After many years of uncertainty, the Korean government's official position regarding the opening of the Korean legal market may be unveiled in the not-too-distant future. In accordance with a procedural schedule adopted by the World Trade Organization (WTO), 14 nations have, as of the end of June, submitted their requests regarding the opening of the legal market in Korea. The Korean government is required to submit its response by March 30 2003 and negotiations between the WTO member nations and Korea are to be concluded by the end of 2004.
Relevant government ministries are working to finalize the government's position. Meanwhile, the Korean Bar Association has set up a committee to express the concerns of its membership. There is a general agreement in Korea that the market should be opened. The real question is the timing and, more importantly, the scope of the market liberalization.
The Korean legal services community is small – about 5,000 active lawyers (byun-ho-sa), and a small number of registered legal agents (bup-mu-sa) and patent attorneys (byulli-sa). There is no nationality requirement for admittance to the Korean Bar, but the Bar examination pass rate is extremely low (about 3%). This low rate is maintained to control the size and quality of the legal community. Only the members of the Korean Bar are allowed to practice law. A non-member of the Korean Bar is prohibited from employing members of the Korean Bar for the purpose of opening or operating a law office and in sharing profits from providing services that are restricted.
Some of the issues which will be addressed under the WTO framework are:
- Unlimited liability for law firms – the only legally-recognized form of a law firm in Korea is an unlimited liability partnership and foreign firms (with few assets in Korea) would have to address the professional liability issue.
- Professional requirements – should there be a minimum practice requirement related to a foreign attorney's home jurisdiction?
- Employment of Korean lawyers – should foreign firms be allowed to employ members of the Korean Bar (or form a partnership or joint venture)?
- Scope of practice – to what extent should foreign lawyers be allowed to practice law in Korea?
These and other issues will be discussed in earnest in the coming months and the final push towards some form of legal market liberalization is seriously underway.