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November 28, 2011 5:07 PM

U.S. Firms Line Up to Enter South Korea Market

Posted by Sara Randazzo

Less than a week after a free trade agreement between South Korea and the United States was finalized, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton announced Monday that it plans to open a Seoul office, sibling publication The Asian Lawyer reports.

The firm said it expects to open its office in South Korea's capital city in the first half of 2012 and that the new outpost will initially be staffed by Hong Kong partner Yong Guk Lee and counsel Jay Hoon Choi. The firm plans to move most of its 17-lawyer Korea team from Hong Kong to the new office within the next two to four years, Lee said.

The Asian Lawyer notes that Cleary has already been active in transactional work tied to Korea, recently advising Seoul-based Kookmin Bank, for example, on the $1.7 billion sale of its stake in Korean banking company KB Financial Group. The firm also represented The Export-Import Bank of Korea on a $1 billion debt issue in September

The free trade agreement between South Korea and the United States allows U.S.–based law firms to advise on U.S. and international trade law and opens the doors to local alliances with Korean law firms. Starting in 2017, U.S. firms will also be able to merge with Korean firms or hire local lawyers.

Cleary is not alone among U.S. firms expressing interest in entering the South Korean market. Paul Hastings managing partner Gregory Nitzkowski confirmed to The Am Law Daily that the firm plans to put in its application to open an office as soon as South Korean regulators unveil the process.

Nitzkowski says Paul Hastings is considering relocating fewer than ten attorneys from its Korea practice, which is currently co-led by Hong Kong partners Daniel Sae-Chin Kim and Jong Han Kim. The firm wants to establish just enough of a presence in the country to stay competitive, he says.

"We don't want to be enormous there," Nitzkowski says.

Paul Hastings currently advises South Korean companies on acquisition strategy, capital needs, and litigation. The firm also represents investors considering investments in—or joint ventures with—South Korean companies. Earlier this year, the firm advised Samsung Electronics on the pending $1.38 billion sale of its hard-disk drive unit to Seagate Technology.

Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, McDermott Will & Emery, and Ropes & Gray also are expected to open offices in South Korea, The Asian Lawyer reports.

British law firms have been allowed to set up shop in South Korea since July, though no firm has done so yet. The Asian Lawyer notes that Clifford Chance, Allen & Overy, and Linklaters are all active in Korea. 

Bloomberg reports that the free trade agreement may expand South Korea's export-heavy economy by 5.7 percent and create 350,000 new jobs within the decade.

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