The 2017 Who’s Who Legal Pro Bono Award is presented to Kim & Chang in recognition of the multifaceted pro bono work that the firm undertakes, its belief in innovation in the field and the leadership shown by both senior management and the firm as a whole in giving to and being a part of the wider community in Korea. Who’s Who Legal had the privilege of interviewing the firm’s chairman of the committee for social contribution, Young Joon Mok. He spoke passionately about the pro bono practice and how it hopes to continue expanding its already impressive portfolio.
Kim & Chang established its pro bono practice in 1973, but it wasn’t until 2013 that it launched its committee for social contribution (CSC), created “to best apply our professional skills from legal practice to our pro bono work” and provide services that can benefit the organisations they work with. The CSC’s slogan, “sharing and companionship”, sums up the values that it seeks to practise.
The CSC is at the heart of the Kim & Chang’s pro bono work. Its governing body is comprised of five of the firm’s leading professionals: Young Joon Mok (chair), Jong Nam Oh, Dong Min Cha, Byeong Il Kim and Ok Lee. Additionally, Min Jo Kim and Joong Won Park oversee the CSC’s affiliate body, the Legal Centre for Public Interest. They have the responsibility of planning pro bono programmes, coordinating activities and providing legal advice. But this does not mean that all of the work is undertaken by the higher-ups. One of the aspects Kim & Chang prides itself on is the opportunity for all staff at the firm to share ideas to develop its pro bono activities – any lawyer who wants to suggest a new pro bono project can do so through the firm’s CSC portal on its intranet.
One of the reasons Kim & Chang won our pro bono award this year was the impressive breadth of work that it undertakes. The CSC has signed a partnership agreement with 25 NGOs to provide legal assistance relating to representing the rights of minorities including people with disabilities, children and North Korean defectors. The NGOs the firm has represented include the International Vaccine Institute, the Korea Differently Abled Federation (KODAF) and the Korea Hana Foundation. It also lobbies for improved legislation for minorities; the CSC recently co-hosted a campaign with the Special Olympics Korea to revise legal terminologies such as “deaf” and “mentally retarded” that are deemed discriminatory towards people with disabilities.
“The committee continues to provide legal support to settle and promote reunification-related issues, which is pivotal in a divided country like Korea,” Mr Mok added. Korean unification is widely promoted in South Korea, and protecting and helping to educate defectors and refugees from the North, alongside working to improve the legal system for Korean unification, forms a significant part of the pro bono practice. When the Kaeseong Industrial Complex, a joint inter-Korean economic project just across the northern border, was shut down in 2013, the CSC proposed a legislative bill to help South Korean companies who had invested in the Complex to receive insurance money and to be indemnified for their losses.
Among the firm’s greatest recent achievements is a project developed to help teach basic law in rural areas for women coming to Korea from developing South East Asian nations. These women often face difficulties and are made vulnerable by the language barrier and their lack of basic legal knowledge. Kim & Chang hosts a series of lectures and teaches classes on immigration, family and labour law on a quarterly semester basis in order to help them to integrate successfully and learn their legal rights. “So far,” said Mr Mok, “the academy has completed 16 semesters and over 500 migrant women have participated in the programme.” The committee has also released a story audiobook for children of migrant women who are not familiar with Korean, and is also planning to publish a cartoon within the year.
In order to continue to support a leading pro bono practice, the firm says, infrastructure and good planning is key. “The biggest sense of achievement comes from being able to participate in an entire process of pro bono activities from planning to execution,” Mr Mok says. The CSC has a full-time manager with over 25 years of experience in volunteer management. Four other staff members focus on programme details, data systems and the administrative work that ensures Kim & Chang has everything it needs to carry out its extensive body of work. The firm’s targeted approach to its pro bono work also allows it to measure and improve its successes. Looking far beyond the Korean Bar Association’s regulation 20 hours per year for each lawyer, the CSC worked towards more long-lasting and constructive projects including memoranda of understanding (MOU) with organisations and establishing legal academies for social minorities.
KODAF, a network established by individuals with disabilities and aimed at promoting the rights of people with disabilities, concluded an MOU with the CSC in 2013. Sujin Kang, programme coordinator of KODAF’s policy advocacy division, said: “Kim & Chang is the best law firm in Korea for defending the rights of people with disabilities, but still KODAF’s most valued part of cooperating with the firm is its members’ passion for pro bono activities and their commitment towards human rights.”
Kim & Chang has also provided pro bono representation in arbitral disputes, including in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) where they represented a team of Korean badminton players who were suspended for failing to follow anti-doping protocols despite being unaware of global regulations on the matter. The firm’s lawyers were instrumental in successfully appealing against the sanctions of the Badminton World Federation (BWF) and overturning the disciplinary action.
The firm’s pro bono practice stands out for its innovation, particularly within the Korean market. “Pro bono activities by Korean attorneys generally took the form of providing free legal advice and assistance in litigation to needy individuals,” said Mr Mok. But the creation of the CSC signalled a change in the way a law firm in Korea could approach pro bono work – as something far more holistic and focused on the wider community and society within Korea.
In 2016, the country’s 11 major law firms, including Kim & Chang, launched the Law Firm Public Interest Network. This included an agreement to jointly explore and promote public interest activities. The network hosts seminars and networking events to engender greater cooperation and progress on public interest activities and pro bono projects.
Despite an impressive practice, Kim & Chang intends to continue its expansion. “Our next step is to expand the scope of our recipients by upgrading current programmes,” Mr Mok told us. The CSC is looking to widen the range of groups it is working with to include children with leukaemia, teenage single parents and ethnic minorities, and to continue to lobby for a fairer legal system for them. The firm is also developing a mentoring project where its lawyers meet and communicate with students from schools in Korea.
As the firm says of its pro bono work, “We will walk with our partners by sharing knowledge and heart.” The commitment that Kim & Chang shows not only to its pro bono practice but to the wider community, alongside its belief in the firm as part of a group attempting to build a better society in Korea, demonstrates how it has gone above and beyond in its pro bono work.