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Brexit Hits UK Law Firms in South Korea

The five U.K. firms present in Seoul—Clifford Chance, Herbert Smith Freehills, Linklaters, Stephenson Harwood and Allen & Overy—will have to either re-register their office licenses or close their offices, at least temporarily.

A group of U.K.-based law firms in South Korea are anxious about the future of their offices in Seoul, as a no-deal Brexit could force them to close their offices temporarily.

Latham & Watkins

Clifford Chance loses Korea head

Kim Hyun-suk, the head of Clifford Chance’s Korea office, will soon leave the firm, marking the latest in a series of exits from the UK firm’s Seoul operation. The Korea practice will now be led by Hong Kong-based partner Richard Lee and Seoul-based counsel Bong-Sang Cho, Clifford Chance confirmed to ALB. Kim has been based in Seoul since Clifford Chance established an office there in 2012, becoming one of the first international firms to do so.  He began his relationship with the firm in 2009 while based in Hong Kong, where he progressed to partner.

Since last year, Clifford Chance has lost four lawyers who focus on the Korea market, including Kwangwoo Kim, a former associate who is now an executive director at Goldman Sachs, and Angela Ryu who was based in Hong Kong, but is now with Allen & Overy in the UK. The firm, which assists international corporations, banks and financial institutions, and regulatory bodies in Korea, now has three counsels based in Seoul, according to its website. There has been a fair amount of movement with Seoul’s legal market recently.

Last year, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett closed its Seoul office, while US firms Shearman & Sterling and Arnold & Porter have also reportedly gained licenses to establish Korea offices this year. Korea opened up its legal market in 2012, following free trade agreements with the US and the European Union – agreements which are now under scrutiny as the possibility of no-deal Brexit approaches.  There are currently five UK-headquartered firms operating in Korea.