Ashurst to launch in Korea after striking first ever joint venture deal

JV with HwaHyun hands Anglo Australian firm unique ability to practise local law

Ashurst is to become the first international law firm to practise local law in South Korea after securing a joint venture with domestic firm HwaHyun.

The move also signals the Anglo Australian firm's launch in Seoul, where a number of its rivals have operated representative offices for several years.

The JV was approved by the Korean Ministry of Justice today, a full six years after JVs were first permitted as part of a phased liberalisation of the South Korean legal market. The lack of law firms pursuing this route had to this point been put down to the rules being too restrictive. 

Ashurst, however, said the JV would significantly expand its existing outbound Korean practice by building a local presence. 

"This is the first JV between a Korean firm and an international firm in South Korea, which is an exciting development both for our Asia offering and the global firm,” said Paul Jenkins, global CEO of Ashurst. “Asia is a critically important part of Ashurst's strategy and throughout the last year we have continued to make investments in the region. The JV reflects our ambitions in the market." 

Under the plans two Ashurst partners will relocate to Seoul: Ronnie King, a senior Tokyo-based arbitration specialist, and M&A lawyer Huiyeon Kim, who is based in Kong Kong and co-heads the firm’s outbound Korea practice. 

They will head up the JV with two HwaHyun partners - co-managing partner Kyung-Shik Shin and Sung Ryul Park – with the support of respective teams of associates. 

The JV will formally launch in the next couple of weeks, initially operating out of HwaHyun's offices before moving to its own office by the middle of next year.

“HwaHyun's expertise and understanding of the Korean market is a perfect complement to our existing offering,” noted Jini Lee, Ashurst's head of region for Asia. “The joint venture will allow us to provide exceptional service to our clients and to further develop our capability and drive forward our success in the market."

HwaHyun specialises in corporate, intellectual property, technology and dispute resolution. The 17-partner firm is led by Shin and co-head Nak Song Sung. Shin spent almost 30 years in public service, including as the chief prosecutor of the Suwon District Prosecutors’ Office, while Sung served as a judge for more than 30 years.

Shin commented: "Ashurst has impressive credentials and a clear strategy for what it wants to achieve in Asia and globally. HwaHyun is a solid mid-sized law firm in Korea with strong local capabilities and continuing aspirations for international practices. This significant development is a key step in both firms delivering on their ambitions."

Ashurst’s existing outbound Korea practice, which Kim leads with fellow Hong Kong M&A partner John Kim, advises clients including Hyundai Motor Group, Samsung Group, SK Group, POSCO and Hanwha Group on complex cross border transactions. 

Ashurst's arrival in Seoul comes 18 months after UK Magic Circle law firm Clifford Chance closed its small representative office there following a strategic review in which it determined clients would be best served ‘through our network of lawyers across the firm who have extensive experience in Korea, as well as through our relationships with the leading Korean law firms’.

Simpson Thacher and McDermott Will & Emery also shut up shop, in 2018 and 2019 respectively, rejoining the ranks of firms that serve the market via South Korea desks based in other locations, a policy Ashurst had pursued up until now. 

Firms with long-standing representative offices include Allen & Overy, Herbert Smith Freehills, Latham & Watkins and Ropes & Gray, which was the first international firm to open in Seoul, in July 2012.

Dentons, meanwhile, claimed another first for the market when it unveiled a combination with Lee International in May 2020, although under its ‘polycentric model’ the office, which deploys the brand Dentons Lee, remains owned and controlled by Koreans.

News of Ashurst's JV follows the co-head of Ashurst’s Korea desk, Peter Kwon, leaving the firm early this year to head RPC’s newly-formed Korea desk from Hong Kong. 

It also comes off the back of record results for Ashurst for the 2020/21 financial year, when, buoyed like its peers by a record deal market, the firm grew revenue 12% to £798m and upped PEP by 13% to 1,175k. 

The firm said at the time that more than 85% of its work is now carried out in its five key industry sectors: banks and private capital; real estate; infrastructure; energy and resources; and the digital economy.  

The firm highlighted the UK, Australia and Continental Europe as regions recording strong performances but has been adding partners across Asia in support of its growth there. 

In August the firm’s Singapore ally ADTLaw hired a four-strong senior M&A team from local powerhouse Allen & Gledhill, in a move Ashurst described at the time as ‘key milestone’ in its strategy to become a leading international firm for M&A transactions in Asia. 

Also in August the firm added Tom Wilson to its international projects group in Tokyo from the Asian Development Bank’s public-private projects group, having hired dispute resolution partner Alexander Dmitrenko in the city earlier this year from Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. 

Other new arrivals in Asia since the end of last year include Yan Yuan, who specialises in complex cross-border M&A transactions and joined the firm in Shanghai from Clifford Chance. Jessica Li, whose practice focuses on debt capital markets in Greater China, also moved over from Allen & Overy in Hong Kong.

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