1. Prior to the passage of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement that would liberalize South Korea’s legal services market to allow for the onshore entry of U.S. law firms for the first time in its history, domestic Korean law firms rapidly began a race-to-the-biggest strategy, trying to gauge the potential costs and benefits of merging with other law firms. The collapse by many of South Korea’s law firm dominance was a tangible fear by many Korean legal professionals based on evidence of legal markets having been liberalized in such countries as Germany and France, which was subsequently followed by domi- nation in the league tables by foreign law firms in each of their home markets. South Koreans, always fearing the potential for perceived global embarrassment—in part stemming from the country’s 1910–45 occupation by Japan as well as the 1997–98 financial crisis—did not want to see its own domestic league tables dominated by non-Korean firms.
2. In response, the South Korean government put forth a set of three “pre-emptive” globalization policies to reconstitute and increase the overall competitiveness of its lawyers and legal services sector through various agencies to help the local legal services sector related to legal education and licens- ing of foreign legal professionals. The three pre-emptive globalization policies included (1) a mandatory course in Anglo-American law taught in English (required for all incoming new Korean lawyers under the Traditional Bar Exam); (2) the introduction of “American-style” professional graduate law schools (beginning in 2009 by converting twenty-five government-selected law pro- grams to three-year “American-style” professional graduate law school system as well as instituting a New Bar Exam); and (3) the passage of a FLCA (allow- ing for foreign legal consultants to practice in South Korea).
3. Such pre-emptive globalization policies, set forth by various entities in the legal services and education sectors, reflected the South Korean desire to sty mie the possible negative effects of having foreign law firms enter its borders in a “barbarians at the gates” perceived scenario following the implementation of various free trade agreements, namely with the U.S. (but also with the EU), which effectively opened South Korea’s historically closed legal gates to foreign participants for the first time in its modern history.
4. The South Korean legal market now allows for the entry of foreign law firms for the first time in its modern history due to the signing of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement. In an effort to globalize its domestic legal services sector pre-emptively in the face of an inevitable “barbarians at the gate” scenario, Asia’s fourth-largest economy unveiled three pre-emptive policies as a means by which South Korea’s legal sector could become more globally competi- tive in the face of such incoming foreign legal competition.
5. Thus, the question often asked within South Korea’s legal circles was, “Will South Korea’s legal market follow the footsteps of Germany and France, or will it meet a different fate in which South Korean law firms will be able to sufficiently compete with American and European law firms?” Cognizant of this, and bearing the lessons learned from Germany and France, Korean policymakers strategically structured the liberalization of South Korea’s legal market in a way that would maxim- ize the benefits and mitigate the risks to local law firms.
To view the full academic article by Jasper Kim, “Barbarians at the Legal Gates: Examining South Korea’s Pre-emptive Globalization Policies Prior to Legal Market Liberalization” (Peking University Transnational Law Review, vol. 1, issue 2, 2013), click HERE.
For an article featuring Jasper Kim’s views on South Korea’s legal market liberalization in the UK’s Law Society Gazette, “UK law firms are making headway in the tough South Korean market,” CLICK HERE.
For an academic article by Jasper Kim focusing on South Korea’s implementation of “American-style law schools” in South Korea, entitled Socrates v. Confucius:
An Analysis of South Korea’s Implementation of the American Law School Model” (Asia-Pacific Law & Policy Journal), CLICK HERE.
For a WSJ op-ed by Jasper Kim, “Cracking Open Hermit Kingdom LLP,” CLICK HERE.
For a book on legal careers by Jasper Kim featuring 24 “24-hour career profiles” of law school graduates working in traditional and non-traditional global careers, titled “24 Hours with 24 Lawyers: Profiles of Traditional and Non-Traditional Careers” (West Publishing/Thomson Reuters), CLICK HERE.