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February 22, 2012 6:39 PM

As International Firms Continue Push Across Asia, U.S. Shops Get Official Date to Open in South Korea

Posted by Brian Baxter

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative announced Tuesday that a new free trade agreement with South Korea will officially take effect on March 15, allowing U.S. law firms—some of which have recently made inroads in other Asian nations—to finally open offices in that country.

The Am Law Daily reported last week that McDermott Will & Emery had become the latest Am Law 100 firm to formally state its intention to open a Seoul office in the wake of the trade agreement's passage.  Other firms that have announced plans to set up shop on the Korean peninsula include Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, Freshfields Bruckhaus DeringerPaul Hastings, Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett.

With the European Union reaching a similar agreement with South Korea last year, British firms are also poised to open in Seoul. Clifford Chance announced last week that it had become the first U.K. firm to submit an application for an office opening in the South Korean capital. The Magic Circle firm claims it is the only foreign firm to have filed a formal application, according to sibling publication The Asian Lawyer.

South Korea is not the only Asian country becoming more receptive to foreign attorneys and their firms.

The Asian Lawyer reported last week on Singapore's decision to liberalize its legal sector and allow mergers between domestic and foreign firms. Several U.S. and U.K. shops quickly announced plans to open offices in the city-state.

Squire Sanders, for instance, picked up corporate partner Ignatius Hwang, the former managing partner of Bryan Cave's Singapore office, as part of a plan to launch a Singapore office next month. British firms Withers and Lawrence Graham have also announced the opening of offices in Singapore to target private wealth clients, according to The Asian Lawyer.

Clyde & Co, a British firm that completed the largest domestic merger ever in the U.K. last year, recently relocated shipping partner Brian Nash from London to Singapore to head its office there, according to U.K. publication Legal Week.

Indonesia, too, has become an increasing attractive destination for foreign lawyers, as Bloomberg reported in late 2010. Three firms—Norton Rose, O’Melveny & Myers, and Stephenson Harwood—established alliances with Indonesian shops last year.

Meanwhile, The Asian Lawyer reported this week that neighboring Malaysia, the world's largest market in sukuk,or Islamic bonds, could become another growth market for international firms.

Even seemingly remote Asian locales such as Mongolia have drawn their share of attention from foreign firms in recent months. Leading Australian firm Allens Arthur Robinson followed DLA Piper into the country last November by launching an office in Ulaanbaatar, and earlier this month another top firm Down Under, Minter Ellison, also opened in the city. (Hogan Lovells entered Mongolia in August 2010 through an alliance with local firm GTs Advocates.)

And, of course, traditional Far East hotspots for legal work, such as Hong Kong and its higher pay scale for overseas associates, continue to lure U.S. firms.

The Asian Lawyer reported this week on Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld's opening of an office in Hong Kong by hiring Shearman & Sterling M&A partner Gregory Puff and Norton Rose M&A partner Andrew Abernethy. Akin Gump has also applied to open an office in Singapore and is considering another opening in Seoul.

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