By Sean Hayes (Korea Times 2/27/09)
Too many Korean and foreign attorneys working in Korea are performing legal work that is often to a level so low in quality that it must be considered the work of incompetent attorneys. Many of the biggest and most respected Korean law firms even have attorney competency issues.
Throughout much of the world, clients believe the reputation of the firm is the deciding factor in the quality of representation, since the top graduates choose to work for firms with the best reputation.
In Korea, many of the best attorneys have little interest in working for the largest and most respected law firms and many of the top firms hire attorneys that are far from the top of their trade.
Therefore, when hiring attorneys, choose attorneys, not firms. Many of the most “respected” firms amongst non-Korean clients, don’t have the best attorneys and even hire and retain incompetent attorneys, partners, management and staff, and many of the best don’t work for large firms.
I have seen my share of competency and professionalism issues while working within the legal community in Korea. In the past seven years, I have had the pleasure to work with some of the world’s best attorneys, and also many attorneys that should not been practicing law.
For example, one Korean managing partner at one of the largest law firms advised that a client who was facing significant time in jail to pray to God for assistance.
A foreign attorney working for one of the most respected law firms was caught plagiarizing nearly an entire opinion letter from a fellow attorney’s Web site.
One of the major Korean law firm’s corporate team staff member was appointed as a team leader, while he only had experience with litigation issues.
And one noted partner at a respected medium-size firm was caught frequently sleeping during $550-per-hour billed conference calls.
These and numerous other examples should lead clients to be very careful when retaining attorneys.
In Korea, attorney competency comes from high-level experience - not education. Nearly universally, the best attorneys in Korea are attorneys with this quality, and those with the most have usually worked for the government.
The majority of the top graduates from the Judicial Research and Training Institute are selected and choose to become judges, prosecutors or public servants. These experiences in government allow them to garner top-level work experience at a young age, obtain significant personal contacts in government and earn high respect among their peers.
Normally, these attorneys, when they leave government, will not choose to work for Korea’s largest law firms, and those who do are often not given prominent roles at the firm, or roles that include assisting non- Korean clients.
The same experience issues may be found among many foreign attorneys. Many working in Korea have only a rudimentary understanding of many of the unique aspects of the Korean legal system and the manner in which Koreans do business because of the experience of only working within law firms.
Few foreign attorneys have garnered the experience necessary to do anything more than proofread opinion letters, draft English contracts and advise on the most basic aspects of Korean legal issues.
Any legal team that you retain, therefore, should include an attorney who has significant experience working for government and a foreign attorney with a profound understanding of the uniqueness of the Korean legal system garnered from more than just law firm experience.