Work hard, Play hard

Helen Tung and Laura Newton report on their time in a Korean law firm on the Bar Council placement programme.

From 28 April to 9 May 2014, six English barristers represented the Bar of England and Wales on an exchange programme organised jointly by the Bar Council and the Korean Bar Association (KBA).

This was something of a historic event as it was the first Bar Council programme to place English barristers in law firms overseas. It was a particularly exciting time for us to visit South Korea. In a move towards liberalisation, Korea entered into Free Trade Agreements with the United States in 2011 and with the EU in 2010. Under the EU FTA there is a three-phase process for deregulation of the legal services market, which was set in motion in 2011. Phase 2, which comes into effect from July 2014, will offer foreign law firms the chance to link up with local firms and profit-share. Phase 3, in 2016, will enable European law firms to hire Korean lawyers and to enter joint ventures with Korean firms.

As a result of these changes, Korean law firms will no longer be the only option for local legal advice and there will be competition for work from international firms. On the other hand, there are opportunities for referrals to and from international firms, and more potential for Korean and international lawyers to work alongside each other for the benefit of a mutual Korean client. One of the aims of the exchange programme is to promote and develop awareness of the English Bar, for which the liberalization of the Korean legal market is undoubtedly a positive development. Each of us was seconded to a different Korean law firm where we worked with Korean lawyers on international matters, observed court hearings, and gave presentations on hot topics in English law. The secondments were an invaluable part of the programme, offering a chance to experience the Korean legal market from “behind the scenes” as well as under the spotlight at institutions such as the Supreme Court. We marvelled at the use of cuttingedge technology at a hearing in the Administrative Court, where advocates used PowerPoint presentations rather than skeleton arguments to persuade the judges of their respective cases; and the judges saved all their questions until the end so as not to disturb the flow of the presentation.

We received an extremely warm reception everywhere we went: from the Korean Bar Association roundtable sessions to the British Ambassador’s Residence, we were welcomed with indefatigable hospitality. We enjoyed the opportunity to exchange views with other arbitration practitioners at the Young Arbitration Practitioners’ Forum, kindly hosted by the new Seoul International Dispute Resolution Centre, and where there was a lively debate as to the relative merits of “English-style pleadings” as opposed to “American-style” memorials. A roundtable with litigators hosted by the KBA also stimulated debate as to the role of the barrister in international proceedings and globalisation of the legal market.

One highlight was our visit to the Supreme Court where we met judges in charge of international training and exchanges. There were two poignant reminders of the hope for reunification: two seats which remain vacant until North Korean justices are able to take their places there, and a blank stone outside the main hearing room which will only be engraved when reunification happens. The tour also consisted of visiting smaller courtrooms within the Supreme Court, and hearing about the various courts’ caseload. We visited the Ministry of Justice and met lawyers handling international legal matters and international exchanges. The Ministry of Justice is very proactive in terms of training and providing not only their lawyers but law students with opportunities to learn from other jurisdictions. This year, they launched a placement programme with the Hong Kong Law Society, whereby law students are placed with Hong Kong firms for a few weeks.

We also visited the Seoul National University (SNU) and were impressed by the modern facilities, technology and support from local firms. Having met the Dean, we were given a taste of the technology available at the law school in its modern lecture theatres. We were envious of the SNU students’ access to spacious lounges with wonderful facilities, but equally came to appreciate the challenges and competition facing those aspiring to enter such a prestigious university. There were striking similarities to the English Bar in terms of the drive and determination required to succeed as a lawyer in Korea’s relatively small legal profession. The impact of recent changes in the Korean legal education system could also be felt. Students currently have a choice between two routes to qualification: the traditional route of a single bar exam or the new “law school” route which is more similar to the American system. Law schools around the country are adjusting to the changes and thinking of ways to provide opportunities for their graduates in an increasingly competitive market.

As in the UK, training contracts are highly sought-after and summer internships remain the traditional way for Korean firms to observe potential trainees as well as for students to get a taste of what life is like in a Korean firm. In contrast to the UK, one can train to become a judge immediately after leaving law school and some top law students choose this path. We were interested to hear that in view of the Korean culture of deference to elders, it is common for cases heard by a three-judge panel to be “assigned” to a junior judge who must express his or her views before the more senior Presiding Judge opines.

The success of Korea’s economy and development relies on much hard work. Korean lawyers work very long hours and with full commitment to their respective firms. This can be seen in their kinship during lunch hours, after-work dinners and social events that extend into the night. The attitude of “work hard, play hard” was instilled in many of those that we met, who were eager to share their culture with us. They were not only working long hours, but also willing to dedicate their time to organizing events and sharing their views with us, be it at the SIDRC seminar or over dinners. Fortuitously, our trip coincided with a series of bank holidays including the celebration of the Buddha’s birthday on 6 May. Therefore we were able to make an overnight trip to the beautiful city of Busan, in the south of the Korean peninsula. Our hosts Mr Sun and Mr Park showed us the highlights of this charming seaside city, including a trip to Tongdosa temple where the birthday celebrations were in full force, and the slightly less serene but fascinating Jagalchi Fish Market. A trip to the beach also offered an opportunity for one of our group to go for a swim in the rather bracing sea – a chance to demonstrate the fearlessness of the English Bar.

Although it is hard to pick a highlight, perhaps the most lasting advantage of our time in Korea will be the links we forged with so many interesting Korean lawyers. We look forward to welcoming some of them to London again next year for the next leg of the exchange programme – at last a chance to reciprocate their effusive hospitality.

We would like to thank President Chul-Whan We, Vice-President Young-Ik Choi, Mrs Hee-Jin Chung and the Korean Bar Association and alumni from the first Korean Exchange Cohort for putting together an informative, useful and enlightening experience, allowing us to learn about and embrace the Korean legal system and culture. Equally, we would like to thank Christian Wisskirchen, Sarah Richardson and the International Committee of the Bar Council for co-organising this and for their ongoing support before, during and after the programme.

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Helen Tung

Helen specialises in maritime security and international law. She is an advocate for diversity, Women on Boards and mindfulness in the legal profession.

Laura Newton

Laura is a commercial barrister from 11 Stone Buildings. Her practice encompasses high-value international commercial disputes and arbitrations, both as part of a team and as sole advocate.