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
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
Bae Kim & Lee (BKL) is strongest in M&A and restructuring and insolvency (R&I). Its corporate team is among the largest in Korea, with over 100 transactional attorneys and expert professionals specialised in adjacent regulatory and tax issues. In R&I it has been deeply involved in mandates involving the distressed shipping and shipbuilding industries.
The firm’s deal list shows much activity in the past 12 months in financial services, banking, industrials and materials, technology and telecommunications, aviation, manufacturing, shipping and shipbuilding, and construction.
It has been acting for Samsung Electronics, LG Electronics and Apple in the highly publicised abuse of dominance cases against Qualcomm; and acted for STX Offshore & Shipbuilding, the fourth largest shipyard in Korea, in its filing for rehabilitation proceedings.
The firm has strengthened its offering across banking and finance and M&A with senior foreign attorney hires from Allianz, Yulchon, Kim & Chang and Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison. Its competition team hired of counsel Joong Weon Jeong from the Korea Fair Trade Commission.
Key clients of the firm include The Export-Import Bank of Korea, Korea Development Bank, Samsung Electronics, STX Offshore & Shipbuilding and Hyundai Merchant Marine Company.
“BKL has a very client friendly attitude, reasonable fee cap, and provides timely services.” – Restructuring and insolvency
“The firm has several strengths such as having a steady compass for final decision making, and reducing trial and error so that we can save time.” - Competition
“BKL’s M&A capability in South East Asia was virtually non-existent before Mr Yang and his Vietnam office joined BKL. I had worked with Mr. Yang's team in the acquisition of a Malaysian company in 2015 and I was extremely satisfied with the responsiveness, the quality of work and ability to control the local firm. I have also worked on numerous occasions with BKL's China office and its advice has been extremely sound.” - M&A
Jeong Rai Cho
“He has a very friendly attitude, is flexible, and specialised in corporate work.”
Keum Seok Oh
“He is business-friendly and also consults us for his own work.”
“I consider him to be the most knowledgeable Korean lawyer in South East Asia, especially Vietnam. He is the best outbound M&A Korean attorney that I have worked with.”
Kim & Chang is easily the largest firm in Korea with close to 1000 professionals. It dominates the market and is routinely involved in the best mandates available across all practice areas.
Examples include advising creditors in the rehabilitation and bankruptcy of Hanjin Shipping; advising the underwriters in Netmarble’s $2.3 billion IPO; and advising KB Financial Group in its $1.1 billion acquisition of Hyundai Securities.
The firm has shown itself to be active in sectors such as financial services, banking, aviation, shipping/shipbuilding, energy, industrials and materials and construction.
There has been movement within the firm with the hire of projects partner David Pyun from Yulchon and the departure of Hae Kyung Sung from the M&A practice.
Key clients of the firm include Bank of China, JPMorgan, Samsung Electronics, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Abbott Laboratories, KB Financial Group and MBK Partners.
“Kim & Chang provides high quality legal services, professionalism in all sectors and enough resources.” – Capital markets
“Excellent—one of the market leaders in securitisation and regulatory work. It has an amazing ability to cut through difficult issues. Deep bench strength in tax, regulatory, bankruptcy and finance. All important areas for securitisation. An incredibly well-run team of lawyers with a variety of experience. Definitely one of the best teams at executing deals.” - Capital markets
“Kim & Chang is professional, accessible, and has good communication skills.” – Banking and finance
“It has a good understanding of the issues, excellent communication skills, and a good relationship with government officials.” - Competition
“He has worked so well. Tae-Kyu Kang has good communication skills, excellent knowledge in his area of expertise, and a nice/kind attitude at a reasonable fee rate.”
Yun Goo Kwon
“He’s a good advisor. He has good communication skills and problem solving ability.”
“Hoin is an excellent all round lawyer with great communication skills and an outstanding ability to get a deal done.”
“He has good industry sector knowledge in project finance, a very client friendly attitude, and is accessible.”
Lee & Ko is one the strongest independent firms in the Korean legal market. It provides high quality legal services across all practice areas. This includes general banking, project finance, acquisition finance, structured finance and securitisation, trade finance, lease and transportation finance, M&A, and capital markets work.
The firm has built up a lot of industry expertise and has delivered market leading transactions in banking, financial services, retail, construction, energy, transport, real estate, shipping and aviation.
Highlights include advising Samsung BioLogics on its $2 billion IPO; advising Hanjin Shipping in its rehabilitation proceedings; and advising Samsung Group in the $2.6 billion sale of its chemical-business units to Lotte Group.
The firm has built up its M&A team during the research period with the partner hires of Hyuk Jung Kim from the Defense Acquisition Program Administration; Kee Won Shin from Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton; Ki Wook Kang from Samsung Electronics; Junghyun Park from the Ministry of Trade Industry and Energy; and In Young Lee from McDermott Will & Emery.
Key clients of the firm include Samsung Group, JPMorgan, Hanwha Corporation, Shinhan Bank, Hanjin Shipping, Korea Development Bank and Korean Airlines.
“Lee & Ko has excellent lawyers and timely feedback. It’s also responsible and knowledgeable.” – Banking
“The firm provides high-quality legal services at a reasonable fee.” – M&A
“Lee & Ko provides excellent service. I’ll give them high marks for communication—timely and fulsome responses, with many attorneys with strong English skills, and able to make Korea law issues understandable. I obtained favourable results in every project.” – Competition
“The firm provides accurate legal opinions based on its diverse M&A experience. It seeks to reach out for creative alternatives to meet our needs. Moreover, it catches unforeseeable legal risk that clients may not aware of.” - Competition
“Just two lawyers from Lee & Ko surpassed the opposing over six lawyers at the opposing firm. I think that it was due to its expertise and faithfulness.” – M&A
“His sincerity is unbelievable. He often replies to my email at 3-4 am!”
“His primary function was to put together a team for each particular project and he did so very well.”
Yong Joon Yoon
“Mr. Yoon gives quick and accurate legal opinions, and his strength is that he can clearly understands our intentions through various M&A experiences and gives an appropriate legal opinion.”
Shin & Kim's capital markets practice is strong in the debt markets, has a leading securitisation practice, and a large team of IPO specialists; while its highly rated M&A team becomes increasingly industry specialised and focused on its cross-border capabilities.
The firm has a strong focus on sectors such as banking, media, insurance, retail, manufacturing, technology and telecommunications and energy.
Its capital markets practice acted in Netmarble and ING Life Insurance's IPOs and listings on the Korea exchange; its projects practice was busy in a host of overseas mandates; while its competition team continued to advise on the highly-publicised Qualcomm abuse of dominance cases.
There have been changes in the firm in the research period, with capital markets partner Sunkyung Riley Shin departing for Liwu Law Group, and corporate partner Sinwook Kang arriving from the Ministry of Science.
Key clients of the firm includes Qualcomm, Kakao, General Electric, K-Sure, Woori Bank, Fila Korea and Samsung Securities.
“Shin & Kim's competition law practice is one of the best in Korea, especially in work relating to complex and novel legal theories such as standard essential patents and FRAND commitments.” – Competition
“Shin & Kim have an incredibly strong securitisation partner and are our go-to firm for complex new structures in Korean securitisation. The team is extremely talented and experienced and is able to execute highly complicated deals efficiently and without difficulty.” - Capital markets
“Shin & Kim has depth of experience and knowledge in funds work, which is unparalleled in the Korean legal market and comparable to—sometimes better than—the New York/Magic Circle firms. But it seems to have a relatively weak bench where the experience is focused around a few key persons. But then again, it is a common problem for pretty much all law firms—both Korean and foreign—we deal with.” – Private equity
“It is professional, courteous, and always available and responsive. One of the top firms I've worked with.” – Private equity
“It’s excellent. It provides very timely advice and to the point.” - M&A
“John Choi is a senior partner and one of the leaders of Shin & Kim's competition law practice group. John Choi possesses in-depth knowledge involving complex competition law concepts and excellent communication skills. John Choi is the most valued competition law attorney in Korea.”
Yun Seok Jang
He is always available and responsive. I could depend on him to distil and frame complex issues in a context that I could understand and weigh. He is a very good negotiator and very reasonable.”
“She’s excellent—top of the field in Korean securitisation.”
“She is certainly the leading authority in private equity fund work in Korea. With unparalleled knowledge/experience in fund work, Helen is the most sought-after private equity lawyer clients can rely upon. She represents many Korean LPs (institutional investors), but her expertise is widely respected by the opposing counsels representing mostly US/UK sponsors.”
“He is highly responsive, clear and provides commercially sound legal advice.”
Yulchon is known for its strong M&A capabilities where it is ranked highest, with expertise encompassing general M&A and specialised areas such as financial distress, hostile M&A, and shareholder activism. It advised Mirae Asset Financial Group in its $2 billion acquisition of KDB Daewoo Securities to make it the largest securities firm in Korea.
The firm is active in industries such as banking, shipping, aviation, oil and gas, energy, construction, and social infrastructure.
Yulchon is known for its strength in aviation finance and advised Kyobo Securities in a Boeing 777-FFX finance lease transaction involving Etihad Airways; and a financing transaction in relation to two Boeing 777=31HER aircraft with aircraft lease to Emirates.
It continued to build up its banking and finance practice with the addition of partner Hong Kim from Shin & Kim and senior hires from DAC Beachcroft, the Credit Finance Association, the stock exchange, and the Korea Institute for Industrial Economic and Trade. It also brought in partner Chul Man Kim from Kim & Chang to its restructuring and insolvency team, but lost competition partner Kum Ju Son.
The firm's clientele is impressive and includes names such as Mirae Asset, Hyundai, Lotte, Kyobo Securities, Hanwha, Shinhan BNP Paribas Asset Management and General Electric.
“It is strong especially with respect to tax aspects of structured finance.” – Structured finance and securitisation
“Unlike many other law firms, Yulchon has a separate energy team that does only power plant projects. Yulchon also has local offices in South East Asia where most Korean companies are doing IPP projects. It also has very good relationships with local government and officials so that it can easily arrange meetings and provide updated information on local regulations and change in laws.” – Project development
“Yulchon is proficient at problem solving and is experienced in the business.” - Restructuring and insolvency
“The firm has a strong sense of responsibility, scrupulous attention to detail, quick handling, good communication, and fine teamwork.” – Restructuring and insolvency
“The firm provides excellent technical and strategic advice, gives bold advice to take the antitrust authority to the Supreme Court and won a historic victory for us.” – Competition
“During the implementation of debt restructuring programme this year, Yulchon offered excellent advisory service to DSME on the Korean financial regulation. It has in-depth knowledge earned during previous experience with a similar company. Also lawyers at Yulchon showed us their professional attitude on the job.” – Restructuring and insolvency
“I have a very high assessment for well-organised teamwork and client-focused attitude in particular.” – Competition
“Yulchon is specialised in insolvency and restructuring. Its lawyers provide professional advice based on a lot of experience. Especially, it provides creative solutions to solve problems.” – Restructuring and insolvency
“Our project is an IPP development project in Myanmar. We considered three of the best law firms in Korea with an energy practice, but selected Yulchon because Yulchon has much experience advising developers in IPP development projects.” – Project development
“It has the best lawyers regarding corporate restructurings and insolvency issues. It has experience with various cases in the country. We do not find specific weaknesses from the deals we worked with.” – Restructuring and insolvency
“All members put in the best effort for everything; they’re responsible for the case and give detailed answers and explanations to solve clients’ questions accurately.” – M&A
“Ben is very knowledgeable, proactive, and reliable.”
“I think Raymond is the best energy lawyer in Korea because he understands our business and our industry. Also because of his language and communication skills. Raymond always explains the legal issues and contract issues very clearly and is easy to understand. He has excellent negotiation skills and we always rely on him to lead the negotiations because of his deep understanding of our project. Raymond is reliable and hardworking and always finds the best solutions and strategy for our business.”
“Raymond has much experience advising developers and clearly understands not only the legal issues but also the business and industry. I rely on Raymond for not only legal advice but business and strategy advice as well. This is why I think Raymond is the best because he is more like an expert consultant on all aspects of our projects.”
“Mr Kang is very impressive, particularly his knowledge of IPP business and negotiation skill. In my experience, other lawyers do not know about IPP business or PPA contracts as much as Mr Kang. They only know IPP through project financing works. Mr. Kang is an expert in IPP because he has many experiences I think and that is why we selected Mr Kang as our lawyer for our project. Mr. Kang's negotiation skills are especially impressive. I have learned very much about negotiations by watching Mr Kang. He is very respectful to the counterparty but at the same time he is very persistent and never gives up when there is difficulty in agreement of a contract issue. Unlike other lawyers and business people who just give up and try to find another issue, Mr Kang makes a strategy to explain the pros and cons and then convinces the other side that the pros are more important than the cons to create a win win situation. He is able to remove emotions from what would normally be an emotional or heated discussion. With Mr Kang by our side in recent negotiations, we were able to make more progress in two days than what we achieved in the prior months without him at the negotiation table.”
Chul Man Kim
“He has plenty of experience regarding corporate reconstruction and is very knowledgeable.”
“He’s easily accessible, has excellent commercial understanding and extensive knowledge.”
Ki Young Kim
“He is the best lawyer in this debt restructuring field with several years’ experience and track records.”
“This lawyer has extensive knowledge and experience in insolvency and restructuring. He suggests creative solutions to solve a problem.”
“Mr Kim is generally known as the best lawyer in corporate restructuring. He responds promptly with good solutions as always.”
Sung Bom Park
“Mr Park has excellent well-balanced understanding and competence between the legal and business area.”