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Lawyers on move

Global law firms in Korea hunt for talent amid growing outbound M&As

Mar 19, 2021 (Gmt+09:00)

Global law firms in Korea hunt for talent amid growing outbound M&As

Leading international law firms with offices in South Korea are gearing up for growing legal service demand from local companies in their push for merger and acquisition attempts abroad.

Following years of fierce competition with Korean peers, some global law companies have drastically downsized their Korean operations or withdrawn from the domestic market.

Now that the dust has settled, they are coming back to the arena with active hiring of top-tier lawyers.

According to the investment banking industry on Mar. 19, Yeo Jang-hyuk, a senior foreign attorney in the corporate and M&A group of Lee & Ko, is defecting the law firm to join the Seoul office of US-based Greenberg Traurig LLP.

Started his legal career in Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP in 2005, Yeo joined Lee & Ko in 2012 and has worked on numerous high-profile cross-border transactions in his field of practice.

Specialized in M&As, joint ventures, foreign investments and private equity transactions, he advised on LG Electronics Inc.’s acquisition of Austria-based premium lighting systems maker ZKW in 2018.

He was also a legal adviser for LG’s launch of a $ 1billion electric car component JV with Canada’s Magna International Inc. in December of 2020.

Global law firms in Korea hunt for talent amid growing outbound M&As

ATTORNEYS ON THE MOVE

In February, Daniel Sae-chin Kim of Paul Hastings LLP moved to O’Melveny & Myers LLP as the partner and co-head of its Seoul office.

Most recently, he was the Korea head of corporate at Paul Hastings where he spent more than 18 years.

During his stint at Paul Hastings, he’s known for being deeply involved in legal services for Samsung Electronics Co., including the tech giant’s $8 billion acquisition of Harman, a US electronics systems maker for automobiles, in 2016.

Kim’s defection to O’Melveny was timed with Greenberg Traurig’s US lawyer Kim Ik-soo’s move to Paul Hastings to take charge of legal counsel on the capital markets, including initial public offerings (IPOs).

In late 2020, Kelly Hyunsoo Jin of Cleary Gottlieb joined Ropes & Gray LLP’s Seoul office, where she primarily focuses on advising PEFs, private and public firms and financial investors on cross-border corporate transactions.

BUSINESS SLOWDOWN

Prior to joining Ropes & Gray, she advised on MBK Partners’ $6.1 billion takeover of Homeplus from Tesco; Blackstone Group’s acquisition of a stake in Geo-Young, a leading wholesale distributor of pharmaceutical drug products in Korea; and Bain Capital Credit’s investment in ST Unitas, a leading Korean edu-tech company.

The recent active movements of international lawyers follow years of lackluster business operations of global law firms in Korea.

Cleary Gottlieb, which once had the largest representation among foreign law firms in Korea with some 20 lawyers, saw their legal counselors cut by half amid a cut-throat competition with local competitors.

New York-based law firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP had to pull out of Korea in 2018.

Legal industry officials say that Clifford Chance LLP could also leave Korea as its Korea office head post has been left vacant for years since the departure of its former head Hyun S. Kim.

ACTIVITIES REVIVED

Global law firms’ activities in Korea revived recently with a string of overseas M&As among major local companies.

Global law firms in Korea hunt for talent amid growing outbound M&As
Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, based in New York City, advised SK Hynix Inc. on its $9 billion all-cash deal to buy Intel Corp.’s NAND memory chip business in October of 2020.

Cleary Gottlieb handled the merger of Yahoo Japan Corp. and Naver Corp.’s Japanese messaging app affiliate Line Corp.

O’Melveny was involved in Hyundai Motor Co.’s acquisition of US robotics firm Boston Dynamics Inc. from SoftBank Group, and Korean Air Lines Co.’s planned takeover of Asiana Airlines Inc.

Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP has advised on Mirae Asset Global Investment Co.’s legal dispute with Anbang Insurance Group over US luxury hotels.

“Global law firms, looking for deals, came to Korea in droves and then left amid competition. They are now coming back again, bolstering staff and attorneys to grab new business opportunities,” said an international lawyer with a global law company.

Write to Jun-ho Cha at chacha@hankyung.com

In-Soo Nam edited this article.

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