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This Special Report covers 24 practice areas.

This will search all specialists in Korea.

Korea In Brief

After the civil war of the 1950s that divided the country, the Republic of Korea (ROK) has emerged over the past 60 years as one of Asia’s greatest economic success stories. Today, it is the world’s 11th largest economy, as well as its sixth most complex, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, with the telecommunications, shipbuilding, automobile, chemical and steel industries featuring prominently in economic analyses. Korea boasts some of the world’s largest businesses in these sectors, including Samsung, Hyundai, LG, SK Innovation and Hanwha. As a result of these companies’ international success, the ROK’s economy is geared largely towards international exports, which totalled $577 billion in 2017, accounting for 43 per cent of GDP. As such, Korea’s legal market has seen a flourishing of international firms opening shop.

Following the election of President Moon in 2017, the economy enjoyed the benefits of strengthened consumer confidence due to new government policies, increasing wages and state spending on infrastructure, all of which translated into annual GDP growth of 3.1 per cent in 2017. However, this is far below the rampant GDP growth of a decade ago. It is clear that the Republic’s economy is – like many developed economies – now showing signs of slower economic growth year-on-year. Furthermore, it faces challenges in the form of one of the world’s most rapidly ageing populations, and an economy that is export-dependent. Considering that 25 per cent and 12 per cent of its exports go to China and the US respectively, South Korea’s economy is particularly susceptible to shifts in geopolitical strategies, such as the trade tariffs and sanctions introduced by the USA in the past two years. This ultimately makes the South Korean market a challenging one, but also one filled with opportunity.

Dispute Resolution

Arbitration enjoys strong state backing in the ROK, with the Arbitration Industry Promotion Act of 2016 establishing a legal framework for the promotion of domestic arbitration. As such, alongside the ICC, the LCIA and other international institutions, Korea has its own Korean Commercial Arbitration Board (KCAB). With the creation of an international arm of the KCAB, the ROK is openly positioning itself to “become the next Singapore” in terms of arbitration, as lawyers told us. Furthermore, South Korea is “a market where clients would not hesitate to take on an arbitration”, which is understandable given that the economy’s growth is partly achieved through the international expansion of domestic companies. This has made it a very sophisticated jurisdiction in terms of arbitration.

The combined effect of this pro-arbitration environment is a very active market. Practitioners reported to us that arbitration cases in the jurisdiction are on the rise, with one interviewee imparting that “we are bursting at the seams in terms of work and we can’t hire people fast enough”. This growth in arbitration is partly due to an increase in construction disputes, “particularly cases coming out of the Middle East”, as well as a “big influx of Chinese game licensing cases”.

Due to the sheer amount of demand in the arbitration market, it seems that the legal market’s current form is set to change. According to interviewees, currently “five or six firms handle the international arbitration cases” with “a lot of small firms doing good work” in domestic arbitrations. As a result, “competition is very tough” between firms, but with “new and smaller firms getting involved” it seems the market is set to become less top-heavy as competition increases.

Perhaps due to the spiralling costs of arbitration in this market, mediation is also enjoying an increased profile, with “a lot more proceedings where judges seek to act as mediator” being seen in the market. In terms of more traditional litigation, sources report that the “current government is more hands-on in regulating – so litigation has been busy”.

Finally, since the election of President Moon and his government in 2017, white-collar crime investigations that focus on abuse of authority and power have been a focus of prosecutors. Interviewees also report that, increasingly, “Korean law firms are working with international firms as co-counsel or opposing counsel”, which has positively impacted the market and quality of work. 

A shift in the Corporate Landscape

There have been a number of changes in Korea’s corporate landscape in the last year. Firstly, with the new government in 2017 has come “increasing aggressiveness from the tax authorities” in order to align Korea with stricter tax regimes in Europe and the US. This has generated a change in attitude to taxation, where the focus of corporates and individuals is now more “how to pay the right amount of tax and not get in trouble” rather than the creation of complex tax structures. As such, the Big Four accounting firms “are not involved in any interesting tax issues anymore in Korea – they are involved instead in tax compliance”. Secondly there are signs that the economy is becoming slightly less reliant on international exports. Franchise specialists impart that they have seen “a significant increase in foreign franchise brands coming to Korea”, namely in the form of hotels and fast food brands that hope to exploit a booming tourist sector.

Legal Market Maturation

The legal market in South Korea is also undergoing something of a rapid metamorphosis. Sources report that the introduction of a new law school system, more akin to that of the UK, has “changed the legal market a lot, and the number of lawyers has substantially increased”. Not only are home-grown Korean lawyers putting more pressure on the market, but there has also been an observable uptick in the number of “foreign law firms coming into Korea and creating more competition”. This increase in practitioners, allied with a slowing economy, has created a level of competition that is “getting a bit ridiculous” according to some market commentators. Practitioners are seeing large firms in Korea “undercutting bids at ridiculous prices” in order to secure clients.

Conclusion

Going forward, the legal market in the ROK faces a number of challenges. Its economy is, like many East Asian economies, experiencing slowing economic growth as it develops. Furthermore, the economy’s dependence on international exports makes the country’s economic stability susceptible to shifts in geopolitical strategies in the US, China and Europe. As such, lawyers may have to contend with an economy that has lower levels of demand for some corporate legal services. Meanwhile, competition is set to grow even fiercer as increasing numbers of lawyers qualify in Korea and more international firms seek to increase their profile in order to take advantage of a truly global economy. Where lawyers may find opportunity is in the growing fields of arbitration and mediation, which benefits from strong state backing, and which typically do well in slowing economies which are seeing a squeeze in corporate profit margins.  

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Analysis: Korea

Korea: Arbitration 2019

In this chapter, we recognise 26 of Korea’s elite arbitration specialists. They are distinguished for their experience and expertise in international arbitrations as counsel and arbitrator under a wide range of institutional rules and on an ad hoc basis.

Korea: Aviation 2019

In this chapter we recognise three impressive individuals listed for their work handling regulatory, transactional and contentious matters across the aviation sector.

Korea: Banking 2019

In this chapter, five exceptional lawyers are identified for their in-depth knowledge of a range of financing and regulatory matters across the banking sector.

Korea: Business Crime Defence & Investigations 2019

In this chapter, five lawyers are recognised for their outstanding work relating to matters such as investigations, bribery, fraud, corruption and regulatory issues.

Korea: Capital Markets 2019

In this chapter, 17 practitioners are recognised for their excellence in the capital markets arena. The expertise on offer spans debt and equity, transactions and structured finance matters.

Korea: Competition 2019

In this chapter we highlight 39 exceptional competition lawyers for their work on an array of matters including cartel investigations, merger control, state aid and abuse of dominance.

Korea: Competition Economists 2019

Here we recognise five outstanding competition economists for their ability to provide expert knowledge and testimony in complex antitrust matters.

Korea: Construction & Real Estate 2019

Twelve practitioners are highlighted in our guide for their work in the field. Their expertise covers the fields of both construction and real estate issues, and ranges from project financing and transactions to multi-jurisdictional disputes.

Korea: Corporate Tax 2019

Here we feature seven corporate tax lawyers for their outstanding work across a range of matters such as transfer pricing, controversy, and mergers and acquisitions.

Korea: Data 2019

In this chapter we recognise 10 of the top data specialists in the Korean market for their impressive work handling transactional, regulatory and contentious matters across the telecommunications, IT, internet and e-commerce sectors.

Korea: Energy 2019

In this chapter we identify eight of Korea’s most distinguished energy specialists. They are highlighted for their expertise in transactional, investment, compliance and dispute matters in the sector. 

Korea: Environment 2019

In this chapter, we present seven environment and climate change practitioners who have been selected for their outstanding work in advising clients on investigations, compliance matters, administrative sanctions and general climate change disputes.

Korea: Franchise 2019

This chapter sees six impressive practitioners listed for their wealth of experience on franchise transactions, registration and on related matters in the space.

Korea: Intellectual Property 2019

Our research into the Korean intellectual property market sees 23 individuals highlighted for their work covering both contentious and transactional matters relating to patents and trademarks.

Korea: Labour & Employment 2019

In this chapter we highlight the 20 leading lights of the Korean labour and employment market. They stand out for their work advising domestic and international clients in a range of matters including workplace and sexual harassment, cross-border employment, termination and collective labour relations matters.

Korea: Litigation 2019

In this chapter we recognise Korea’s 14 leading litigation specialists. They have distinguished themselves through their skill and experience in representing clients in a large variety of international and domestic disputes across the Korean courts.

Korea: M&A and Governance 2019

Here we identify 10 lawyers for their outstanding work on both domestic and cross-border M&A and corporate governance issues.

Korea: Mediation 2019

In this chapter we highlight the top five mediators in the Korean market. They have been chosen for their experience and expertise handling commercial proceedings for clients across a large variety of sectors.

Korea: Private Funds 2019

In this chapter, six lawyers are identified for their excellence in advising fund managers and investors on a wide range of matters relating to the formation and regulation of private funds structures.

Korea: Product Liability Defence 2019

This chapter sees five practitioners listed for their work in the field of product liability defence, providing deep expertise on disputes across a wide range of industry sectors.

Korea: Project Finance 2019

In this chapter we highlight two impressive individuals for their market-leading work across the project finance space.

Korea: Restructuring & Insolvency 2019

In this chapter, four excellent lawyers are selected for their expert advice and ability to represent stakeholders in matters across the restructuring and insolvency space.

Korea: Shipping 2019

Our research into the Korean shipping market sees eight outstanding individuals listed in our guide for their work on matters including charter party disputes, ship finance and marine insurance.

Korea: Trade & Customs 2019

In this chapter we recognise the nine leading lawyers in Korea for trade and customs matters. They have been selected for their expertise in a variety of matters, including anti-dumping and regulatory proceedings, sanctions issues and import/export laws.

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Firm Profiles: Korea

2019: Leading Firms

The inaugural edition of WWL: Korea features a total of 31 firms ranging from full-service outfits to specialised boutiques. However, over 80 per cent of the total listings are achieved by five standout firms. We profile the leading firms here.

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