A new multi-billion pound legal market has opened for firms following the Republic of Korea’s decision to liberalise the rules around who can practise law in the country.

Korean Bar Association vice-president Lee Byung-Joo (pictured) told the Gazette this week that Korea’s situation between Tokyo and Beijing ‘gives us the scope to develop internationally and become the preferred centre of legal activity in this part of Asia’.

Major opportunities include the proposed Seoul International Dispute Resolution Centre (IDRC), which has signed a memorandum of understanding with the London Court of Arbitration and plans to rival Singapore as Asia-Pacific’s principal international arbitration centre. Lee said the centre has great potential, ‘not least because the world’s biggest shipbuilding companies and major electronics and car manufacturers are based in Korea’.

Lee said that the profession in his country was divided between those who feared competition and those who believed that closer integration with European and US lawyers could help Korean law grow internationally. While South Korea’s legal profession has been slow to develop – as recently as 2000, there were only 4,228 lawyers in the country, which has a population of 49 million – reforms in legal training had seen that number grow to 12,596 by 2011.

‘Our domestic legal market is worth £1.58bn a year, while Korean companies pay around £800m to foreign law firms and foreign companies pay £310m to Korean law firms.’

Liberalisation of the legal market was prompted in part by conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund following the country’s near bankruptcy in 1997 in the Asian financial crisis.

Liberalisation is to be in three stages, the first of which began with the ratification of the EU-Korea Free Trade Agreement in 2011 and allows EU law firms to establish a branch office and offer advice on foreign and international law. Magic circle firm Clifford Chance is the only British firm to have received permission to open in Korea, although international firm DLA Piper has begun the application process.

Global legal practice Squire Sanders this week said it opened an office in Seoul, after its application to practice in the Republic of Korea was approved by the Korean Ministry of Justice.

The second stage, to begin by 2013, will allow foreign law firms to fee share with Korean law firms. The third stage, to begin no later than 2016, will permit Korean and foreign lawyers to enter into partnership and allow foreign firms to employ Korean lawyers.