South Korea

Reviews

Practice area

IFLR1000 Reviews

Overview

Solicitors governing body: 대한변호사협회 - Korean Bar Association (KBA)

Competition authority: 공정거래위원회 Fair Trade Commission (KFTC)

Financial regulator: Financial Services Commission

IFLR1000 ranking categories for this jurisdiction:

Financial and corporate (published October) - Banking and finance, Capital markets, Competition, M&A, Project Development, Restructuring and insolvency 

Jurisdiction overview

South Korea’s legal market is independent, strong and stable, and it has a core of large self-confident domestic firms seated at the top. Not dissimilar to Japan, client relationships run deep and attributes such as loyalty play a far more important role within the business community then it may do so in other market contexts.

Historically, the market prohibited foreign lawyers and firms from working in the country, but it has liberalised in the past four years, which has prompted over 20 global firms to open up offices. 

The Korean legal market is undergoing a protracted period of liberalisation following bilateral agreements with the EU and US that established a regulatory framework divided into three phases. Phase one allowed international law firms to establish branch offices in Seoul practising foreign law; phase two allowed Seoul offices of foreign firms to enter fee-sharing relationships with Korean law firms to facilitate cross-border work; and phase three – yet to be realised – promises to allow foreign and Korean lawyers to work together in some sort of partnership arrangement. 

The first wave of market entrants was made up of three firms opening up in July 2012: Clifford Chance, Ropes & Gray and Sheppard Mullin. All three firms already had important Korea practices in place but did not have a physical presence. Late in 2012 there was a large influx of global firms into Seoul, with nine opening up in a two month period. This second wave saw the entry of some of the biggest foreign offices to date, including Cleary Gottlieb, Paul Hastings, and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett. By the middle of 2013, another seven firms had joined the market in Seoul, but the rate and number started to dwindle thereafter. In 2015 White & Case, Milbank Tweed Hadley and Allen & Overy set up shop. 

Interested parties still await the elusive phase three that represents an opportunity for international firms to rapidly expand business in Korea. Regulators will be preparing the necessary legal framework to accommodate UK firms in July 2016 and then US firms in March 2017 as envisaged by the bilateral agreements. If all goes to plan – and with the revision of the Foreign Legal Consultant Act - law firms will be able to enter into joint ventures with Korean law firms and employ both foreign and Korean qualified lawyers.

Drawing parallels to Japan once again, it’ll be a real challenge for global brands to find a place in such a developed market.  

Adam Majeed - Asia-Pacific Editor

IFLR1000 2019: South Korea market trends and developments

Financial and corporate
Ashurst

An international firm with one of the largest dedicated Korean legal practices, Ashurst is focused on M&A and capital markets. In the past year, the firm was involved in a range of sectors including automotive, technology and telecommunications, real estate and logistics.

In capital markets, the firm is known for high quality work in securitisation, derivatives and structured products. Interesting mandates saw the firm advise Hana Asset Management, a repeat client, on the restructuring of notes issued by E-Shang Redwood and by the D&J Industrial Real Estate Group.

In a high-value M&A deal, the firm advised Kia Motors in an investment in the Indian State of Andhra Pradesh for the construction of manufacturing facilities. Elsewhere, the firm advised Innocean Worldwide on its acquisition of a US advertising agency.

Key clients include Morgan Stanley, Kia Motors, Hana Asset Management and LB Asset Management. 

Client feedback

“Client oriented mindset and approach leading to high-quality work, the expertise of each attorney in their field, and flexible thinking.” - M&A  

 

Bae Kim & Lee

Bae Kim & Lee (BKL) is ranked highest in M&A and restructuring and insolvency (R&I). With over 100 transactional attorneys its corporate team is among the largest in Korea.

In capital markets BKL advised Mirae Asset Daewoo as underwriter on the IPO and KOSDAQ listing of Celltrion Healthcare, and its competition team acted for Lotte Insurance, KB Insurance, and NH Fire Insurance in a KFTC investigation on cartels in aviation insurance.

In M&A the firm acted for Unilever in its acquisition of Carver Korea from a consortium comprising Bain Capital, Goldman Sachs and Carver’s founder, while its banking team advised Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse Securities, BNP Paribas, and ING Capital on the financing for Apollo Global Management’s acquisition of Lumileds from Royal Philips.

The firm’s restructuring team has picked up the windfall in the distressed shipping, shipbuilding and golf industries. For example, it acted for Sungdong Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering in its rehabilitation proceedings after an eight–year-workout failed, and acted for golf club Pine Resort in its rehabilitation proceedings.

In the research period the firm strengthened its finance team with a number of private practice and in-house foreign attorney hires, but were hit with the departure of partner Seung Hwa Hwang.

Key clients of the firm include Affinity Equity Partners, Korea Electric Power Corporation, Korea Development Bank, Export-Import Bank of Korea, KEB Hana Bank, and Unilever.

The firm has pinpointed areas of growth and has positioned its teams to facilitate such developments. For example, the firm has become more active in aircraft financing of late and in M&A its Japan task-force developed into an independent practice team.Its Southeast Asia team meanwhile expanded into South Asia. The firm also established a competition investigations and litigation team, as Korea faces a new environment focused on chaebol reform.

Client feedback

"The BKL team has a high level of knowledge and a good track record in Korea and the US for Korean investors. The firm showed efficient performance based on a specialised team organisation. As a cross-border investor, we felt comfortable because they could provide us with timely advice between Korea and the US while the deals processed." - Investment funds, Banking and finance

Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton

Boasting the largest team of native Korean-speaking US lawyers, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton in Korea has a particular strength in capital markets and also focuses on M&A.

In capital markets, a standout deal saw the firm act for Netmarble Games Corporation in the third largest IPO in Korean history. Other highlights include advising ING Life Insurance Korea and Life Investment on the IPO of ING Life Insurance Korea; and advising BNP Paribas, Citigroup, HSBC, and UBS in a notes offering by Korea Southern Power.

Key clients include Samsung Group, LG Group, Fila Korea, Korea National Oil, Korea Development Bank, the Republic of Korea and the Export-Import Bank of Korea.

 

Clifford Chance

Clifford Chance in Korea is active in capital markets and M&A and has experience in a number of industries, including energy, government, automotive, technology, and consumer goods.

In capital markets, the firm advises both issuers and underwriters across the whole spectrum of debt and equity capital markets matters including debt issuance, REITs, private placements, and IPOs.

A noteworthy deal saw the firm act for JPMorgan Securities on a hybrid security offering by Kyobo Life Insurance in Korea and Singapore. In another high profile deal, the firm advised the Bank of America Merrill Lynch and Standard Chartered on a notes issue by Doosan Infracore.

On the M&A side, the firm has experience in advising both domestic and international clients in cross-border and domestic M&A deals. An interesting mandate saw the firm advise Korean Electric Power, Hanwha Investment & Securities, and KEPCO Woori Sprott Global Private Equity Fund on its acquisition of a utility solar project in California from Canadian Solar subsidiary Recurrent Energy.

Staffing changes saw Jackie Yang from Clifford Chance’s London office and Kwangwoo Kim from Kirkland & Ellis join the firm, while Chee-Kwan Kim left for Lee & Ko.

Key clients include Hyundai, Korea Electric Power, SK Holdings, Capstone Asset Management, HSBC, Credit Agricole, JPMorgan Securities and Doosan Infracore.

 

Davis Polk & Wardwell

Davis Polk & Wardwell is a full service law firm with a significant market share in capital markets work in Korea. 

During the research period, the firm primarily acted for the underwriters in high-value note offerings by the Export-Import Bank of Korea and the Korea Development Bank.

 

Dr & Aju

Dr & Aju is a Korean independent law firm that was the result of a 2009 merger between Daeryook (Dr) and Aju. It is strongest in M&A and restructuring and insolvency work.

Highlights include advising the court-appointed trustee for Hanjin Shipping in relation to the liquidation of the South Korean logistics and container transport company; advising Gwangneung Forest Country Club on its rehabilitation plan; and advising New York-based MediaMath in the acquisition of a 25% ownership interest in Korea-based Wishmedia.

In the research period the firm strengthened its corporate team with the hires of partners Dae Uk Kim from Barun Law, Hyo Jong Choi from Homeplus, and Seon Ae Choi from the Seoul National Labor Relations Commission.

The firm’s clientele includes names such as China First Capital Group, MediaMath, Hurom, Keangnam Enterprises, Global Indian International School, Korea Land Housing Corporation and Dongkwang Leisure Development. 

Client feedback

“Dr & Aju is competent in the fields of law mentioned. We have worked with Sonny IM Sunghoon and Sam Baek.” - Project development

“Restructuring is one of the strongest fields of its practice.” - Restructuring and insolvency, M&A

 

Kim & Chang

With close to 1000 professionals Kim & Chang is the largest and possibly the most recognisable law firm in Korea. It dominates the market across all practice areas where it secures a top tier berth.

In M&A it advised the consortium of Bain Capital and Goldman Sachs, and the selling founder, Sang Rok Lee, in the sale of Carver Korea to Unilever; and acted as the Korean counsel to SK Hynix as part of a consortium led by Bain Capital to acquire Toshiba Memory Corporation from Toshiba Corporation.

The capital markets team advised Celltrion Healthcare on its Kosdaq IPO, while the projects practice assisted Goseong Green Power in constructing and operating Korea’s biggest private coal-fired power plant.

In banking the firm advised Netmarble Games Corporation in the financing of its acquisition of Kabam, while the restructuring and insolvency team acted for the debtor Yangpyung Country Club in its P-Plan rehabilitation proceedings.

In the research period the firm’s projects team hired partner Hyeong Jun Hwang from Yulchon, and its restructuring and insolvency team brought in Youngshik Jung from the Seoul High Court where he was a judge.

Key clients of the firm include Kookmin Bank, Bank of Communications, The Export-Import Bank of Korea, JPMorgan Securities, Bain Capital, and MBK Partners. 

Client feedback

"Excellent, anticipating what the clients are focused on." - M&A, Investment funds

"Extremely professional and stellar expertise." – Banking and finance, Restructuring and insolvency

"Unmatched expertise, experience, and professionalism in the South Korean market. Able to provide strong lobbying service as well, which other firms virtually cannot provide at all." – Capital markets, M&A    

"Very good firm with go-to lawyers." – M&A

"We have maintained a good business relationship with Kim & Chang both for domestic and overseas legal issues for many years.  Without a doubt, Kim & Chang is one of the top tier law firms in Korea in many fields." - Project development, Capital markets

 

Lee & Ko

The resilient and independent Lee & Ko is a household name in the Korean legal market. It is strong across the board, especially in finance where it excels at general banking, project finance, acquisition finance, structured finance and securitisation, trade finance, lease and transportation finance.

For example the firm acted for Daelim Industrial and other sponsors in the refinancing for the Sangju-Yeongcheon Highway private participation project; advised Kookmin Bank, The Industrial Bank of Korea and other financial institutions in the refinancing of the Incheon Grand Bridge Private Participation Project; and advised the Korea Development Bank in financing the extension of the Shin-Bundang DX Line. 

The M&A team acted for Daesung Group Partners (DGP) and Goldman Sachs in the sale of Daesung Industrial Gases to Korea Industrial Gas Holdings, and the capital markets team helped Korea Development Bank issue three series of floating rate notes.

Lee & Ko also has solid experience representing construction and shipping companies in restructuring cases and advised Changmyung Shipping in its application to commence rehabilitation proceedings, while the competition team advised Mando Corporation in the US department of justice’s cartel investigation against it. 

The firm has been busy on the hiring front bringing in capital markets partners Cheekwan Kim and Jiwoong Lim from Clifford Chance and the Daejeon District Court respectively; hiring M&A partner Yeon Soo Yun from Shin & Kim; and insolvency partner Kyu Hyung Chang from the Seoul Bankruptcy Court.

Lee & Ko’s impressive client roster includes Kookmin Bank, Korea Development Bank, Deutsche Bank, Samsung Securities, Goldman Sachs, and Daesung Group Partners. 

Client feedback

"Lee & Ko set up our new corporation last year; everything was in perfect order, and it was absolutely painless. All staff is cordial and professional. I have also consulted Lee & Ko on other matters regarding Private Fund law. The lawyers are very experienced, knowledgeable and punctual. The firm has been an excellent legal resource that I have used for over three years." - Investment funds, M&A, Capital markets

"Lee & Ko has delivered world-class legal advice on acquisition financing sector to our company. Lee & Ko has been developing and maintaining long-standing relationships and delivered the full range of its capabilities, knowledge, and resources to meet our needs. Lee & Ko always focuses on its areas of expertise and has a vast pool of professionals with vast experience." - M&A, Banking and finance

“Try to understand all the interested parties - this inspires confidence. Extensive sector knowledge, and the know how to act on it with the proper people in the right manner. Cared for myself and my company.” – Restructuring and insolvency

 

Paul Hastings

One of the first international firms to establish an office in Seoul, Paul Hastings uses its global network to provide advice on an array of cross-border M&A and capital markets matters. 

In capital markets, the firm acted for numerous high profile clients. A representative mandate saw the firm advise Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and Samsung Securities as underwriters in the IPO of ING Life Insurance Korea on the Korea Exchange. The firm also advised Citigroup and Goldman Sachs on Kakao’s GDR offering, the largest overseas-listed equity offering by a Korean issuer in a decade.

In M&A the firm has attracted clients from a diverse range of sectors including technology and telecommunications, logistics, pharmaceuticals, mining and energy. A standout deal saw the firm advise Samsung Electronics in its acquisition of Harman International Industries, Samsung’s largest-ever acquisition and the largest Korean outbound M&A transaction on record.

Staffing changes saw the departure of partner Woojae Kim for Kim & Chang. 

Key clients include Samsung Group, LG Display, Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse, Citigroup and JPMorgan.

 

Ropes & Gray

Ropes & Gray in Korea is recognised for its high-quality M&A work. The firm was active in sectors such as technology and telecommunications, insurance, pharmaceuticals and natural resources.

Notable work in the past year includes advising Bain Capital in the sale of Carver Korea to Unilever and acting for TPG Capital on its investment in Kakao Corporation’s transport business, Kakao Mobility.

Staffing highlights saw Younghee Chung join the firm from Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and Keun Shin join the firm from Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison.

Key clients include TPG Capital, Bain Capital, LS-Nikko Copper and Johnson Electric.

 

Shearman & Sterling

Shearman & Sterling in Korea has a special focus on project financing and project development work.

During the review period the firm was particularly active in the energy and oil and gas sectors.

Standout work includes advising a consortium comprising GDF Suez, Posco Energy, Sojitz Corporation and Newcom on all aspects of the development of a greenfield coal-fired combined heat and power plant in Mongolia, and advising the Bahrain Petroleum Company on all aspects of a modernisation and expansion programme.

Key clients include Export-Import Bank of Korea, Korea Trade Insurance Corporation, Korea Development Bank, Posco Energy and Taekwang Power Holdings.

 

Shin & Kim

Shin & Kim is best known for its capital markets practice. It is a go-to firm for securitisation work, while showing strength in the debt capital markets and in handlings IPOs. 

For example, the firm acted for Daishin Securities in Aekyung Industrial’s IPO and listing on the Korea Exchange; advised Hyundai Capital Services in issuing two tranches under its GMTN programme; and advised Lotte Card on an asset-backed security (ABS) transaction involving credit card receivables.

The firm’s M&A team acted for food company CJ CheilJedang in its sale of pharmaceutical company CJ HealthCare, and advised KDB Private Equity in its sale of a majority stake in Daewoo Engineering and Construction.

In restructuring and insolvency the firm advised STX Heavy Industries with respect to its rehabilitation proceedings; its projects practice continued being busy with a host of overseas mandates; while its competition team continued to advise on the drawn-out but highly-publicised Qualcomm abuse of dominance cases.

In the past 12 months the firm strengthened its restructuring and insolvency team with the hire of partner Woong Cho from the Supreme Court of Korea, but its capital markets practice was hit with the departure of Young-Hee Jo who left to set up a new office. 

Key clients of the firm includes Qualcomm, KDB Private Equity, Daishin Securities, Korea Investment & Securities, CJ Group, STX Heavy Industries, and Baring Private Equity Asia. 

Client feedback

"The advice is very detailed and up to date. In real estate, the firm's advice is practical, flexible and realistic." – Banking and finance

"Shin & Kim has an excellent knowledge of Korea from market practice, legal and regulatory perspectives. In particular, Mr Jong-Uk Lee who was the partner at Shin & Kim we worked with on our investment showed superior execution speed and expertise." – Capital markets

"Shin & Kim is a team which has strong work experience, so you can get the best advice at the right time in your decision-making. As I have extensive experience with junior lawyers, I am able to receive services that are very dedicated and satisfying. The downside(also strength) of the firm is that it is difficult to respond very quickly because it has a high-intensity internal review system, but the completion of the advice is high." - M&A, Investment funds

 

Simpson Thacher & Bartlett

Simpson Thacher & Bartlett in Korea is strong in capital markets and M&A. The firm acts for a variety of clients including issuers, underwriters, purchasers, sellers, lenders, and financial and strategic investors.

Significant capital markets work includes assisting Celltrion Healthcare with its IPO and acting for clients including JPMorgan Securities, Merrill Lynch, Nomura and UBS on the offering of subordinated capital securities by Hanwha Life Insurance. 

In the M&A domain, a standout mandate saw the firm advising KKR in forming a joint venture with LS Group for the purpose of acquiring the business of LS Automotive. Elsewhere, the firm acted for Ant Financial Services Group on an investment in Kakao Pay, a mobile finance subsidiary to be launched by Kakao Corporation.

Key clients include Korea Electric Power, Shinhan Financial Group, KT Corporation, the Hyundai Motor Group and the Republic of Korea.

 

Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom

Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom advises Korean and international corporations, financial institutions, government entities and sovereign wealth funds on matters including capital markets, M&A, private equity, and projects. 

Key sector strengths include energy, infrastructure, real estate, automotive, technology, food and beverage, manufacturing and construction.

In M&A, a high profile deal saw the firm advise HP on the acquisition of the printer business of Samsung Electronics. In another high-value mandate, the firm acted for MBK Partners as part of a consortium in the sale of its stake in USJ to NBCUniversal Media. 

Key clients include Samsung Electronics, MBK Partners, Visteon Corporation and Hanwha Group.

 

Yoon & Yang

Independent firm Yoon & Yang’s traditional strength is in M&A and restructuring & insolvency.

In the research period its M&A team acted for SanCheong in its sale to Hancom Safety; advised KB Kookmin Card in its acquisition of Tomato Specialised Bank in Cambodia; and acted for Hyundai Engineering in its sale of Phnom Penh Tower in Cambodia.

In finance the firm advised Mirae Asset Daewoo, Kumho Industrial, Gimpo Yanggok REIT, and Korea Land & Housing Construction in the development of an apartment complex in Kimpo Yanggok District.

Other highlights include advising Celltrion in its transfer to the KOSPI market from KOSDAQ; advising creditors Seaspan, Schenker, Zim Integrated Shipping, and Senator in relation to Hanjin Shipping’s reorganisation; and advising Korea Water Resources Corporation in its hydropower development project in Nenska, Georgia.

In the research period the firm brought in partner Ok Pyeong Je from the Financial Supervisory Service (FSS) of Korea, but lost M&A partner Hee Jae Ahn. 

Yoon & Yang has moved up a tier this year in capital markets owing to its reputation for assisting foreign companies list on the Korean Exchange.

Key clients of the firm include Posco Energy, Korea Water Resources Corporation, Hugel, SanCheong, CHA Healthcare, KB Kookmin Card, and Hyundai Engineering. 

Client feedback

"The strengths are that Yoon & Yang law firm has many areas of expertise required by my company especially in the areas of pharmaceutical and life sciences, finance, IPO and antitrust. The firm provides practical and creative solutions to navigate the Korean law and regulatory environment. I cannot think of any weaknesses." – Capital markets

"We believe that the firm's one-stop advice is second to none in the Korean M&A market. In addition, the M&A team of Yoon & Yang is very good at negotiating and has a high level of industry knowledge, which allows us to close deals successfully. The lawyers always come up with fast and effective responses to complicated legal issues. We are satisfied with the team's work and will continue to retain their services." – M&A

"Knowledge of the oil and gas sector, including tolling agreements, client management, and time efficiency." - Project development

 

Yulchon

Yulchon is ranked highest in M&A where it has developed its reputation in general M&A and specialised areas such as financial distress, hostile M&A, and shareholder activism.

In the research period the M&A team advised Asia Cement in its acquisition of Halla Cement from Baring Private Equity Asia; it acted for SK Gas in its acquisition of SK Networks Company; and advised KB Securities in its disposal of Hyundai Savings Bank to a consortium led by Eugene Group.

In the capital markets the firm advised KEB Hana Bank on structuring Kangaroo Bonds under the Australian debt issuance programme; while the finance team advised on the project financing of the CGN Daesan 109MW biomass power plant project.

Yulchon’s finance team took a hit this year with the departures of partners Yong Yun, Woo Jin Ahn, and Seok Jun Park; but it strengthened its M&A practice with the hire of partner Nina Kim from Kim & Chang, and its competition practice by bringing in partner Jeong Keun Yun from Daejeon High Court.

Key clients of the firm include Delta Air Lines, Qualcomm, KEB Hana Bank, Lotte Group, Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering, and KB Kookmin Bank.

In the research period, Yulchon’s C&F Group,encompassing M&A, capital markets, and banking & finance,—restructured to create new teams with more decision-making power and resources to pursue new deals to strengthen its cross-border work and diversify its client base. The firm also opened an office in Jakarta in Indonesia in May 2017.

Client feedback

"Christopher Cho and Sung Keun Park were very organised and attentive to details so that the numerous parties involved in the transaction were able to close the aircraft transaction without any major issues. Yulchon impressed us as it not only provided legal advice but also gave us sincere advice with business perspectives. They have worked as one united team." - Investment funds, Capital markets, Banking and finance

"A strong and committed team with solid industry expertise." – M&A

"Work principally with antitrust, but also M&A and joint ventures. Find Yulchon to be practical and less stuffy than a few other South Korean firms. The human contact is good. The partners and counsel who are my first points of contact maintain an interest in the case, even if the work can quite properly be delegated to other attorneys." - M&A

 

Financial and corporate - Foreign
Latham & Watkins

While being particularly active in M&A and projects, Latham & Watkins in Korea also has experience in banking, restructuring and capital markets. Sectors such as automotive, banking, technology and telecommunications, energy and life sciences have been a clear focus for the firm.

In the projects space, a noteworthy deal saw the firm advising Cirebon Energi Prasarana on the development and financing of an expansion to the Cirebon coal-fired power plant in West Java, Indonesia. Other significant work includes advising a consortium of lenders including the Export-Import Bank of Korea and Korea Trade Insurance Corporation on the financing of a greenfield export refinery complex in Oman.

In M&A, the firm advised Match Group on the sale of Tutor.com to Unitas, a Korean education technology company.

The firm welcomed Wonsuk Kang from Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer as partner and head of the firm’s Korea corporate practice.

Key clients include Morgan Stanley, the Export-Import Bank of Korea, BNP Paribas, Intermediate Capital Group and Match Group.

 

Watson Farley & Williams

Active in South Korea since 2000, Watson Farley & Williams is especially known for its finance and projects work in the shipping sector.

Recent highlights include advising Standard Chartered on a facility provided to subsidiaries of Polaris Shipping for the acquisition of two bulk carriers; and acting for Citibank on a loan facility for the acquisition of newly built buildings by subsidiaries of CMB Financial Leasing.         

Key clients include Bank of America, Standard Chartered, Societé Generalé, Korea Development Bank, Deutsche Bank, Mizuho Bank, Woori Bank and Credit Agricole.