Asia Business Law Journal reveals Korea’s leading private practice lawyers. Lim Mi Ran reports
South Korea has been a rare success story in managing and controlling the covid-19 pandemic, which has otherwise ravaged economies and businesses worldwide. The country learned its lessons early on and worked proactively to mitigate the impact of the pandemic.
According to an Asia Business Law Journal survey of law firms in the region at the end of last year, South Korean firms were the only ones among all major legal markets in Asia that reported a significant growth in revenue, despite the pandemic.
South Korea’s legal market is dominated by a handful of mega local firms, with a large number of smaller firms doing more focused work. While foreign law firms are allowed to operate, they cannot do domestic legal work.
Faced with the task of identifying the top 100 lawyers in the country, Asia Business Law Journal undertook an extensive survey of in-house counsel and other legal professionals (see methodology), inviting them to nominate lawyers and provide justifications for each nomination. From the responses, it is clear that what clients seek are people who can solve complex legal challenges, with an in-depth understanding of commercial affairs and a keen business sense.
Experience and specialist knowledge are invaluable to any client. Shin & Kim managing partner Oh Jong Han is one lawyer possessing such qualities, who is highly regarded for his expertise.
“[Oh] is one of the best specialists in the field of financial and commercial disputes,” says Park Chan Myung, general manager of the auditing department of Daishin Securities, a Seoul-based financial services company.
“Clients can rely on his abundant experience of dealing with various kinds of financial and commercial lawsuits,” says Park. “He offers pragmatic and creative solutions perfectly fitted for clients’ situations. His leadership and communication make clients feel comfortable and confident in a complicated situation.”
Lee Won Hae, head of the legal department at Hyundai Elevator, also commends Oh for his skills in dispute resolution. “Oh is very good at understanding the big picture of a case, and establishes excellent strategy,” says Lee. “At court hearings, my impression is that he argues in a calm yet very persuasive manner. I think he has a great ability to accurately understand and analyse critical issues that decide the outcome of a case.”
Tony Dong Wook Kang, the partner in charge of international arbitration and litigation at Bae Kim & Lee, is another dispute resolution expert who has stands out for his knowledge and experience.
“He is one of the best counsel we can always count on,” says Kim Youngjun, senior manager of the legal affairs team at Mirae Asset Daewoo Securities. “Kang is a superb litigator with in-depth knowledge and experience in litigation. Not only does he take a practical and effective approach in handling disputes, but he also has the ability to provide us with dynamic and creative solutions through his resourcefulness and global insight, which can hardly be compared even among his best peers.”
Clients are often looking for more than sound legal advice. They want someone who can provide strategic expertise. James Park, the CEO of US-based adhesives maker Imperial Polychemicals, recommends Kim Beomsu, a managing partner at KL Partners, for being a “brilliant litigator” with a “strategic and out-of-the-box approach”.
“He is very attentive to the client’s needs, taking into consideration not only the legal but also the commercial aspects of a case,” says the CEO. “It is for this reason that I was not only very happy with the outcome itself, but also the entire process – it made the litigation an enjoyable experience, if it can be described as such.”
Jody Kim, a counsel at South Korean construction company DL E&C, also recommends Kim Beomsu for this out-of-the-box approach. “Kim is a very balanced dispute resolution practitioner, as he can take a pragmatic and commercial approach to resolve disputes favourably, while he is always prepared to think out of the box and provide non-conventional solutions whenever needed,” says Jody Kim. “It is always a pleasure to work with Kim [Beomsu], and having him on our side gives us a great deal of comfort.”
As the comments show, clients of South Korean lawyers, and foreign lawyers practising in the country, look for strategists and advisers who can earn their confidence with their expertise, and guide them with business insights obtained by viewing the issues from the clients’ perspective.
As Park Chan Myung, of Daishin, says: “A solid partnership between clients and lawyers is the first step to solving problems.”
Edward Dhong, a senior foreign attorney at Yoon & Yang, is a lawyer who has built solid partnerships with his clients.
“Among a growing number of lawyers in Korea, only a few really stand out as credible business partners,” says Roger Chae, general counsel of global legal and compliance at Hanon Systems, an automotive air control equipment maker. He says Edward Dhong is a lawyer “focused on delivering value”.
“Edward’s experience in large law firms in Korea and the US, and in-house at a global company, allows him to address legal problems with a business approach,” says Chae. “Law schools don’t teach this, and law firms don’t train this. Edward is also responsive, flexible, and honest – if he doesn’t know an answer to an issue, he’ll readily admit it, but will quickly find someone who does.”
There is great demand for lawyers with niche areas of expertise. While IP is a common area of specialisation, emerging areas such as antitrust and fintech are increasingly in demand. However, given the complex nature of transactions and cases, lawyers have to go beyond their areas of expertise and offer multi-disciplinary skills to build the trust of their clients.
Ben Yuu, the managing partner of Nam & Nam, a specialist IP firm, has made a name for himself and the firm with an ability to go beyond the brief. Seo Taeyoung, a senior legal counsel at Hyundai Kia Motor Group, praises Yuu for his “dedication to the projects”, and the ability to analyse “issues from a client-oriented perspective”.
“I’ve been working with Yuu since 2017,” says Seo. “We have been doing many trademark projects during that time. Certain trademark projects in the US are intermingled with trademark and bankruptcy issues, which means we have to check not only IP issues but also general legal issues.
“There were so many complicated legal issues at the beginning, so it was difficult to find the clues to solve the problems. However, Yuu carefully untied the thread, step by step, so that we are just at a step behind touching the goal line.”
Yang Changwoo, patent counsel at Qualcomm, says Yuu’s work is “always top-notch. Thanks to his interpersonal skills, it is always a pleasure to work with him.”
John Kim, a senior foreign attorney at Lee & Ko, receives praises from clients such as Daniel Shim, the principal legal counsel of Samsung Electronics, who says: “John Kim is an outstanding patent litigation specialist based in Korea. While John is a US patent litigator, his experience spans across the globe, in the US, Asia, and Europe. He is also well versed in disputes concerning trademarks and copyrights. He is one of the recommended lawyers to anyone dealing with IP dispute matters.”
Hong Suakbuam, a partner at Yoon & Yang, is widely regarded for his expertise in antitrust and competition. He represents domestic conglomerates and foreign companies, and provides advice on cases related to the Fair Trade Act and the Act on the Regulation of Terms and Conditions.
“He always finds the answer,” says Lee Bong Keun, deputy general manager of retailer Asung Daiso.
Lee Yun Seob, team leader of the legal department at Seacret Direct Korea, a multi-level market company that sells personal care products, is full of praise for Hong’s work. “As a corporate legal team’s leader, I have been working with many law firms and lawyers who are specialised in antitrust and competition law, and I can say Hong is the best lawyer in the field,” he says. “He knows client’s needs and always puts all his efforts into finding solutions for clients.”
Lee Dong Suk, the legal group leader at Samsung Medison, says: “Hong can handle complex law cases requiring an understanding of not only the legal theories but also the deep knowledge of the relevant industry, and the client’s specific needs.”
Lee Sanghyun, senior legal counsel at Samsung SDI, adds that Hong has excellent analytical and communication skills, and has handled cases for him related to “the Fair Trade Act (cartels, etc.), the Act on Fair Transactions in Large Franchise and Retail Business, and the Fair Transactions in Subcontracting Act”.
Derek Won, a manager in the international tax department of EY, describes Hong as an “excellent attorney who is mindful of his client’s objectives and goals, who does his best to achieve those goals and objectives, and is an expert in competition and consumer law”.
Cecil Saehoon Chung, a senior foreign counsel at Yulchon, is another antitrust lawyer who comes highly recommended. Davina Garrod, a partner at international law firm Akin Gump in London, says: “Cecil is a top-tier antitrust practitioner who is extremely smart, incisive and commercially minded. We love working with him.”
Women of influence
Gender stereotypes persist in the South Korean legal market, despite years of massive growth and progress. A few women have fought against the odds and earned the respect and trust of their clients, and now a new generation of women lawyers are making their way in the profession, buoyed by the progress of the women before them who have opened up the market and changed clients’ perceptions.
Anna Chung, an infrastructure-focused partner at Shearman & Sterling in South Korea, is a woman lawyer who has earned the respect and trust of her clients. She receives praises from various clients, notably Jung Seung Ho, general manager at Lotte Engineering & Construction. “Anna is the most active professional lawyer, despite [Shearman & Sterling] opening an office later compared with other foreign law firms in Korea,” says Jung.
“She has the outstanding ability not only to understand the things that clients want, but also to suggest clear solutions immediately.”
The managing director of a New York-based private equity firm focused on infrastructure investments, who did not want to be named, had this to say of Chung: “Anna has a very robust understanding of the broader commercial issues in each transaction beyond legal matters, and finds effective solutions to problems that are particularly useful in new markets and sectors.”
Claudia Hong, a senior foreign attorney at Shin & Kim, is also widely praised by clients. “Claudia is one of the best advisers I have worked with in Asia-Pacific,” says Lee Sanghyun, the head of consumer for Asia-Pacific, and government affairs and public policy at Google. “Her unique ability to identify potential problems, and to provide strategic advice, makes her stand out from others.
“She takes a very pragmatic and creative approach to solve complex issues with a lot of business sense and understanding built into it,” adds Lee Sanghyun. “This makes her advice relatable and easy for the management to understand. Furthermore, addressing Korea’s complex regulatory and legislative matters in a wide range of situations is a difficult job, but her vast knowledge, prompt attention, and quick turnaround time for strategic advice make her an excellent adviser to us.”
Other prominent women who made it onto the A-List include: Yully Kang, a partner at Jipyong; Kim Sae Youn, an attorney at Kim & Chang; Kim Young, an attorney at Kim & Chang; Oh Hyun Joo, a partner at Lee & Ko; and Helen Pak, a senior foreign attorney Shin & Kim.
Spotlighting the individuals
When looking for lawyers with specialist expertise, the reputation and experience of a practitioner play an important role. Robert Wachter, co-head of the international arbitration and cross-border litigation group at Lee & Ko, is a prominent name in this regard.
Wachter is a globally recognised arbitrator, an adjunct professor at Seoul National University School of Law, the Supreme Court of Korea (Judicial Research and Training Institute), and Ewha Womans University.
“Robert’s meticulous preparation and attention to detail make him a superb advocate and a formidable cross-examiner,” says Benjamin Hughes, an independent arbitrator at The Arbitration Chambers in Singapore.
Cho Sung Keuk, the managing partner of Cho & Lee, a shipping and insurance-focused firm, is one of the foremost experts in these practice areas in South Korea. Kim Byoung Kuk, a marine claims team leader at ACE American Fire and Marine Insurance Company Korea, describes Cho as “a very famous lawyer in South Korea and one of the top lawyers in the field of international trade, marine, aviation, and commercial insurance”.
“I have solved a lot of marine claim issues and arguments with his counsel in the past decade,” says Kim Byoung Kuk. “In particular, his unique ability to interpret circumstances from various points of view is invaluable. He has also kept up academic studies in his professional field, and shared such things with many people in the field. He is respected and admired by them.”
Kurt Gerstner, a senior attorney at Dentons Lee, “has an excellent insight of the situation and always advises essential key points of the matter,” says Chun Yoosung, a senior manager of wood products company Foresco. “He is always well prepared with legal strategy, and can be trusted.”
Andrew Chamberlin, a partner at boutique American law firm Ellis & Winters, says: “Kurt provided excellent advice on legal strategy while working co-operatively and efficiently with our team on complex legal issues. His ability to compare and contrast the US and Korean legal system was critical to developing a strategy to resolve the overall litigation.”
Chamberlin notes Gerstner is a member of the International Association of Defence Counsel, and makes many presentations related to South Korean and Asian legal issues pertinent to multinational companies.
Sean Hayes, an attorney at IPG Legal, also comes widely recommended. Hayes was the first non-Korean employed as an attorney by the Korean Court System (the Constitutional Court of Korea) and was also one of the first non-Koreans to be a full-time regular member of a South Korean law faculty.
Compiling the A-List
The A-List is based on extensive research conducted by Asia Business Law Journal. To identify the top 100 lawyers in Korea, we turned to thousands of in-house counsel in Korea and around the world – as well as partners at international law firms – and asked them to tell us which lawyers should make the cut and why. Nominations were made by professionals at a wide range of Korean and global companies, financial institutions, and law firms, including: ACE American Fire and Marine Insurance Company Korea, Akin Gump, Asung Daiso, BSS, Corney & Lind Lawyers, County Court of Victoria, DL E&C, Daishin Securities, Ellis & Winters, EY US, Foresco, Google, Hanon Systems, Hyundai E&C, Hyundai Kia Motor Group, IPCO, Jacobs, Jus Ad Astra, KB capital, Lotte Engineering & Construction, McCarter & English, Mirae Asset Daewoo Securities, MMI Korea, Qualcomm, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, Revolution Fibres, Samsung Electronics, Samsung Medison, Samsung SDI, Seacret Direct Korea, Smilegate, The Arbitration Chambers, and many more. Thorough editorial research followed the nomination process.
The final list reflects the nominations received combined with the Asia Business Law Journal editorial team’s extensive experience in documenting and analysing the legal market in Asia. All Korean private-practice lawyers and foreign lawyers based in the country were automatically eligible for inclusion in the nominations process, and, as always, there were no fees or any other requirements for entry.
The names and photographs of all 100 A-List lawyers are published here. In addition, each A-List lawyer was given the opportunity to include their biography and contact details, for which a publishing fee was charged.
It is important to note that while the compilation of the A-List was based solely on independent editorial research, the biographies and contact details that appear alongside many of the listings have been written by the participating lawyers, and the content has not been independently verified by Asia Business Law Journal.