life Insurance; he also acted for the insurer’s $1.6 billion initial public offering in 2010, the largest listing at the time on the Korea Exchange.
Before foreign firms were allowed to physically launch in Seoul, Simpson Thacher—like other stronger Korea players such as Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and Paul Hastings—based its Korea practice out of the Hong Kong office. The firm maintained a Korea-focused team in Hong Kong after launching a Seoul office; and partner Jin Hyuk Park, the firm’s head of Korea practice since 2001, has been based in Hong Kong all along. In 2010, Park advised the underwriters in Samsung Life Insurance Co. Ltd.’s $4.4 billion IPO, the largest Korean listing ever.
Both Sohn and Park said the firm is closing the Seoul office for strategic reasons. “We continue to focus on and serve our clients who are active in Korea from our Hong Kong office where we have five Korean-speaking lawyers,” said Park. “We have many other Korean-speaking lawyers in our New York and other offices who support our Korea practice.”
Simpson Thacher’s impending exit will leave 27 foreign firms—21 of which are U.S. firms—in Seoul giving non-Korean law advice.* Latham & Watkins—which opened a Seoul office in 2016—was the most recent Big Law firm to enter Korea.
Foreign firms were first allowed to offer local law advice once the FTAs with firms’ home countries reached its fifth year. But, to the disappointment of many international firms, the country’s legislature in February 2016 passed a revision to the Foreign Legal Consultant Act, rescinding the promise of fully opening up the market. Instead, it only allowed restrictive joint ventures between established local practices and foreign firms. So far, none of the 28 foreign firms established such joint ventures.
Sohn said the inability to practice Korean law did not affect Simpson Thacher’s decision to close its Seoul office.
*Correction 9/21: A previous version of this story stated there would be 28 foreign law firms left in Seoul after Simpson Thacher’s exit. There would be 27. A correction has been made to reflect that. We regret the error.