Law firm Ashurst launches South Korean legal joint venture

A night view of Seoul, South Korea, August 7, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Dec 2 - London-headquartered international law firm Ashurst on Tuesday said it is launching a first-of-its-kind legal joint venture in South Korea, a market that has been historically closed off to foreign law firms.

Ashurst Korea JV, a combination of midsize Korean law firm HwaHyun and Ashurst, will be the first global law firm permitted to practice Korean law and hire local attorneys in the country since the legal market opened in 2011, Ashurst said in a statement.

The joint venture will start out with four partners supported by a team of associates from both firms, an Ashurst spokesperson said. It will focus on outbound and inbound M&A, corporate advisory, cross-border disputes and investigations and international arbitrations, the spokesperson said.

The firms' leaders said they were driven together by the combination of HwaHyun’s international aspirations with Ashurst’s need to add local expertise to its outbound Korea practice, which counts Samsung Electronics Co Ltd and Hyundai Motor Co as clients.

Foreign law firms began setting up limited “foreign legal consultant” offices in South Korea after the United States and European Union signed trade agreements with the country in 2011.

That framework allowed foreign firms to set up representative offices in the country to advise local and international clients. The firms could not practice Korean law or hire Korean lawyers, however, an Ashurst spokesperson said.

Ropes & Gray; Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton; and Clifford Chance were the first to register FLCs in South Korea in July 2012, according to documents on the country’s Ministry of Justice website.

A total of 35 international law firms had registered FLC offices in South Korea as of Sept. 30, according to the ministry. Six firms, including most recently Cohen & Gresser and Clifford Chance in 2021, have shut down Korean FLC offices, the Ministry of Justice website said.

Dentons entered into a combination with Korean firm Lee International in 2020 to set up Dentons Lee, which was the first global law firm to have a presence in South Korea, a Dentons spokesperson said in an email. "Dentons Lee is owned and controlled by Korean lawyers who can practice law in (South)Korea," the spokesperson said.

An Ashurst spokesperson had earlier said Dentons Lee's presence in the country did not allow the global legal giant to practice Korean law or hire local attorneys.

Ashurst partners Ronnie King and Huiyeon Kim, who co-led the firm’s Hong Kong-based Korea outbound practice, will be part of the new joint venture along with HwaHyun managing partner Kyung-Shik Shin and chair of the Korean firm’s general corporate group Sung-Ryul Park.

A spokesperson for HwaHyun did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the combination.

Note: This story has been updated with a comment from Dentons about its South Korean practice.

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