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Asia Business Law Journal reveals Korea’s leading private practice lawyers. Lim Mi Ran and Nguyen Yen reports

Among the world’s major economies, South Korea has withstood the pandemic backlash better than most, supported by its strong economic fundamentals and appropriate policy responses. The country’s economic growth prospects remain relatively positive for a modest rather than strong upswing.

But recent weak performance across a wide range of economic indicators, along with persistent depreciation of the Korean won against the US dollar, has exacerbated financial market volatility. After a strong export-led rebound and employment surpassing pre-pandemic levels last year, the International Monetary Fund forecasts the country’s economic growth outlook at only 2.3% this year.

Aiming to curb the country’s fiscal deficit and dampen inflationary pressure, President Yoon Suk-yeol has proposed cutting annual government spending for the first time in 13 years. If passed, the 2023 budget is set to reduce spending on public infrastructure by 10.2%, while subsidies and other spending for small to medium-sized businesses will decline by 18% next year.

The latest 2022 tax reform proposals announced in July include measures aiming to reorganise tax systems in line with certain global standards, and adopt minimum tax regimes aligned with the global minimum tax rule of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

South Korea is also renowned for pushing to rein in big tech companies from violating personal information protection laws. The privacy watchdog recently fined Google USD50 million and Meta USD22 million over violations of privacy laws, the highest amounts ever imposed for such violations.

Despite being early advocates of decentralised finance, the country’s crypto industry has been turned upside down by stricter operating rules that came into force in September. South Korea’s financial watchdog has required crypto exchanges to register as legal trading platforms, resulting in almost 40 of the estimated 60 crypto operators expected to shut down.

Such significant changes in the legal landscape and practice of law require businesses to seek advice from experienced lawyers to ensure compliance and help them navigate the legal twists and turns.

Against this challenging background, Asia Business Law Journal presents its A-List of the top 100 lawyers practising in South Korea. The A-List is based on extensive research conducted and nominations received from in-house counsel based in the country and elsewhere, as well as South Korean-focused partners at international law firms. Nearly all of the A-List lawyers are strategically located in Seoul, the country’s heart and engine, where lawyers can keep their ears to the ground with regard to the latest developments in the country.

Comments submitted to Asia Business Law Journal by clients suggest that they not only seek lawyers who are technical experts in their own particular domains, but who can also go beyond this to handle growing complexities within client issues.

Strong foothold

As South Korea is expected to enter a period of slow growth, it is imperative for businesses to evolve and stay alert to avoid the risk of being left behind while facing economic shocks. Legal professionals with deep understanding and practical experience on local issues across various sectors are sought after for strategic planning.

Yoon & Yang antitrust and competition partner Hong Suakbuam is recommended by Lee Yun Seob, compliance manager at health and wellness company Kyäni Korea in Seoul, for his spot-on advice and responsiveness.

“If you want a lawyer who can give you the right answers faster than any other lawyer, then you should work with Hong,” says Kyäni’s Lee. “Hong is a lawyer who will find other risks with his insights, and can give you the right solution that you haven’t ever thought of before. As a well-experienced lawyer, he solves problems quicker and faster than any other lawyer in his field.”

Jang Eu Seok, the team leader at Hyundai Department Store in Busan, also considers Hong as “one of the most competitive attorneys” in his field. “He understands the essence of matters accurately and comes up with the right solutions at the right time.”

In dispute matters, Yeom Yong Pyo, a partner at Yulchon, receives high compliments from Lee Jeong Wook, legal counsel at Samsung C&T in Seoul, for being “very good at grasping the relevant facts and quickly understanding the issues at hand”.

“He communicates with his clients well and knows how to make people comfortable,” says Samsung C&T’s Lee.

Kang Eun Hye, manager at KG Chemical in Seoul, also nominates Yeom for being proactive and a solution-provider.

“He understands and identifies key issues very quickly,” says Kang. “He not only provides requested answers but goes further to suggest better options for the clients based on his diversified work experience.”

Hong Jeong-il, a compliance team leader at SK Biopharmaceuticals in Seongnam, agrees.

“His insight and abundant experience in various dispute matters, as well as his earnestness, has made him a favourite with judges and clients alike,” says SK’s Hong.

Beyond borders

South Korea’s business conglomerate system has grown local companies into global multinationals with vast operations. Companies working on strategic technologies such as semiconductors, electric vehicles and vaccines have expanded their presence abroad while attracting international investments, making the role of foreign lawyers more crucial.

James Baker, a partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan in New York, praises Yoon & Yang’s senior foreign attorney Sam Kim, who has been working with him on a complex IP dispute at the US International Trade Commission.

“He is an exceptional attorney and would be an asset to any team facing bet-the-company issues in multinational litigation,” says Baker. “I would not hesitate to recommend Sam and his team to my colleagues.”

Sam Kim is also complimented for being “always on top of things” by a legal manager of a Korea-based software company, who wants to remain anonymous.

“He knows the facts of the case and the law very well,” the legal manager says. “He gives practical advice rather than giving ‘lawyerly’ advice that I can’t take to the management. He is probably the best lawyer in Korea I’ve worked with.”

Kerry Kaltenbach, a partner at Zhong Lun Law Firm in New York, considers senior foreign attorney Kurt Gerstner as “a cornerstone of Dentons Lee’s international practice”.

“Kurt is experienced in US law and procedure, as well as international law, and handles litigation, transactions and other matters,” says Kaltenbach. “He is knowledgeable, trustworthy and competent, truly one of Korea’s finest attorneys.”

Gerstner is also highly regarded by peer Brian Brookey, a partner at Tucker Ellis in Los Angeles, who rates him as “an extraordinarily intelligent and passionate” lawyer.

“He is an expert in his field, and is known as an outstanding trial lawyer,” says Brookey.

Glass ceiling smasher

Despite remarkable economic achievements in the past decade, South Korea still lags most major economies in gender equality due to deep-rooted stereotyping and perceptions of the traditional role of women in society.

Nonetheless, this perception has changed significantly, although not as dramatically as South Korea’s economic development. In 2019, women lawyers accounted for 27.8 % of the headcount in all legal professions, according to Ministry of Justice gender index statistics, and this number continues to grow steadily.

Senior foreign attorney Claudia Chong-Ah Hong, at Shin & Kim, is one of these female lawyers to crack the glass ceiling. She is nominated by Stephen Farmer, general counsel at micromobility company Neuron Mobility in Singapore.

“Claudia is an invaluable resource for offshore lawyers seeking to support foreign businesses operating in South Korea,” says Farmer. “She is always available and communicates across multiple channels seamlessly. She is also very good at distilling complicated issues down to their core elements and quickly finding the right Korean law specialist to meet every need.”

Shin & Kim’s Hong is also praised by Arshad Karim, director and associate general counsel for Japan and Korea at Twitter, based in Tokyo. “Claudia provides excellent client service and always tries to go above and beyond expectations,” says Karim.

Another outstanding woman lawyer is IP expert and senior partner Kim Young, at Kim & Chang, recommended by Shahan Islam, senior patent counsel at Pfizer in New York.

“In numerous litigation this year and in previous years, Young has led us by explaining the laws of Korea, our options, possible courses of action and the recommended ones,” says Islam. “She is a fierce litigator for her clients.”

The A-List of top lawyers also recognises other powerhouse women including Kim & Chang’s international arbitration partner, Kim Sae Youn, and real estate partner, Cho Keun Ah; Jipyong’s partner and finance group head, Yully Kang; Shin & Kim’s senior foreign attorney, Helen Pak; and Shearmen & Sterling’s project development and finance partner, Anna Chung.

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 South Korea, we turned to thousands of in-house counsel within the country and around the world – as well as partners at international law firms – and asked them to tell us which lawyers should make the cut. Nominations were made by professionals at a wide range of South Korean and global companies, financial institutions and law firms including Baker Donelson, Bird Marella, Central Corporation, Citibank, Eland, Epiq Global, Essencore, Franklin Templeton, Hanwha Group, Herbert Smith Freehills, HK inno.N, Hogan Lovells, Homburger, Hyosung Heavy Industries, Hyundai Department Store, Hyundai Engineering & Construction, Hyundai Motor Company, IDEXX Laboratories, Indochine Counsel, Johnson Controls Korea, Kakao Entertainment, KG Chemical, the Korea Investment Corporation, Kyäni Korea, LG Chem, LG Electronics, Lotte Global Restaurant Service, Macquarie, Neuron Mobility, Pfizer, POSCO, Proskauer Rose, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, Sampyo Group, Samsung C&T Corporation, Samsung Electronics, Samsung SDI, Siemens Energy, SK On, SK Biopharmaceuticals, Thynne + Macartney, Tucker Ellis, Twitter Japan, Woori Bank, Zhong Lun Law Firm, and many more. The nomination process was backed up by thorough editorial research.

The final list reflects the nominations received, combined with the Asia Business Law Journal editorial team’s more than 30 years of collective experience in documenting and analysing South Korea’s legal market. All Korean private-practice lawyers 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 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.

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