Liberalisation of the Korean legal services market: a view from inside

Last week the England & Wales Law Society posted a press release on their site announcing the publication of the draft bill that “would give foreign legal consultants access to the country’s legal services market”:

The publication of the draft bill on foreign legal consultants paves the way for solicitors’ firms to open offices in Korea and to offer fly-in fly-out services on non-Korean law.

Given the story seven weeks ago that this whole business was going to be kicked into touch until such time as the interminable FTA talks are over, I didn’t bother posting about it this time. Instead, I forwarded it to Tom Coyner in case he wanted to distribute it to his readership. He did. And he got the following feedback from a foreign lawyer currently working in Korea. Glad I’m not the only cynical one round here.

I wouldn’t sound so optimistic as the Law Society. The opening of the legal market proffered by the ROK government is a token gesture (because of the WTO, they have to open their services market). But if you cannot hire Korean lawyers or enter into a JV with a Korean firm, what’s the point of being in Korea? Just for marketing purposes? The Korea Bar Association does what it can to have as small an opening as possible; they just can’t understand that competition forces you to improve yourself. In that, they’re copying the Japan of 20 years ago…

Another aspect of the draft Foreign Legal Consultant Act affects immediately foreign lawyers already working in Korea for Korean law firms. Mostly gyopos1, about 200 of us. The bill requires a 3-year minimum of practice period in one’s home jurisdiction before being able to work in Korea; but quite a few of the foreign attorneys in Korea have had less than 3 years of practice in their home jurisdiction. So will this mean that they will no longer be allowed to work here?

Another outrageous provision of this bill: it creates a new legal category, the [name of jurisdiction] oe-gook-beob jamoonsa (외국법 자문사), which literally translated means foreign legal consultant. Yeah, right. Ask the man on the street what the word conveys, and his response will be hmmm… it must be some kind of second-class lawyer, but certainly less competent than a real byeonhosa. The MoJ (prodded by the KBA, probably) says that this is to avoid misleading consumers. It would have been so much simpler to allow us to call ourselves mi-gook byeonhosa, which by the way is a term already used in practice. My guess is that it’s just another measure to put us down, to show how those SNU College of Law grads are Ubermensch while foreign lawyers are Untermensch. The worrying thing is that some of my Korean colleagues think Hey, that’s a good idea!

There’ll be a meeting of the Legal Affairs Committee of the AmCham2 on Monday3 to discuss the above. Together with the EUCCK4, something should be done, but maybe it’s too late, and, because it affects such a small population, will not attract much interest.

Once again I am indebted to Louise for her diligent reading of her trade rag.

The correspondent’s reference to Japanese restrictions on foreign lawyers is relevant. The Japanese restrictions on foreign firms employing local lawyers, or on forming joint ventures with local firms, were only recently lifted in April 2005: see here. Note that Nick Emmerson from Eversheds who gave the talk at the Japanese event linked to here is now chairing the British-Korean Lawyers Association. Hope that doesn’t mean he’s got 20 years to wait before he can give a similar talk on the Korean legal services market.

  1. I had to look this up I’m afraid: a gyopo is person of Korean ethnic descent who has lived the majority of his/her life outside Korea, according to Wikipedia []
  2. American Chamber of Commerce []
  3. yesterday []
  4. EU Chamber of Commerce in Korea []

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