Asia Business Law Journal names the top firms in South Korea. Lim Miran and Putro Harnowo report

South Korea has achieved an enviable growth rate, as affirmed in a recent upgrade by the UN Conference on Trade and Development, reclassifying the country as a developed economy. Much like the nation’s outbound investment goals, global expansion has also been a core strategy of Korean law firms.

Seoul-based top-tier law firms continue to expand into China, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Japan, the Middle East, Russia, the EU and the US. The legal market in the country has grown more competitive following efforts to open up for American and European law firms to set their presence. Although foreign lawyers do not have rights of audience in the Korean courts, leading international law firms are gearing up for growing demand from local companies pushing their M&A abroad.

Amid the challenges, a few stand out. Within Asia Business Law Journal’s 2021 Korea Law Firm Awards, we have identified four law firms we believe to be standouts in the country and, among them, one firm has risen to the top to be our Law Firm of the Year. In the Best Foreign Law Firms for Korea-related Work, as in 27 other categories, we have four winners of equal standing. We also recognise two firms that are making their presence felt in the Best Boutique Law Firms and the Best New Law Firm categories.

Law firm awards

Law firm of the year

BAE KIM & LEE

Bae Kim & Lee was established in 1980, making it among the oldest and largest law firms in the country with more than 700 professionals, including lawyers qualified in Korea and foreign jurisdictions, accountants, patent attorneys and other qualified specialists and advisers.

The full-service law firm specialises in every area of business law and champions the disputes arena for commercial litigation, international arbitration and cross-border dispute work. Outside its headquarters in Seoul, the firm’s offices are located in Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Yangon, Dubai and Jakarta. In August, the firm launched its ninth overseas office in Singapore, headed by partner Eric Yang.

During the past year, Bae Kim & Lee recruited 20 partners, among them a former prosecutor general, judges, a former commissioner general with the national police agency, and senior foreign attorneys from top-tier global firms. It also recently launched a dedicated environment, social and governance (ESG) advisory practice team and a digital innovation group to expand its fintech task force.

Recently, the firm advised Kakao Bank, the largest mobile-only bank and fintech platform in the country, on its Korean IPO and listing. It also assisted the underwriters for Krafton when the online multiplayer game developer went public on the Korea Exchange.

“When the firm was presented with a problem they faced it with an open mind, rather than just using the standardised framework,” says Hwang Daeil, Seoul-based team leader of the labour relation administration team at LG Uplus, a mobile network operator owned by LG Corporation.

“The firm used its powerful internal and external networks to identify trends and provide customised solutions that exceeded our expectations,” says Hwang. “I have seen reports from many law firms, but Bae Kim & Lee was the first one that provided a report that easily summarised the key points.”

Jude Ocampo, Ocampo & Suralvo

Jude Ocampo, a partner at Philippine law firm Ocampo & Suralvo in Metro Manila, praises the firm’s projects and transactions practice, led by Eric Yang and senior foreign attorney Ahn Cheolhyo.

“Bae Kim & Lee represents Korean corporates looking to penetrate or expand their exposure to the Philippine market with interests in diverse sectors from manufacturing to electronics, franchising and real estate,” said Ocampo. “The key to their success in working on Philippine-related deals is that Eric, Cheolyo, and their other colleagues know how to spot issues and ask the right questions. The team is very knowledgeable of critical issues in the Philippine investment regime.”

Kim & Chang, the oldest law firm in the country, has also grown into the largest law firm since its inception in 1973, with more than 1,700 professionals in Seoul, Hong Kong, Singapore and Ho Chi Minh City. About 20% of its lawyers are foreign-qualified.

The law firm is particularly known for its cross-border expertise, advising on landmark and complex transactions. It recently advised Shell and Korean wind power company CoensHexicon to form a joint venture to develop a 1.4GW floating offshore wind power project off the Korean coast. It also successfully defended German pharma Merck KGaA in a Korean patent infringement lawsuit brought by a Japanese company.

“They are a very professional firm that understands complex legal problems and provides clear and sensible advice,” says Peter Calamari, presiding partner at Quinn Emanuel in New York.

Lee Wankeun, OSBC

Lee Wankeun, vice president of open-source company OSBC in Seoul, says: “Kim & Chang is definitely the best law firm in almost every aspect, while Lee & Ko is doing well in the IT and ESG fields.”

Lee & Ko has firmly established its leading position among Korea’s largest law firms. Founded in 1977, the firm’s extensive professional resources include more than 580 professionals organised into 30 specialised teams at offices in Seoul, Beijing, Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.

The law firm is broadly divided into five main practice groups: (1) Corporate and international transactions; (2) Finance; (3) IP; (4) Litigation and arbitration; and (5) Tax. In August, the firm established a medical information team to catch up with demand from the health sector, and for medical data. The firm has also formed a special team comprising various legal professionals to preemptively respond to legal demand relating to the three-dimensional virtual world called the metaverse.

Recently, Lee & Ko advised the battery material maker SK IE Technology when it raised USD2 billion in its Korean IPO in May. In July, it advised Korean chemical company LG Chem on its USD1 billion global green bond issue.

Founded in 1983, Shin & Kim has a stellar record of being the trusted adviser to Korean and multinational corporations. With more than 600 professionals, the firm provides specialised legal services through offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Jakarta, and its headquarters in Seoul.

In the past 12 months, the firm has handled more than 40 disputes worth a total of USD7 billion, doubled its quota for the previous year. It advised on the USD2.68 billion financing for Doosan Heavy Industries & Construction to construct a coal-fired steam power plant in Indonesia, and a USD3 billion financing from the Korea Trade Insurance Corporation for Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. It also advised on blockbuster IPOs for SK Bioscience (USD1.3 billion) and Kakao Bank (USD2.2 billion).

“I have been fascinated by a high sense of professionalism and competence that the technology, media and telecom group, led by Kang Sinook, brings,” says Lee Sanghyun, director of government affairs and public policy at Google in Seoul. “They are the best I have worked with.”

Google

New York-headquartered Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton has had a leading Korean practice since the early 1990s, and opened its foreign legal consultant office in Seoul in 2012. The two-partner office is led by partner Han Jinduk and supported by a senior counsel, a counsel and nine associates.

The firm has advised on a wide variety of public and private sector transactions involving Korean companies in cross-border antitrust, litigation, arbitration and enforcement matters, assisting in capital raising, overseas investment, as well as non-Korean clients on direct investment in South Korea.

Recently, the firm represented the South Korean government in its USD1.3 billion issue of sovereign bonds to global investors, comprising EUR700 million (USD800 million) zero-coupon green notes due 2026, and USD500 million 1.75% notes due 2031. In July, the firm advised the Export-Import Bank of Korea on a dual-tranche offering of EUR850 million zero-coupon green notes due 2024, and USD1 billion 1.75% green notes due 2028.

US law firm Latham & Watkins opened its Seoul office in 2016, after previously conducting its Korean practice from Tokyo and Hong Kong. Advising multinational companies from the major financial hubs in the region, its four lawyers collaborate through the law firm’s global platform to deliver services for clients worldwide.

This integrated regional approach means the firm has no country office head. In August, the firm hired a veteran capital markets lawyer, Richard Lee, as a partner and official representative of the Seoul office. Lee joined from Clifford Chance in Hong Kong, where he was a partner for more than 10 years.

In March, the firm represented the underwriters, including Goldman Sachs, in the USD4.6 billion IPO of Coupang, South Korea’s largest e-commerce company, on the NYSE. Last December, the firm represented Hyundai Motor Group in its acquisition of Boston Dynamics – a US-based engineering company specialising in building dynamic robots and software for human simulation – from SoftBank Group for USD1.1 billion.

London-headquartered Linklaters set up its Seoul branch in 2013 as a foreign legal consultant office, providing on-the-ground execution capabilities in both US and English law. The office is led by managing partner Lee Joo Hee, who focuses on projects and infrastructure and is supported by a counsel and six associates.

Last year, the firm assisted South Korea’s NH Investment & Securities and NongHyup Financial Group in acquiring a stake in Abu Dhabi National Oil Company’s natural gas pipelines, which will lease USD20 billion gas pipelines and fractionation facilities. Recently, the firm advised BlackRock Real Assets on its investment in Korean solar development and investment company Brite Energy Partners, as well as on its acquisition of a 100% stake in Korea Renewables Energy Development & Operations Holdings (KREDO).

Global law firm Paul Hastings has been representing Korean companies since the 1970s, and finally opened its Seoul office in 2012.

Recently, the firm represented JP Morgan, Mirae Asset, Credit Suisse and Korea Investment & Securities as underwriters in the USD2 billion global offering and listing of battery material maker SK IE Technology on the Korea Exchange. The firm also advised a South Korean game developer, Krafton, on its USD3.8 billion IPO.

In January, the firm changed its leadership from partner Kim Jong Han to partner Kim Dong Chul. The firm has also been busy advising on leading M&A and IPOs with the support of partner Kim Iksoo.

A vice president in the global investment banking community in Seoul, who wants to remain anonymous, portrays both as an unstoppable duo. “Both partners were superstar associates and counsel, even back in Columbia law school, and throughout their careers in their previous firms”, says the vice president. “They are the most trusted US corporate finance counsel on the street in Korea.”

  • PETER & KIM

Established in 2020, Peter & Kim is an international arbitration law firm that brings together 39 practitioners from different civil and common law systems. Founded by senior partner Kevin Kim in Seoul and partner Wolfgang Peter in Geneva, the law firm assembles dispute resolution lawyers with regional and global experience from its Seoul, Geneva, Bern, Sydney and Singapore offices.

Peter & Kim represents corporate, sovereign and private clients in complex international disputes before arbitral tribunals and state courts. Its lawyers are experienced in handling and managing complex cross-border proceedings arising from M&A, projects, franchising and licensing, joint ventures, etc.

Recently, the firm acted as a counsel in the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes arbitration under the Korea-Belgium/Luxembourg bilateral investment treaties, involving a claim against the government of South Korea in the aggregate amount of more than USD5 billion.

  • LAB PARTNERS
  • PETER & KIM

LAB Partners is was established in 2018, providing a one-stop service for financial services and technology clients on transactions and venture capital financing. The firm advises on licensing and establishing domestic and international financial institutions for fintech entities.

The six-partner law firm enjoys a growing client list of businesses in the crypto and AI spaces, with the support of two foreign attorneys and 11 associates. It recently advised Citibank Korea on the migration of the trust and agency business of the Bank of New York Mellon’s Seoul Branch to Citibank Korea.

Daishi Toyoda, Singapore-based executive director and head of securitisation origination in East Asia at Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation, commends the firm’s partners Jo Young Hee and Park Jeesun, whom he has been working with for years. “It is a breeze working with them, as they have always proven their ability to meet and even exceed our expectations, despite the complexities and tight timelines involved in our structured finance deals,” says Toyoda.

  • BAE KIM & LEE
  • LEE & KO
  • PETER & KIM
  • YOON & YANG

Yoon & Yang was founded in 1989, and has established itself as a premier full-service law firm. Apart from a headquarters in Seoul, the firm also has offices in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Jakarta and Tashkent, Uzbekistan, with more than 460 professionals.

Recently, the firm assisted Korea’s largest carrier, Korean Air, in taking control of its rival, Asiana Airlines, by acquiring new shares worth KRW1.8 trillion (USD1.6 billion). In July, the firm advised Doosan Heavy Industries & Construction in aggregating and implementing investment of USD60 million in NuScale Power, a nuclear power plant manufacturer in the US.

“Yoon & Yang is a law firm that you can trust and entrust for any matter,” says Kim Hyungseon, senior attorney at IBM Korea in Seoul. “In particular, they try to understand the company’s internal affairs well, so the more we work together, the more accurate and specific advice we can receive. We consider them as the go-to law firm for all practice areas.”

  • CHOI & KIM
  • LEE & KO
  • MOON & SONG
  • YOON & YANG

In 1997, boutique law firm Choi & Kim was established as a specialised firm in maritime and insurance law, particularly on contractual disputes, cargo claims and collisions.

Apart from handling the full range of maritime law issues, the firm has expanded its expertise to litigation and consultation concerning aviation matters, including the representation of air carriers in defence of claims brought as a result of major air accidents.

Moon & Song has grown from its inception in 2006 into a leading maritime specialist law firm by maintaining the highest legal advice to international and domestic businesses.

Its founding partner, Moon Kwang-Myeong, is well known for handling contentious issues and providing quality advice based on his 20 years of experience in maritime law.

The three-partner firm also covers all kinds of issues in multimodal transport, including determining liability periods, and various issues relating to port, terminal, freight forwarding and logistics.

Yulchon was founded in 1997 as Woo Yun Kang Jeong & Han. In 2007, the firm changed its name to Yulchon, which means “lawyer’s village”, representing legal experts who combined their strengths to create a tight community of lawyers. Since then, the firm has achieved continual growth through its efforts to strive for prominence and perfection.

Yulchon is renowned for its experience in antitrust, corporate and M&A, real estate and international tax. Expanding its outreach at the regional and global level, the law firm has offices in Shanghai, Moscow, Yangon, Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Jakarta, as well as a collaborative network with global law firms.

“I have been very impressed with the knowledge and legal skills of Yulchon … advising complex and cross-border transactions,” said Le Hong Phong, partner at Vietnamese law firm BizConsult in Hanoi.

Le Hong Phong, BizConsult

Founded in 2000, Jipyong has grown with its clients to become one of the leading full-service firms, with more than 290 professionals. The law firm pride itself on its global reach and outlook through a network of 11 offices across Asia in Seoul, Suncheon and Busan in South Korea, as well as Shanghai, Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Jakarta, Phnom Penh, Vientiane, Yangon and Moscow, providing a one-stop destination for cross-border legal and consulting services.

Since 2002, Jipyong has formed a North Korea team and has provided diverse services on the inter-Korean exchange. The firm’s domestic and international client base relies on its in-depth knowledge of diverse local markets and innovative, business-minded solutions.

OhKims Law was envisioned as a convergence expert group providing preemptive and omnidirectional solutions. The law firm’s business, finance and technology practice supports clients with tailor-made and innovative solutions for technology and finance-related issues, helping clients to stay updated on the latest regulatory changes and challenges arising from new tech, including cryptocurrencies and blockchain.

Oh Seongheon, the law firm’s founder and managing partner, is an expert in civil, criminal and administrative law, including litigation and arbitration. He has worked with many tech companies on various legal issues, consultations and policy advice.

Seum is a boutique law firm founded in 2012 to provide legal services in various tech and capital market practice areas. The firm is well known for its works with startups, fintech companies and venture capital funds to advise on novel legal problems.

Seum’s co-founder and managing partner, Jung Hoseok, is a leading attorney in startups, emerging companies and venture capital funds, advising on a broad range of matters with the support of four other partners, a senior foreign attorney and 15 associates.

  • BAE KIM & LEE
  • JIPYONG
  • LEE & KO
  • SHIN & KIM

Dentons Lee was formed through a 2020 combination between global law firm Dentons and local firm Lee International IP & Law Group, a patent specialist firm established in 1961. Long before the combination, the firm’s patent attorneys were known for their strong technical and scientific backgrounds in understanding clients’ complex patents and valuing their patent portfolios.

The combination with Dentons gives the firm a larger amount of inbound work from foreign companies that require legal services in South Korea. On the other side, the firm has greater accessibility to assist Korean clients in expanding their businesses around the globe.

Dentons Lee recently advised German cookware producer Fissler in a trademark dispute with a Korean company over a tricolours motif inspired by the German flag. The firm also advised Japanese company Manyo on a dispute over a technology transfer agreement with South Korea’s Hosung Machinery.

YP Lee Mock & Partners has been providing a full range of services in all fields related to IP since its inception in 1985. The firm now consists of about 390 employees, including 180 IP attorneys and attorneys-at-law, making it the largest IP law firm in the country.

This long history and experience ensures the firm has a strong presence in global IP markets. YP Lee Mock & Partners is also dedicated to providing a high-quality prosecution service to obtain strong and effective protection for local and international clients.

The history of AJU Kim Chang & Lee began in 1965 when the late CH Park, a former commissioner of the Korean Patent Office, set up his own patent operation. In 2009, the firm formed a partnership with general practice law firm Kim Chang & Lee and was renamed as it is today.

The law firm provides expert legal protection for all types of creative productions, and has registered thousands of trademarks for its clients.
It also offers a one-stop service for patent application and prosecution, as well as trademark and design applications.

FirstLaw specialises in all aspects of IP, including patents, utility models, designs, trademarks, domain names, trade secrets, licensing, and IP portfolio development and management.

The law firm was founded in 1988 and now has more than 200 professionals including 60 patent attorneys, and 140 patent engineers and technical advisers.

FirstLaw’s clients range from individuals to multinational corporations in various industries, including chemical, biotechnology, pharmaceutical, electrical, IT, semiconductor, mechanical, metallurgical and material engineering and sciences, and trademark matters.

IP boutique firm Koreana Patent Firm was previously known as Joon Koo Lee & Partners, and founded in 1970 by the late Lee Joon Koo, a patent attorney and a former commissioner of patents at the Korean Intellectual Property Office. In 2001, the firm changed branding to its current name.

The firm has 200 employees, including 60 patent attorneys, and engineers with doctoral degrees. Renowned for its strong patent prosecution capabilities, the firm also advises on matters related to designs, trademarks and licensing, as well as domain names related to internet businesses.

You Me Patent & Law Firm was established in 1981 and has grown to become one of the largest IP boutique firms in the country, with more than 260 lawyers and patent and trademark attorneys from Korea, Australia, China, Japan, the UK, US and New Zealand.

The size of the firm has been instrumental in serving global clients through its international team. The firm oversees patent applications in more than 30 countries, and trademark applications for domestic and international clients in more than 50 countries.

  • CHOI & KIM
  • JIPYONG
  • KWON & CO
  • MOON & SONG

Boutique law firm Kwon & Co was established by maritime lawyer Kwon Tae Il in 2001, and has since been renowned for its experience in charter party disputes, bankruptcy proceedings and the rehabilitation of shipping giants. The firm prioritises its legal service in maritime and marine insurance law to international clients.

Last year, the firm represented Hong Kong-based container ship operator Seaspan regarding the collision between MV Seaspan Ganges and MV Milano Bridge in Busan New Port.

It also acted for the hull and machinery underwriter Meritz Fire & Marine Insurance, and reinsurer Korean Reinsurance Company, for the MV Stellar Banner in a touch-and-go accident.

  • BAE KIM & LEE
  • SHIN & KIM
  • YOON & YANG
  • YULCHON

Cho & Partners was founded in 2002 by IP lawyers Cho Tae-Yeon and Seo Ik-Hyun. The law firm started off serving primarily multinational companies and has expanded its client base in various business sectors such as software and computer technology, general retailing, fashion and luxury goods, and energy.

Cho has served on the executive committee for the Internet Address Domain Name Dispute Resolution Committee, a government body that administers domain name disputes.

Seo serves as a panelist for the World Intellectual Property Organisation for generic top-level domains disputes.

The law firm is active in domestic and international prosecution practice for trademark and patent disputes, administrative proceedings, anti-counterfeiting and internet-related matters.

  • BAE KIM & LEE
  • NAM & NAM
  • SHIN & KIM
  • YOON & YANG

The oldest IP law firm in South Korea, NAM & NAM was set up in 1952. It now has more than 180 professionals including patent and trademark attorneys, attorneys-at-law, patent specialists and consultants to cover all areas of IP, particularly in electronics and IT, chemicals and biopharma, mechanics and materials, branding protection, trademarks and designs.

The firm oversees multinational clients with a network of global experts from the US, UK, Germany, Japan and China.

With its ISO 9001 and 27001 certification, the firm has established systemised work procedures to ensure consistent work output and information protection to adhere to strict quality management standards.

  • BAE KIM & LEE
  • JIPYONG
  • SHIN & KIM
  • YOON & YANG

The judging process

The winners of Asia Business Law Journal’s Korea Law Firm Awards 2021 were selected based on the votes, references and qualitative information received from in-house counsel and other legal professionals in South Korea and around the world.

A voting form was posted on our website, and thousands of in-house counsel, lawyers at international law firms, and other Korea-focused professionals were invited to vote. At the same time, Korean law firms were asked to make submissions in support of their candidacy for the awards. These submissions, combined with research by Asia Business Law Journal’s editorial team, played a supporting role in the judging process.

All Korean law firms were automatically eligible for inclusion in the awards process. As always, there were no fees or any other requirements for entry.

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