If you have a legal problem, finding the right contact point for help can be mystifying.
Most expats have at least heard of the Korean Legal Aid Corporation and the free counseling centers at the various Global Villages and Global Centers. Another option is Lawyers for a Democratic Society, a group of lawyers who dedicate themselves to handling matters “for the public good” ― they have helped represent foreign nationals regarding HIV testing, and they offer cost-controlled representation for private criminal and civil matters.
But if none of those options work out, how would you begin shopping? It’s hard enough to choose a lawyer in your home country, but Korea adds an extra variable to the equation: Various nonlawyers can offer some legal services, usually at a much lower cost.
The five types of legal professionals are attorney (byeonhosa), labor law counselor (nomusa), intellectual property and patent counselor (byeollisa), general counselor (beommusa), and administrative counselor (haengjeongsa).
The latter four often use the term “attorney,” as do the official translations of the relevant laws. But using the term “counselor,” as we do here, avoids awkward conversations like this:
“Are you an attorney?”
“No, I’m a labor law attorney.”
“Are you a patent law attorney?”
“Yes, but moreover, I am also an attorney.”
So what is the difference? Well, only attorneys have passed the bar, and only attorneys can appear in court. Does this mean the counselors are useless? Absolutely not. They are quite useful ― and if you choose the right one, a counselor can be very knowledgeable ― but their expertise and utility are limited to certain areas.
For example, let’s say you have a contractual dispute with your employer. You can hire an attorney or a labor law counselor, the latter usually being cheaper. The labor law counselor can represent you before the labor board, and the labor board can issue a legally binding award for back wages. The labor board hearing will also be quicker and less expensive than a court case.
However, the system is not perfect. The labor board can only deal with violations of the Labor Standards Act, such as back wages and improper termination. If you have missed out on other compensation, such as housing and airfare, the labor board hearing won’t address it. Also, though the award is legally binding and the board can fine a nonpaying employer, the employer can’t be forced to pay.
To address those issues, you would need an attorney and a court hearing. An attorney is able to ask the court to force the employer to pay, and to address any issue at all. But whether that is cost-effective depends on how large your claim is and what the attorney’s fee is. One thing is for sure: The least efficient way of dealing with an issue is hiring two people ― a labor law counselor for the labor board and then an attorney to sue.
Similarly, general counselors may be willing to help you with paperwork for various filings to protect your key money and lease, or to make or break a marriage. Generally these filings are simple, and if the paralegal can help you for less than the attorney, that’s great. But when considering the savings, you also need to consider the potential losses.
The No. 1 thing we would suggest considering when shopping is whether you can communicate with your representation. Good legal work involves translation ― from legalese to everyday language. If a second language barrier is added, it’s highly unlikely you’ll understand what is going on or whether your representation is doing a good job. Understand what they are doing, understand what you are doing, and you’ll be much happier in the end.
By Darren Bean and Yuna Lee
Yuna Lee is a Korean attorney at Seowoo & Minyul Law Firm in Seoul. You can read her blog at askakoreanlawyer.blogspot.com. If there is a legal issue you would like to be addressed, email email@example.com. ― Ed.
This column is not intended as legal advice. No action should be taken or avoided based on this column, no attorney-client relationship is formed by reading this column or contacting the authors, and the authors expressly disclaim any liability for the content of this column. Those with legal problems in Korea should seek advice from an attorney.