1. The Korea-U.S. free trade agreement went into effect in March this year. As a result, you say that American and Korean law firms will be able to jointly launch ventures, invigorating the traditionally isolated Korean legal market. You wrote about this in May — reflecting on this half a year later, what fruits have you seen so far?
There’s always pros and cons to change. The pros are that a wider variety of law firms and lawyers will, over time, steadily increase here in South Korea (a country that has had zero onshore presence in terms of foreign law firms until this year). The cons exist with existing domestic law firms, small to large, that now faces greater competition. But arguably, increased competition should–in theory and hopefully practice–lead to increased quality and lower prices (i.e., more value for money).
2. You have said that Korea doesn’t have enough lawyers in a fairly recent WSJ op-ed (Cracking Open Hermit Kingdom, LLP–by Jasper Kim). Compared to the U.S., which has one lawyer for every 268 people and England that has one lawyer per 513 people, South Korea has one lawyer for every 1,264 people–correct? Does this really speak to a true shortage of legal workers in Korea? Could it point, instead, to a shortage of demand for legal services in an arguably less litigious culture than those of the West?
South Korea, according to Harvard’s Program on the Legal Profession, actually has one one lawyer for every 5, 178 people (dividing South Korea’s population of 48.8 million by 9,400–the approximate number of licensed Korean attorneys, known as byeonhosa). In comparison, Japan has one lawyer for every 4,188 people, which is a high number for Japan since it has also undergone a recent graduate law school system reformation, similar to South Korea beginning in 2008. So South Korea has one of the lowest, if not the lowest, ratio of lawyers to its general population among industrialized economies. The same thinking was also thought of Japan, that Asians like to avoid conflict, including litigation. But this has not proved true in Japan, nor will it in South Korea. As one example, take a look at the ongoing Apple v. Samsung series of global lawsuits. One could argue that this is because a non-Korean party is involved. But this is an economic reality for contemporary South Korea, in which 48% of its domestic economy is based on non-Korean entities and consumers dealing with Korean products overseas. Even domestically, the sheer number of litigation cases has increased dramatically, especially in recent years.
3. You’ve also written about the Americanization of legal education in South Korea (as well as Japan), with the introduction of professional graduate law degrees. How do you reconcile what you’ve claimed about the lawyer shortage in Korea with recent reports that many of these new graduates of law schools can’t find well-paying jobs?
The employment numbers earlier this year, just after the new law schools’ first class of graduates were not great. But according to recent surveys six months after graduation, the job placement rate of new law school graduates have surpassed 80 percent. This, in my view, is fairly extraordinary given that the number of Korean lawyers has doubled just this year (due to the added new law school graduates), in addition to having to find employment within a global post-subprime crisis economic slowdown period, domestically and internationally. The number is also on average higher than the law school graduate employment rates in the U.S. This is a sign that demand does exist for Korean lawyers, both under the new graduate system as well as the traditional bar exam system (the traditional bar exam does not require an academic degree to sit for the exam, while under the new law school system, a person must first graduate from one of Korea’s 25 graduate law schools to sit for the new bar exam).
4. Do you think the new generation of Korean-educated lawyers are equipped to deal with the increasingly globalizing legal market here in Korea? Or will the market respond by bringing in more foreign-educated lawyers?
The two are complementary to one another, although some (but not all) local media outlets have portrayed it as something less benevolent. With the new Korean lawyers, employers should get two skill sets in one–that is, an undergraduate degree say in economics and/or engineering, along with a graduate law degree. So, for instance, with the ongoing Apple v. Samsung suit, a new Korean lawyer with such academic skill sets, could be able to navigate through the relevant technical patent issues as well as the legal issues, instead of having to pay for and manage two separate personnel for the same analytical capabilities. This will help, not hurt, the Korean economy.
5. A lot of foreign firms looking to do business with, or even merge with Asian firms are looking to take a piece of the China pie… What kind of positioning does Korea have for attracting foreign legal firms?
South Korea can leverage its unique “hybrid” legal system as a model for other systems. South Korea on paper is a civil law country patterned after Japan, which in turn, was patterned after Germany during Japan’s Meiji Restoration period from 1868. But the hybrid element comes in the form of South Korea’s post-Korean War, and particularly, post-1997/98 Korean financial crisis experience dealing with often cutting-edge commercial law issues, including US legal issues relating to bankruptcy, restructuring, and M&A.
6. Do you think growth of Korea’s domestic legal market will be symbiotic with the growing prominence of Korean companies abroad?
Yes, the two are symbiotic. But the greater issue is how Korean firms leverage their legal talent. Right now, lawyers are just lawyers–they are expected to wear just one hat–a legal hat. But as mentioned earlier, this may not be the best way to maximize value for the company’s and even country’s legal talent for the twenty-first century.