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Editorial

Overview

South Korea’s economy is heavily reliant on the country’s family-owned conglomerates, known as chaebols; Samsung alone is estimated to account for 20% of the country’s economy. As a result, work for these clients forms a significant proportion of law firms’ workloads, with firms benefitting from the recent trend among the chaebols to divest of non-core assets, generating an uptick in M&A instructions. Private equity activity has also noticeably increased, with the standout deal for 2016 the $6bn sale of Tesco’s Homeplus business to a consortium led by Asian private equity firm MBK Partners. Although some sectors of the Korean economy are flourishing, the ongoing struggles within the Korean shipbuilding industry has led some to question its future; Daewoo, Hyundai Heavy and Samsung Heavy all posted record losses in 2015, and 2016 looks to continue the downward trend on profitability.

The domestic legal market is led by the so-called ‘Big Six’, which comprises Kim & Chang, Lee & Ko, Bae, Kim & Lee LLC, Shin & Kim, Yulchon and Yoon & Yang LLC. New domestic law firm openings are rare in the Korean market, however in September 2015 KL Partners was established by partners previously at Shin & Kim, and is, along with Jipyong, expected to challenge the traditional hegemony in the market. In other developments, Korean law firms are continuing to establish bases outside of Korea, with Lee & Ko opening an office in Vietnam and Bae, Kim & Lee LLC launching in Myanmar in August 2016.

South Korea remains an attractive prospect for international law firms, with Allen & Overy LLP Foreign Legal Consultant Office opening in September 2015, and Latham & Watkins LLP’s application – in February 2016 – for a licence to open a foreign legal consultant office.

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