7/23/2011

Working with Korean Lawyers and Law Firms

The China Law Blog has a great post on working with Korean and Chinese lawyers and law firms. The post notes, in part, concerning Korean law firms that:
1. Non-responsiveness is the norm. American lawyers generally see their role as helping clients achieve their goals and keeping their clients informed. Korean lawyers operate far more independently. They consider themselves the legal experts and can get offended when questioned. According to their perspective, a client should trust them, not ask questions, and not expect updates.

This obviously does not work well for American clients. Two excellent Korean law firms have admitted to me they “always get fired” when they work directly with American companies or with American lawyers inexperienced with Korea. If a Korean lawyer has a hearing scheduled in a case, I email him the day before to urge him to provide me with a full report by the next day, at the latest. I usually send another email reminder after the hearing concludes and if I do not have a timely report, I call.

2. Your matter is not important. Most Korean lawyers have plenty of work and any one matter from an overseas client is not likely to be of paramount importance to them. This may mean your Korean lawyer will not fight hard on a particular motion where the chances of winning are low; he or she would rather stay in the good graces of a judge or fellow lawyer than challenge the status quo. I try to get around this by hiring “outsider” lawyers if my case is going to be particularly difficult or contentious, or by attending the hearing if it is particularly important. I also always make clear, upfront, that a good result for this client will lead to more work from my firm's other clients.

3. The Korean lawyer’s role is different. Korean lawyers tend to view themselves as “above it all.” I learned this when, trying to settle a case, we offered $900,000 and the Korean company on the other side offered to pay us $700,000. I asked the Korean lawyer to go back at $850,000 and I could feel his reluctance. I say “feel” because while he was telling me he would go back at $850,000, he was also asking me questions to let me know he did not think he should go back at $850,000. Weeks then passed with no updates and vague responses to my emails. Then, out of the blue, a US-educated paralegal from the firm called me to say the $850,000 offer had never been passed on because the Korean lawyer considered it beneath him to negotiate “as though at a flea market.” I do not know if that paralegal was put up to the call by the attorney or if he called me on his own, but I have since learned to control negotiations myself. It is not just in negotiations that the Korean lawyer sees himself as above the fray. If you do not put pressure on your Korean lawyer, you can pretty much assume that numerous time extensions will delay your case for years.

4. Confidentiality? What’s that? Korean lawyers simply do not respect the attorney-client privilege the same as American lawyers do. I try to handle confidentiality problems by using the same few lawyers in Korea for all of my firm’s clients. Because I provide so much work to these attorneys, I have a personal relationship with them, which makes it less likely that they will hurt me by hurting my client. It also decreases the incentive for the Korean lawyer to hurt my client because doing so will cut off the regular stream of work my firm provides.
I would like to note that I am the team leader of my team of Korean, U.S. and Australian lawyers and we never treat clients in the manner explained by the China Law Blog above.  I believe I am the only non-Korean in Korea that is actually managing a team in Korea.  We run our practice in a manner that is similar to good western law firms.  We are particularly proud of our Korean lawyers.  Many of our lawyers departed the larger Korean firms in search of a firm that would reward their work and not simply their billable hours. 

The China Law Blog may be found at: http://www.chinalawblog.com/   It is best and most entertaining blogs in Asia.
For additional posts on this issue see:
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SeanHayes@ipglegal.com
www.thekoreanlawblog.com