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The main subject dominating South Korea’s legal future relates to the third-stage liberalisation of the Korean legal market permitting the establishment of joint venture law firms between local and foreign law firms. Joint ventures between Korean and European firms will be possible from July 2016, and those between Korean and US firms from March 2017.

However, in its current form, the Foreign Legal Consultants Act (as revised by the Korean Ministry of Justice) is looking distinctly unpalatable for foreign firms. Burdened with the risk, but not the control, of the joint venture – foreign firms are allowed only a minority stake – and shackled with the imposition that the union must be between a domestic firm and the head office of the international entity, most foreign firms consider this something of a ‘sham’ opening.

Nonetheless, South Korea remains a tempting market for global players, with White & Case LLP (Foreign Legal Consultant Office) and Kobre & Kim the latest to open an office in Seoul. This is partly a result of the international success of Korean building contractors, and partly due to the head office residence of some of the world’s most progressive businesses, including Samsung Electronics, Hyundai Motor and POSCO.

With regards to domestic legal work, corporate and employment practices fared particularly well following a move by the corporate giants that dominate the business landscape to streamline lagging parts of their businesses, in a bid to focus on core sectors. In one significant deal, Samsung Electronics, the nation’s biggest conglomerate, agreed to sell four of its chemicals and defence sector affiliates to Hanwha Group for $1.82bn, as part of its business reorganisation.

Kim & Chang remains the largest and probably best-known law firm in the region, and leads the so-called ‘Big Six’; the others are Bae, Kim & Lee LLC; Lee & Ko; Shin & Kim;Yoon & Yang LLC; and Yulchon. Though market liberalisation may not break the stranglehold these firms have over domestic work, a shake-up of the order remains a possibility. Rapidly growing firms like the ‘up-and-comingJipyong threaten the status quo.

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