The Korean and Japanese legal markets have both struggled for years to find a balance between supporting strong domestic players and opening up to global firms. Lately, however, the two neighbors have gone in opposite directions in the liberalization of their legal sectors.
In Japan, a market that foreign law firms entered more than 30 years ago, the government is considering further relaxing the rules to attract more foreign lawyers. But in Korea, the legal market liberalization process, which was largely modeled after the Japanese experience, has been put on hold.
“We are not yet considering any concrete plan for further liberalization,” the South Korean Ministry of Justice said in an emailed statement.
For global firms, which not long ago believed they would eventually be able to incorporate local Korean law practices in their firms, the pause in progress is a disappointment.
Disappointed, But Not Down
Instead, international firms in Seoul will continue to focus on outbound work, such as mergers and acquisitions and projects work, as well as international arbitration. Firms are not likely to pull out of Asia’s fourth-largest economy because of the lack of liberalization, said Nathan Peart, a consultant at legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa who specializes in Hong Kong and Seoul.