Efforts to open up South Korea to international law firms are still facing obstruction, an IBA session on free trade agreements and crossborder legal services heard.

The Republic of Korea undertook to open its legal services market under free trade agreements with the EU in 2011 and the US in 2012, Chunghwan Choi (pictured), senior partner at Seoul firm Lee & Ko, said. Since then, 26 firms have opened up in Korea. However moves under the country’s Foreign Legal Consultant Act to allow them to set up joint ventures with Korean firms are still being blocked by parliament.

Choi described the government’s position as ‘very conservative’. A draft bill barred foreign firms from acquiring majority stakes in Korean firms and restricted the areas of practice open to foreign lawyers. These included patent and public law. ‘There were strong objections even from Korean firms,’ Choi said. However he described the situation as ‘still evolving’.

The session also heard how liberalisation from 2000 had changed the legal landscape in Japan.

Akira Kawamura, partner at Tokyo firm Anderson Mori & Tomotsune, said: ‘The profession was very traditional, conservative, court-oriented, but as a result [of liberalisation] it was transformed into one of internationally competitive law firms.’ In 2000 the country’s largest firm had 55 lawyers; in 2015 it had 510.

He described the outcome as ‘reasonably successful’ but warned of ‘unfair asymmetries’ when international giants are given access to new markets.