O’Melveny & Myers opened an office in Seoul Monday, becoming at least the third U.S. firm to open a South Korean office just this month.
Jinwon Park and Sungyong Kang, both of counsels, will be based in Seoul for the firm; counsel Youngwook Shin and partner Joseph Kim, head of the Korea practice, will divide their time between the U.S. and Korea.
“I’m very excited,” Shin said. “By having a physical presence in Korea, we think we can serve our clients more efficiently.”
O’Melveny followed Paul Hastings, which launched its Seoul office last week. Korea Office Chair Jong Han Kim will be joined in that office by vice chair and corporate partner Daniel Kim, of counsel Dong Chul Kim, of counsel Woojae Kim and associate K. Trisha Chang, who plans to relocate from Washington, D.C.
Both firms came on the heels of Covington & Burling, which debuted its office in Seoul on November 1. Korea-based corporate partner William H.Y. Park is going to lead a team of four other lawyers for Covington.
U.S. firms have been scrambling to get a foothold in South Korea’s legal market since a free trade agreement that took force earlier this year created the long-awaited opportunity. The Recorder sibling publication The Am Law Daily reported that O’Melveny, Paul Hastings and Covington were among at least 16 firms that sought approval from the South Korean Ministry of Justice and the Korean Bar Association to start offices in the country. Ropes & Gray was first to open its doors in July, and Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton followed suit in August.
Sheppard Mullin Chairman Guy Halgren noted that the firm has landed several new Korean clients since starting its office in Seoul.
“We think the reason we were able to get that additional work is because we were over there,” he said.
A team of three lawyers launched the office and the firm has hired a few more Korean and American lawyers, who are awaiting approval from the Korean Ministry of Justice, Halgren said. But because American firms are not permitted to practice Korean law, Halgren sees no need now for a large operation.
“We’re never going to add attorneys just for the sake of growth,” he said. “It depends on our clients’ needs.”
As more American firms trickle in, Covington’s Park is worried that the legal marketplace in Korea may become oversaturated.
“The competition is already very tough,” he said. “We are concerned, but we’re fairly confident. We have a great practice to offer Korean clients.”
Despite the crowded field, legal consultant Peter Zeughauser thinks there is a substantial appetite for big law in the country.
“Korea is a logical next step for firms that have gone into China and Japan,” he said.