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H.K. proves might of an open legal market

By Korea Herald

Published : Dec. 11, 2011 - 20:09

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Secretary says territory’s experience shows more foreign law firms may benefit Korea


Hong Kong’s justice secretary has praised the opening-up of Korea’s legal market on a trip to Seoul, saying a more international outlook could be a “positive development.”

During his relationship-building visit Thursday, Wong Yan Lung commented on foreign law firms’ new chance to work in Korea following the U.S. Fair Trade Agreement, likely to take effect Jan. 1, and the EU FTA which came into force this July.

“There will be a lot of details to be worked out, but from the experience of Hong Kong more cooperation between legal jurisdictions would be a very positive development,” said Wong, who has overall responsibility for the conduct of prosecutions in Hong Kong and has helped to promote legal services in the Chinese Special Administrative Region.

Wong told Korean lawyers and businesspeople about the strength that Hong Kong’s internationally-focused legal sector has lent the region whose a $2,500 billion stock market capitalization ranks third in Asia.

“People and talents are key. Hong Kong has attracted a large pool of strong legal professionals consisting of both local talents and experts from other jurisdictions to offer world class legal services to clients in Hong Kong,” he said at an event organized by the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office here.
Hong Kong Justice Secretary Wong Yan Lung (Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office) Hong Kong Justice Secretary Wong Yan Lung (Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office)

There are more than 1,300 registered foreign lawyers in Hong Kong as well as 7,100 solicitors and 1,100 barristers.

“Together they provide a quality, multi-faceted, and internationally connected force of legal practitioners, capable of handling the most sophisticated mega deals in the globalized economy,” Wong added, calling his jurisdiction the prime global financial center in the Asian time zone.

Korea’s recent FTAs with the U.S. and the EU allow foreign firms to set up shop here to advise Korean businesses on their home countries’ laws. The accords also permit them to join with Korean firms and to hire Korea-qualified lawyers independently after some years in the market.

Advisor to Samsung Life Insurance Co., New York-based Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton LLP, is reportedly planning to open a Seoul office in 2012, with other firms looking into following. Bloomberg also recently reported that the world’s largest legal firm DLA Piper is studying opening an office.

Wong said he could understand some concerns from the Korean legal sector over a potential influx of foreign firms here, adding that there would be a lot of initial issues to iron out.

But he told The Korea Herald: “I think this is actually good for Korea.

“Korea is very outward-looking economically and very dynamic, so this is the right step to make. Of course, there will be a lot of transformation to be done, and it will take some time.”

While South Korean clients have often used international firms’ Hong Kong offices in the past, some firms could now opt to set up in Seoul, though they will face higher tax rates and different regulations.

Wong said Korea’s opening legal market could help the two business centers work together: “I think that it promotes a more flexible platform for cooperation between us as partners.

“The whole legal services sector has become very globalized and cooperation between legal professionals must be good for the world business community.”

Wong also said he wanted to work more closely with Korean businesses resorting to arbitration to resolve disputes.

“The Korean legal community is also getting more active on the arbitration scene.

“This is certainly an area where closer cooperation between Hong Kong and Korea can be mutually beneficial and explored further,” he added.

By Kirsty Taylor (kirsyt@heraldcorp.com)