South Korean Law Firms: Overview
The South Korean legal market continues to be dominated by the “Big Five” firms that established themselves in the second half of the 20th century. However the country has recently seen a rise in the number of boutiques and new firms being established, therefore diversifying the market. Moreover, international firms, though currently in their infancy, may one day come to form a significant part of the market. Here we explore the leading law firms in South Korea.
The "Big Five"
Kim & Chang
The largest law firm in South Korea by a margin, Kim & Chang was founded in 1973 by Young Moo Kim and today is the country’s largest full-service law firm, serving multinational corporations, financial institutions and private equity funds. Outside of Korea, it has offices in Seoul and Hong Kong. Its revenue in 2015 was 892.2 billion won, according to Maeil Business News, and its market share by revenue was 49.9%, making it the most dominant law firm in South Korea by a margin. Chairman of the finance practice Kye Sung Chung and chair of the firm's corporate department and antitrust and competition practice Kyung Taek Jung are both noted as leading lawyers in the market, while Eun Young Park is one of the country’s leading arbitration lawyers.
Bae, Kim & Lee
Bae, Kim & Lee was founded in 1980 by In Sub Kim and has since become a global law firm and the second-largest law firm in Korea, with approximately 14% of market share. In 2004 it opened its Beijing office, followed by branches in Shanghai in 2008 and Dubai in 2015. Its most recent office was opened in Yangon in 2016, giving it eight in total. It also boasts a separate intellectual property group, which is considered one of the most respected groups in the practice area in South Korea. The firm recently advised the Republic of Korea on its successful issuance of Foreign Exchange Equalisation Bonds equalling US$1 billion and the firm’s international arbitration practice group recently secured a complete victory for a Korean-based camera lens manufacturer in a KCAB arbitration. Tony Dongwook Kang in the litigation department and arbitration lawyer John Bang at the firm are both internationally recognised as leading lawyers in their respective fields.
Lee & Ko
Lee & Ko was founded in 1977 and is South Korea’s third biggest law firm. It has a market share of approximately 12% and has overseas offices in Beijing and Vietnam. It is a full-service law firm with over 30 areas of expertise and its client base is global, with names from the US, EU, China, Japan and elsewhere. It recently rejected an offer from Dentons to join its Swiss Verein network, instead officially joining independent law firm network Lex Mundi in late 2016. Lee & Ko is another firm with a separate intellectual property group. Managing partner Jae Hoon Kim and labour & employment specialist Sang Hoon Lee are two of the firm’s leading names.
Founded in 1997, Yulchon is the youngest of the Big Five but its market share is just under 10%, making it the fourth-largest law firm in South Korea. It has offices in Seoul, Beijing, Vietnam, Hanoi, Yangon and Moscow, making it the only firm of the Big Five to have an office outside of Asia and the Middle East. The firm is also a member of international employment law network Ius Laboris. The Financial Times named Yulchon Most Innovative Korean Law Firm 2015/16. Recently, it successfully represented a leading hotel chain in a merger worth US$13.6 million and advised two Korean firms on the sale of a combined ownership interest worth over US$300 million. Founding partner Sai Ree Yun is a corporate and M&A specialist and Chairman Chang Rok Woo is a tax law expert.
Shin & Kim
Shin & Kim was founded in 1981 by three former judges and was the first Korean law firm to implement a western-style partnership structure. It has a market share of approximately 8% and has overseas offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Ho Chi Minh City. The firm has made a point of developing a regional network, particularly in China. Recent engagements include acting as co-counsel for a client in the UAE in an ICSID arbitration against the Republic of Korea. Doo-Sik Kim is recognised as a leading trade and customs lawyer and a seasoned litigator and arbitrator, John H Choi is a highly regarded competition lawyer with experience of international cartel cases and Ghyo Sun Park is a leading litigation lawyer who specialises in intellectual property.
Other Leading Firms
Yoon & Yang
Outside of the Big Five, Yoon & Yang is the sixth-largest law firm in South Korea and is recognised as one of the country’s leading law firms with a market share of approximately 7%. Established in 2003 from the merger between Yoon & Partners, who were leaders in the corporate and commercial space, and Roh & Yang, known for its specialist litigation outfit, Yoon & Yang has established itself as a leading firm in the South Korean market in little over a decade. The firm has an office in Tashkent and its most recent opening was in 2016 in Ho Chi Minh City. Managing partner Hoil Yoon is a noted competition and international litigation and arbitration lawyer, and is also a former chairman of the Asia Competition Association. Kichang Chung is an international trade expert focusing on dispute settlement before the World Trade Organization.
Founded in 2015 by a group of breakaway lawyers from Shin & Kim who specialise in international dispute resolution and corporate and transactional law, KL Partners is already one of South Korea’s most recognised and esteemed arbitration boutiques. It seeks to be the go-to firm for challenging disputes work and is the first of its kind in the marketplace to specialise specifically in cross-border litigation and arbitration. Beomsu Kim is recognised as one of South Korea’s leading arbitration specialists and Eun Nyung Lee focuses on international dispute resolution and cross-border and domestic M&A and finance matters.
Cho & Partners
Cho & Partners is an intellectual property boutique founded in 2002 by Tae-Yeon Cho and Ik-Hyun Seo. Seo is an experienced IP litigator and has represented an array of Korean and international clients. The firm’s main client base includes large multinationals in fields including technology, fashion, retail and energy. Cho & Partners provides an end-to-end service in all IP matters including anti-counterfeiting, enforcement and technology counselling and management and is now regarded as one of South Korea’s leading practices in this important legal area.