U.S. Law Firms Entering the Korean Market

Posted on February 23, 2012 at 12:02 AM

In November of 2011, the free trade agreement between South Korea and the United States was finalized allowing U.S. firms to finally be able to open offices in South Korea. Shortly after the announcement of this agreement several American law firms announced plans to open offices in Seoul.

One firm planning to open a Seoul-based office within the first half of 2012 is Cleary Gottleib Steen & Hamilton. Partner Yong Guk Lee and Counsel Jan Hoon Choi from Cleary’s Hong Kong office plan to relocate to this office and will be the first to man this office. They plan to move Cleary’s 17-lawywer Korea team from Hong Kong to their new Seoul office within the next 2 to 4 years.

Cleary’s work in Korea includes assisting Korean clients with capital raising and international investments, as well as assisting non-Korean clients with their investments in Korea. They have assisted non-Korean clients such as Goldman Sachs, TPG Newbridge, and the Carlyle Group in their direct investments in Korea. They have also assisted Korean clients such as Daewoo Motor, Kookmin Bank and Hyosung Corporation with foreign investments, and advised large-scale international debt restructurings for Korean clients SK Global, Daewoo Group, and the Korean banking sector. Cleary has also represented the Korea Development Bank in its SEC registered offering of $1 billion 3.875% notes due in 2017.  

Another firm with plans to open an office in Korea is Paul Hastings.  They plan to relocate fewer than 10 lawyers from their Korea practice co-led by partners Daniel Sae-Chin Kim and Jong Han Kim from Paul Hastings’ Hong Kong office.  Some of Paul Hastings Korean clients include Samsung and Hanwha. Other notable work done by Paul Hastings with Korean clients was advising the Korea East-West Power Co., Lt. (EPW) with its acquisition of U.S. integrated energy company Marubeni Sustainable Energy. Inc., and assisting Samsung Electronics on the pending $1.38 billion sale of its hard disk drive unit to Seagate Technology.

Sheppard Mullin is another American law firm planning to open up shop in Korea. They announced in December, 2011 that they plan to open their office in the first quarter of 2012 headed by Seth (Byoung Soo) Kim, chair of the firm’s Korea practice currently based in the firm’s New York and Los Angeles offices. Partners Gary Halling and Ken Carl will also be an important part of the Korea team splitting up their time between their U.S. offices and the Seoul office. Sheppard Mullin’s Korean clients included Samsung, Hyundai Motor, Korea Development Bank, Kookmin Bank, Hana Bank, Woori Bank, and Shinhan Bank.

Simpson Thacher & Bartlett is also among this group of American firms with plans to open in Seoul. They also announced their plans in December, 2011 and plan to open an office as soon as practicable in 2012. Partner Youngjin Sohn plans to relocate to Korea with several associates from Simpson Thacher’s Hong Kong office where the firm’s 10-lawyer Korea team is located.

Simpson Thacher has been involved with Korea related transactions since the 1990’s and has a dynamic Korea practice involved in capital markets, mergers and acquisitions, private equity investments, and litigation and other dispute resolution matters for Korean clients and clients with matters involving Korea. Some of the firms notable work involving Korea includes representing Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and BoA Merrill Lynch in connection with Samsung Life Insurance’s $4.4 billion IPO, currently the largest IPO by a Korean company, and assisting KKR with its acquisition of Oriental Brewery, Anheuser Busch InBev’s Korean business, which was KKRs first investment in Korea and the largest Asian and the second largest global private equity deal since the global financial crisis.

Other firms that are also considering opening firms in Korea are McDermott Will & Emery and Ropes & Gray. The establishment of U.S. law firm’s in Korea marks a progression towards economic improvements and legal advancements in Korea making it easier for these firms to work with their clients with Korean interests and take on more projects in Korea. The direct presence of these firms in Korea should be a great and promising contribution to the Korean market.

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