28 May 2021

Clifford Chance pulls out of Seoul after strategic review

Decision comes nine years after CC pioneered drive by international firms to open in South Korea

Gangnam square,South Korea

By CJ Nattanai: South Korea

Clifford Chance is closing its Seoul office nine years after becoming one of the first international law firms to set up shop in South Korea.

The UK Magic Circle firm said the decision had followed a detailed review of the office – currently home to one counsel and four other staff – which led to a decision to ‘unwind’ its operations. 

In a statement, the firm said 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’.

Clifford Chance was one of a host of international firms that set up shop in Seoul after free trade agreements were agreed between the EU and the US in 2011 and 2012 respectively, holding out the prospect of a steady liberalisation of South Korea’s legal market.

Licensed firms, however, remain confined to practising international law, with the current joint venture option deemed to be too restrictive. According to Korea’s Law Times, Clifford Chance is one of four British firms with licences to operate in Seoul, the others being Allen & Overy, Linklaters and Stephenson Harwood. 

Their status was threatened by Brexit, but a ‘continuity free trade agreement’ signed in June 2019 allowed UK firms that had won permission to operate under an EU licence to say on. 

Herbert Smith Freehills, which lays claim to having one of the largest ‘on the ground’ presences, operates its Korea office via its Australia partnership. In all, 29 international firms have Seoul arms, the vast majority hailing from the US. They include White & Case, Paul Hastings, Skadden and Ropes & Gray, which was the first international firm to land in Seoul, in July 2012.

Two US firms have already called time on their South Korea ventures. Simpson Thacher and McDermott Will & Emery shut up short in 2018 and 2019 respectively, rejoining the ranks of firms that serve the market via South Korea desks based in other locations.

In its statement, Clifford Chance was keen to underline its commitment to the market. ‘South Korea is home to some of the world's most dynamic and important international companies,’ it said. ‘We look forward to continue to serve our Korean clients on the full range of practices and sectors throughout our global network as we have done for more than 40 years.’

It added: ‘For our colleagues who have left or are leaving us as a result of this decision, we thank them for their hard work and contribution they have made to our Korean practice over their time with the firm.’

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