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‘When the time is right’: Ashurst puts Seoul launch on hold

Having first signalled intentions to set up a base in South Korea back in 2011, Ashurst has put plans to launch in Seoul on ice.

While plans were already stagnated, they were understood to come to a halt last year after a team of Ashurst partners led by its then Tokyo managing partner John McClenahan exited to spearhead US firm King & Spalding’s launch in Tokyo.

At present, Ashurst’s Tokyo 12-head office comprises five partners, with two Korea focused partners – commercial specialist John Kim and banking partner Peter Kwon – based in Hong Kong. The firm hired Kim in 2013 from Korean firm Yulchon as it built its Korean-focused practice.

Ashurst first showed its interest in Seoul alongside plans to launch a second office in China shortly after it merged with Australian firm Blake Dawson in 2011, and went ahead with its Beijing office plans the following year.

A spokesperson at Ashurst said: ‘The firm has an extensive and growing Korea practice. We have very strong relationships with a broad range of Korea clients and local law firm partners.

‘It is important to distinguish that from an assessment about opening a local office, which is something we keep under review and will only do when the time is right.’

The firm is understood to have applied last year for its application to receive regulatory approval to launch in Seoul.

Last year saw a host of Global 100 firms continue to pile into South Korea, with Allen & Overy (A&O) and White & Case launching in Seoul in September, while disputes boutique Kobre & Kim has also opened a base in the Korean capital.

Other firms that also showed interest in the region last year included Latham & Watkins, Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy and EY Law.

From July 2016, for EU-based firms and in 2017 for US firms, liberalisation of the legal market will enter its final stage, allowing firms to invest in local outfits and hire Korean lawyers.