Law Firms in Republic of Korea

あおやま, ミナ

Published in 2008, Professor Kim’s work in overall, while informative of ages past, unfortunately seems gravely outdated. Providing a rather in-depth genesis-like tale for several Korean law firms in their pre-natal stages, Kim failed to satisfy this reader’s appetite for recent and specific details of behind-the-scenes law firm operations naturally and wisely hidden behind the corporate veil as ‘trade secrets.’

Long story short, Korean Law Firms began to emerge, taking the form of those that have flourished in the United States in as early as 1958. This LLP (Limited Liability Partnership) form of management is a collaborative system amongst mainly lawyers in various fields of the law to provide customers with a one-stop all-around (total) legal shopping experience. As is the case of YULS, there are ‘equity partners’ whom share the monetary liability of the firm as well as the bulk of the wealth in comparison to ‘associates’ whom are novices, talented youngsters newly joining the organization to be trained as a professional practitioner and one day rise to the ranks of partnership. One must earn the title by securing high-end clientele and bringing in handsome returns. YULS associates must demonstrate their academic prowess via means such as winning in major moot court tournaments, publishing papers, or getting accepted by prominent institutions of law. As the size of this business expands, experts and specialists in various fields such as technicians and accountants also join the operation as partners despite the fact that they may not be lawyers. Unlike conventional belief, having a law degree is not necessarily a pre-condition to joining a law firm.

Important to note is the minute size of the Korean legal market which exacerbates consequences the majority of local lawyers must suffer from bi-polarized returns of different law firms. Moreover, independent research has shown that the PEP (Profits per Equity Partner) of law firms abroad far outweigh that of the top Korean law firms. Despite the government’s announcement to open the legal market to foreign firms (July 2016 via KOR-EU FTA and March 2017 via KOR-US FTA), this is why I personally maintain a pessimistic view as to the profitability and viability of foreign law firms even if they decide to enter the peninsula. Korean Herald has reported how the U.S. and British law firms here “seemed to remain lukewarm on entering into joint ventures with Korean counterparts.” For example, U.S. law firm Ropes & Gray expressed their “will to focus on consulting clients on the U.S., British and Hong Kong law rather than opening up occupation opportunities for local lawyers, downplaying the idea of being heavily engaged with domestic legal cases.” “As of  December 2015, eight out of 21 foreign law firms confirmed that they were not considering forming a joint practice with Korean partners, according to a survey” (Korean Herald). Despite the more than appealing trait of increased occupation opportunities by foreign law firms propagandized by the Korean government, it may soon reveal its true face as a myth.

On a separate note, especially fascinating was the introduction of a Department of Government Policy and Regulation operated by some of the innovative foreign law firms around 2008. The role of Lawyers in this department was to seek out not only simple access, but opportunities to influence and actively lead the change in government legislation and regulation environment and culture (Kim, 156p). It is my view that the practitioners and legal experts of this nation have a moral duty to provide guidance to the populist politicians whom are horrifyingly un-trained or ill-trained alike in the art of law. A department, should it exist, serving a parallel role in a top-tier Korean Law Firm with means to make a difference can be a desirable position, considering my interest in modernizing and revolutionizing the legislative culture and environment.

Specialized mid-sized law firms signing MOUs or merging practices with foreign law firms may also be an alternative option. For example, Chungjeong has signed a MOU with Bird & Bird and Yoon & Yang (Hwawoo) has launched a Global Trade and Commerce Team which will work in collaboration with foreign lawyers.

However, in any case, the most ideal scenario would be to join a top tier international law firm as an established expert in a specialized field to provide consultation. As a specialist in International Law of War, it is my wish to play an instrumental role in not only during the inevitable war it must face, but also the re-construction and establishment of the Korean government and nation post disaster. North Korea escalates the tension in the East Asian region while the Chinese gradually increase their influence over neighboring countries. In response, Japan takes on the challenge by de-militarizing and U.S. to-be-Presidential nominees reveal their will to permit nuclear capabilities to Japan and South Korea. The fact that as 2016, there is but one local expert in the above field is nothing less of ironical. Careful review of historic practices in the region by relevant countries in their perspective language will provide great insight as to binding customary international law.

Here are top international law firms to look into :

  • Top World Law Firms
    • Latham & Watkins (Los Angeles, CA)
    • Baker & McKenzie (Chicago, IL)
    • DLA Piper (London and Chicago)
    • Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom (New York, NY)
    • Kirkland & Ellis (Chicago, IL)
      Clifford Chance (London)
    • Allen & Overy (London)
    • Linklaters (London)
    • Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer (London)
    • Norton Rose Fulbright (London)
    • White & Case (New York, NY)
  • Top Japanese Law Firms
    • Anderson Mori & Tomotsune
    • Mori Hamada & Matsumoto
    • Nagashima Ohno & Tsunematsu
    • Nishimura & Asahi
    • Tokyo Aoyama Law Offices and Aoki Offices (Baker & McKenzie)
    • Mitsui, Yasuda, Wani & Maeda (Linklaters)
  • Top Chinese Law Firms
    • Dacheng Law Offices
    • Yingke Law Firm
    • Zhong Yin Law Firm
    • DeHeng Law Offices
    • AllBright

The following are the top domestic law firms:

  • Top South Korean Law Firms
    • Lee & Ko (Kwangjang)
    • Bae, Kim & Lee (Taepyongyang)
    • Yulchon
    • Kim & Chang


minaJoining in 2015, Ms. Aoyama is a Junior Associate at YULS. The comment, writing, or column does not represent the official position of YULS.