The first Western law firms have received approval to set up offices in South Korea. Ever since the European Union and the U.S. signed free-trade agreements with South Korea last year, law firms in the Western hemisphere have had their bags packed, ready to go when given the signal. As of Monday, the U.S. firms Ropes & Gray and Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton and the U.K. firm Clifford Chance are the first three whose Korean operations have been given the go-ahead.
Several other law firms are certainly seething with envy, as more than a dozen in the U.S. have applied to open offices in South Korea, including the recent additions of K&L Gates, DLA Piper and McKenna Long & Aldridge. According to the Wall Street Journal, more U.S. than European firms have applied to make the move, in large part because firms in the EU have fewer Korean-speaking lawyers.
Once on Korean soil, the firms will still have a long way to go. In their infancy, the new offices can only engage in international arbitration and provide advice on the laws of their home jurisdiction. In two years, they can advise on cases alongside Korean law firms, and three years after that, they can roll up their sleeves and start hiring local lawyers, or merging with Korean firms.