US Firms Waiting for Starting Gun in Race to South Korea

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Written By admin at Monday, March 5th, 2012

The lawyerly stampede to South Korea kicks into high gear this week, as U.S. law firms looking to set up shop in the land of kimchee submit their applications to the Korean Ministry of Justice.

The U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement reached last year allows U.S. firms to open offices to advise clients on U.S and international law, as well as on international arbitration. See our past coverage here.

The agreement takes effect March 15. March 6 is the first day U.S. firms can apply to practice there, according to firms readying their paperwork.

The latest to join the party: Ropes & Gray, which  shared with Law Blog its heretofore unannounced plans to open a Seoul office. The idea is to service existing Korean clients such as LG, Samsung, Hyundai Motors, Daewoo and Hanjin.

“Asia is a big focus for us,” said Brad Malt, chairman of Ropes & Gray, which also has offices in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai. “The economy aligns very well with our practices,” Malt said, such as technology, patents and intellectual property litigation.

The firm plans to send two partners from its 30-lawyer Korean practice to Seoul, filling out the team with associates as needed. Partner William Yongkyun Kim, who chairs the practice, will head the Seoul office, working alongside IP litigation partner David Chun.

U.S. firms such as Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and McDermott Will & Emery have already declared their intentions to expand into Korea. McDermott hopes to have its Seoul office up and running in early May, depending on regulatory approvals, a firm spokesman said.

But U.K. firm Clifford Chance beat them all to the punch with its February application for preliminary approval — the first from a foreign firm, according to Bloomberg. A similar free-trade agreement between South  Korea and the EU went into effect last July.

“We have ambitious plans for our Asia Pacific operations, and the Republic of Korea is an important part of those expansion plans,”  said Peter Charlton, Clifford Chance’s regional managing partner for Asia and Pacific, in a statement  last month. “We have consistently indicated our interest in opening an office in Korea, and we’re now going through the necessary processes to make this happen.”

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