Originally published in the March issue of Value Chain.
Perhaps it is the embrace of technology at a young age, the ability to travel and study abroad that their parents or grandparents were unable to do, or both. Or perhaps, it is also a symptom of a society in transition that is questioning itself and the customs and traditions that have until now played an integral part in Korean society.
As a lawyer, now is a great time to be in Korea. Korea is adopting laws from other countries at a fast pace in order to reflect changes in international law. Many government agencies are taking a more international outlook. In the case of the KFTC, becoming a leader as it tackles cutting edge issues that many countries are afraid to address. The courts are becoming more international as well in outlook, and are in fact looking at the legal systems of other countries in order to modernize. In Korea, the practice of law is changing and even the study of law is changing. It is a civil law system that is starting to look at common law concepts and practices. This dynamic change (if you consider law to be dynamic) is turning things upside down. Unlike Japan, which has not adopted the principle of change as rapidly or as to the same degree as Korea, Korean society is willing to challenge the status quo.
This reminds me, of why I love Korea. Thirty years ago, I became the first foreign lawyer to be hired full time by the Samsung Group. Not only did this position expose me to international corporate law like no other position did (many of my law school peers were working for law firms in Florida, blissfully unaware of the Asian marketplace) it also exposed me to Asia in general and of course Korean culture and business practices. Working in house for one of Korea’s largest multinationals not only changed my career but my life. I was able to meet people from all over the world. As the expat community in Seoul is rather small, I had the opportunity to share a beer with many foreign businessmen such as a president of a US bank, a CFO of a company from Germany, a VP from Japan, a senior partner of a large and prestigious US law firm (that never would have hired me if I had stayed in the US) and an engineer from India. I also had the opportunity to witness Korea embrace democracy, force its dictator to retire and to hold democratic elections. And of course I witnessed firsthand and the expansion of Samsung companies including Samsung Electronics around the world. I still cannot believe how dramatically my life and career changed by moving to Seoul so many years ago.
Looking back, I realize that my success was due to the willingness to change, to explore, to in essencechallenge the status quo and think outside the box. When my peers were slaving away in Big Law in the US, I was working for one of the largest multinationals in Korea. I was given the opportunity not only to see a different culture, but to experience a society that was transforming itself into a global power. This only happened because I made the decision to try something different, to explore, and to look at things differently than most of my law school classmates. To look at things more creatively.
Young Korean lawyers today are also willing to think outside the box, to look at issues from a creative standpoint. It is amazing to see how many young Korean and Korean-American lawyers I talk to that are looking at things differently than older generations.
The practice of law not only consists of working for a big Korean law firm, but of going in-house, working in other countries, studying abroad, pushing the edge of the envelope so to speak.
I noted in an article I published a number of years ago that Korean law schools were being pushed to graduate a more competitive bunch of students. I argued that Korean law schools had to educate a large number of bilingual world class internationally focused lawyers in order to compete with Singapore and Hong Kong. I asserted that an emphasis must be placed on graduating bilingual law students who can think on their feet and not just pass bar exams. A premium must be placed on business and legal acumen in an international context. Lawyers need to have a basic understanding of business to advise clients in the fast paced commercial world of today especially in light of instant communications that every business faces in the current global environment.
It appears I was right. The Korean law schools have taken steps to educate internationally focused lawyers. Young Korean lawyers are becoming more bilingual than ever before and are becoming more and more business savvy. More foreign law professors are teaching at Korean law schools. The threat of competition from Singapore and Hong Kong has pushed Korean lawyers to become more creative in how they address legal problems and how they resolve complex legal issues. Foreign clients expect more from Korean lawyers than in the past and the new generation of Korean lawyers are willing to rise to the challenge.
Bryan Hopkins is a Special Counsel to Lee & Ko in Seoul, Korea. Formal law professor at Sejong University and former General Counsel at Samsung Electronics America. He has extensive experience in management of complex commercial litigation, compliance, eDiscovery and risk management.