Cleary, Squire Sanders and McDermott lead charge of big law firms to Seoul

Four major US firms win backing to practise in Korea as foreign firms push into market

The past few years have seen China hogging the headlines and boardroom discussions, but as companies adopt a pan-Asian strategy amid slowing Western economies, South Korea has rapidly become the new focus for firms. 

Four international law firms received approval to open in the country on Wednesday (26 September), with Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, McDermott Will & Emery, Paul Hastings and Squire Sanders all getting the go-ahead. 

The approvals, which bring the number of licences awarded to nine, highlight the growing importance of Asia’s fourth largest economy, and its potential for firms working in the litigation, corporate and intellectual property (IP) sectors particularly. 

“Korea has changed quite a bit in terms of its economic landscape,” said William Kim, a Seoul-based corporate partner from Ropes & Gray, which opened in Korea this July followed by US outfit Sheppard Mullin and Clifford Chance. “Much of the manufacturing has now gone out of Korea into China and Japan,” he added, “and so the types of legal services that are needed are moving more towards IT, telecommunications, consumer electronics, and high tech. 

“Life sciences and energy are also important. The government has earmarked these areas for support and investment, both domestic and foreign.”

Given the industry shift and the potential for outbound investment, Kim believes the focus for firms will be on IP, M&A and litigation work. 

He commented: “M&A is still fairly strong because Korean companies are holding a lot of money for foreign investment, not just financial but strategic.”

Ashurst Asia managing partner Geoffrey Green (pictured) agreed. His firm is putting together a four-lawyer team for its own branch in Seoul, which will focus on outbound work from Korean clients into Australia and India. 

“Korea is important because it is a developed market with sophisticated users,” he said. “These users will be significant because they are continuing to spend money outside of the domestic market.”

How the country’s legal market will evolve in the future is less easy to gauge. According to Kim, the law firms who are attracted to the market are mainly those servicing Korean clients already, putting a natural limit on competition. 

But this could be about to change as figures from the local Ministry of Justice indicate some 16 foreign law firms have applied to set up in Seoul already, with a further nine expected to submit applications before the end of the year.