Orrick opens Korean practice... in Japan

The US firm has hired a top Korean lawyer to sit in Tokyo.

Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe is planning to get a head-start on South Korea's legal practice reforms by setting up its first Korean office in Japan. The US firm has hired Eugene Chang, a partner from Woo Yun Kang Jeong & Han in Seoul, to establish a Korea practice in Orrick's Tokyo joint-venture office.

Chang is a finance specialist with particular expertise in securitization, a core area for Orrick in most markets but one - they haven't had much luck in Korea. Chang will be expected to change that. Korea is Asia's biggest securitization market outside Japan and the firm plans to expand its share in both asset-backed and asset-finance markets. He will also advise on cross-border mergers and acquisitions involving Korean companies or assets.

Most law firms cover the Korean market from Hong Kong, but Orrick does not have an office in the city. However, last year's yen-denominated ticket receiveables deals for Asiana and Korean Airlines demonstrate there is plenty of appetite in Japan for Korean-originated assets. Perhaps more important than where he sits, Chang brings relationships with important Korean institutions.

"He is a talented and highly respected lawyer... who, no doubt, will serve our clients that are doing business in Korea well," says Howard Goldwasser, managing partner of the Tokyo office.

South Korea, the world's 11th-largest economy, has rules preventing foreign lawyers from setting up offices in Seoul, but that position is looking increasingly under threat as Korea's neighbours open up. Japan is now allowing foreign firms to advise on local law; in China firms can open offices and even North Korea has opened the door a little, allowing British lawyer Mike Hay to establish a presence in association with a handful of local lawyers.

In light of these relaxations, South Korea's prohibition on foreign firms seems overly strict. "We are at least allowed to book rooms in the Shilla Hotel," quips one US attorney. As soon as the door opens a little wider there will likely be a rush of international players competing for the first licences - with a respected Korean lawyer on board Orrick believes it will be in good position.