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Major D.C. law firm looks to expand in South Korea after trade agreement

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Covington & Burling, the District’s largest law firm, is joining the throng of firms flocking to South Korea in hopes of capi­tal­izing on the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, which went into effect last week.

Several top-100 firms are opening offices in Seoul, but Covington — which has more than 500 lawyers and nearly 1,000 employees in Washington — is the first major, locally based law firm to announce intentions to do so.

Since December, McDermott Will & Emery, Paul Hastings, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, Ropes & Gray, Squire Sanders and Clifford Chance have discussed plans to head to South Korea, submitting applications to South Korea’s Justice Ministry to establish foreign legal consultant offices.

The trend will probably continue as firms pursue the untapped market for legal services recently opened by the trade agreement, which Congress approved in October. The agreement allows U.S. law firms to establish a presence for the first time in South Korea.

Covington has an office in Beijing and plans to open another one in Shanghai this summer. Its presence in Seoul is “part of a broader effort to build a platform for the firm in Asia,” said Timothy Hester, chairman of the firm’s management committee.

Heading up the Seoul office, which firm leaders expect to open in June, will be William H.Y. Park, a corporate lawyer based in South Korea. Park, a Korean native, is a graduate of Stanford Law and has worked at Latham & Watkins and the Los Angeles firm Kwak, Kim & Park. He has spent the past 12 years in South Korea representing companies in general corporate matters, including financing transactions and contracts. Working with Park will be Washington-based senior counsel Daniel Spiegel, a former ambassador to the United Nations and international policy specialist.

The firm’s initial focus in Seoul will be advising South Korean companies on U.S. and European laws governing intellectual property, antitrust matters, international trade and export controls. One of Covington’s largest South Korean clients is Seoul-headquartered Samsung.

“We expect the free-trade agreement will promote an increased flow of business between Korea and the U.S. and additional Korean investment in the U.S.,” Hester said. “Where we see the most opportunity is being a legal adviser to Korean companies as they look outbound from Korea to their international markets.”

The terms of the trade agreement allow for U.S. law firms to carve out a greater imprint in the country in the next several years.

Initially, U.S. firms can have a physical presence in South Korea and give legal advice on U.S. and international law. By 2014, U.S. firms can work with South Korean firms on matters involving Korean and foreign laws, such as mergers between South Korean and U.S. companies that require regulatory approval from both governments.

And by 2017, U.S. firms can form partnerships with South Korean firms to share resources, said Jay Eizenstat, a partner at McDermott, which announced plans in February to open a Seoul office. Eizenstat is a former trade negotiator at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative who helped lead U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement negotiations.

“We expect our work there, which has largely been outbound, will continue and really stand to increase substantially in the coming years in no small measure,” he said.

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