'An awl in a pocket' of Korean Legal Market, Greenberg Traurig
'An awl in a pocket' of Korean Legal Market, Greenberg Traurig
  • 기사출고 2019.07.06 21:33
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Prominent in US Litigation, Capital Market, M&A Deal

There is an American law firm which is renowned in the U.S. and the global market but perhaps less known to our readers in Korea. This firm has been operating its Seoul office in Korea since 2013 and is well-known for handling high-profile cases, including litigation, cross-border M&A, and capital markets matters. This is Greenberg Traurig, LLP, which ranked 14th among U.S. law firms based on revenue in 2018, recording a revenue of US$1.55 billion (1.84 trillion won).

Annual Revenue Ranked 14th in the U.S.

Chang Joo Kim, who has been leading the Seoul office as managing shareholder since its opening in 2013, said, "It is not publicity but the quality of the work that matters" reflecting GT's 'low-key' approach. "We are not a law firm that brags about what we do" he added. But as the old Korean saying goes, GT has been 'an awl in a pocket' meaning that it stands out from the crowd even if it has tried to keep itself low-profile. GT has been gaining prominence in the Korean market, which has naturally led to an increasing interest in the firm. In May 2018, GT closed a transaction where it acted as counsel to the buyers' consortium of SJL Partners, KCC and Wonik in the acquisition of Momentive Performance Materials, one of the largest cross-border M&A deals in Korea. In addition, at the end of last year, GT successfully represented a subsidiary of KT Corporation, obtaining a $32 million jury verdict against U.S. conspirators in the so-called 'Moneual' international fraud case.

◇Richard Edlin(Vice Chair of Greenberg Traurig)
◇Richard Edlin(Vice Chair of Greenberg Traurig)

With GT gaining increased recognition in the legal market, Korea Legal Times, which is one of the largest legal media, sat down with Richard Edlin, the vice chairman of GT, for an interview during his recent trip to Korea. Edlin is a well-known trial lawyer with more than 30 years of experience who leads the litigation practice in GT's New York office. He was also one of the team's leading lawyers in the Moneual case on behalf of KT. Mr. Edlin manages the Korea Practice by traveling between New York and Korea, and this trip marked his 40th visit. The interview with Richard Edlin took place in early June at GT's Seoul office in the Seoul Finance Center on Sejongdaero, Seoul.

-GT's Korea practice is growing very rapidly.

4 Resident Attorneys

"In 2013, Chang Joo Kim had the Seoul office opened and started the Seoul practice alone. But now it has grown to an office with four resident attorneys, including three shareholders and one of-counsel. With the increase of the lawyers in the Seoul office, the workload has increased proportionally as well. Unlike several foreign law offices that either scaled back or withdrew from Korea, GT's Seoul office continues to expand its presence and practice."

-In your opinion, what have been some key factors to the consistent growth and expansion of GT's Korea practice?

"I think GT's competitiveness is founded on the firm's outstanding platform with more than 2,100 top-level lawyers in 39 offices around the world, working in synergy with the lawyers in Seoul who are fluent in Korean and familiar with the Korean market. Also, I believe having a shared history and corporate culture serves as a common ground that appeals to the Korean companies. For example, many Korean companies which started out as underdogs have now grown into top-ranked global powerhouses. Similarly, GT has seen a dramatic growth since its inception in 1967."

The Beginning in 1967

GT began as a regional law firm in 1967, founded by three Jewish lawyers in Miami, Florida. In just 50 years, GT has grown into a global law firm with 40 offices all over the world, including the Milan office in Italy which is scheduled to open in July.

More specifically, GT has developed from a regional law firm to a national law firm, and then furthermore into a global law firm. Mr. Edlin, however, does not fail to emphasize the spirit, value and significance of a regional and national law firm.

30 Offices in the U.S. Alone

"The United States is a huge country. There are numerous law firms in the U.S. that started as regional law firms and later developed into big law firms. GT also saw growth through exceptional regional practice, but the problem was that our outstanding lawyers started to leave for bigger law firms. So, in the early 1990s, one of the founders made a big decision to grow GT into a national law firm with its offices set up throughout the U.S.

And when I say throughout the U.S., I'm not referring just to major cities like Washington D.C., New York, and Los Angeles. We do cover those big markets–but in addition to offices in New York, Washington D.C. and Los Angeles, GT has a total of 30 offices across cities in the U.S., including Philadelphia, Atlanta, Denver, Austin, Las Vegas, and Silicon Valley. In other words, GT can cover the U.S. market, as a whole, more extensively than any other law firm."

Edlin stresses, "From a non-U.S. client's point of view, it is critical to find a law firm with access to all geographical areas of the U.S. when entering the U.S. market. In that respect, we can play a unique role in providing such access to Korean companies."

For example, in the 3.5 trillion won acquisition of Momentive, GT had lawyers from its American offices in New York, Washington D.C., Miami and Chicago, working together with Chang Joo Kim and Iksoo Kim from the Seoul office as well as other attorneys from the Berlin office to close the deal.

Chang Joo Kim chimed in, "Clients choose us especially because of our extensive U.S. network. GT is not just any firm-it is a top-notch law firm with 30 offices in major U.S. financial centers, major growth states and leading business centers, providing client-focused counsel in various areas."

Seoul Office Opens In 2013

GT, which started in Florida and became a nationwide law firm in the U.S., opened its first overseas office in 2003 in Amsterdam. In East Asia, GT opened its office in Shanghai in 2008, followed by the Seoul office and the Tokyo office.

-6 years have passed since the establishment of the Seoul office. Tell us about the background of its opening.

◇GT's Korea Practice Team's lawyers. From left, Yangho Shin, Dongdoo Choi, Iksoo Kim, Eun Sang Hwang.
◇GT's Korea Practice Team's lawyers. From left, Yangho Shin, Dongdoo Choi, Iksoo Kim, Eun Sang Hwang.

"Considering the fact that 25% of the world's population resides in East Asia, and further considering the partnership between Korea and the U.S., Seoul is a very important market. The Korea practice began taking form in 2008, when Chang Joo Kim joined GT. With the goal of bringing a real value for Korean clients and supporting them in close proximity, we decided to open an office in Korea when Korea opened up its legal market to foreign law firms like us. As we expected, the Korea Practice has steadily grown since. Noting the similarity of rapid growth in a short-term period that GT and many Korea companies all experienced, we expected that this common characteristic would appeal to our Korean clients. Now we are seeing that we were right."

Prompt Decision-Making

Dongdoo Choi, a California-licensed lawyer in the Seoul office, said "GT has many offices around the world and is one of the largest firms in terms of attorney head count, but our decision-making process is very streamlined and efficient. Our firm is structured so that we do not have to contact the headquarters for approval for new matters, and any individual partner can take initiative by using the resources of GT's worldwide offices spanning four continents. For this reason, we are particularly efficient in assembling the teams quickly according to the nature of the matter and responding immediately. If, for example, a Korean client has a problem in Europe or Central/South America, a lawyer in Korea can immediately contact GT's local office in those regions, and the lawyers there can provide services promptly". GT is, in fact, well-recognized for producing high synergies through efficient operation. And no wonder a firm like GT needs to adopt such a system, as it operates across 40 offices with more than 2,100 attorneys.

GT has a 'one firm' structure, and is known for its attorneys' high sense of belonging and ownership-as one can see even in the title 'Shareholders' for its partners.

Emphasis on Attorneys' Performance

GT stands out from traditional law firms for its greater emphasis on the performance of attorneys, and this practical approach has led to its rapid growth.

The reporter asked Edlin, who has accumulated many years of experience in law firm management, which type of lawyer is more valuable-the one who has excellent marketing skills and so is good at bringing in new matters, or the one who has great practice skills and so can deliver good results to clients?

"That's like asking 'Who do you like more, your mom or your dad?' or 'Who do you love more, your eldest son or the youngest?'" Edlin replied. "Both are important, and I believe that a firm can develop only through the cooperation of lawyers with different qualities and abilities."

Among many practice areas of GT, Edlin emphasizes in particular the following four practice fields-Litigation and International Arbitration, Corporate, Real Estate and Intellectual Property(IP). Korean corporate clients often come to GT Seoul for U.S. litigation, international arbitration, and cross-border transaction matters. GT is ranked 'Tier 1' in all of these fields, Edlin proudly added.

Ranked U.S. #1 in Commercial Litigation

Lex Machina, a litigation research company, named GT as the firm that handles the most number of commercial litigations since 2009. For example, GT has more than 250 attorneys devoted to IP practice.

The company's notable experience includes its representation of leading Korean companies such as Samsung Electronics, LG Electronics, and Hyundai Motors in litigations in the U.S. For example, GT represented Samsung Electronics in a dispute against a Non-Practicing Entity(NPE) that previously had obtained favorable results against Apple over patent infringement claims. While the NPE raised infringement claims against Samsung based on the same patents that it relied upon in the Apple case, the GT team obtained a victory on behalf of Samsung. In another case, GT represented Hyundai Motors in a class action for an alleged violation of the California Consumer Protection Code and the Magnuson Moss Warranty Act-ultimately delivering a victory for the client.

The firm's representation of a KT subsidiary in the Moneual fraud claim is a recent noteworthy case of GT's Korea practice. According to the Seoul office, "this case is particularly prominent and significant due to enforcement concerns because GT obtained the first judgment for its clients in a situation involving multiple plaintiffs filing lawsuits against the same defendant at the same time". GT, in fact, strategically moved quickly and successfully obtained a complete verdict for the client against the defendant-an American computer company accused as a conspirator of the Ponzi scheme-while handful of other domestic and foreign law firms retained by other plaintiffs of the fraud case were still scrambling to proceed with the litigation process against the same defendant.

GT Seoul office has also made its mark in the IPO market, serving as the issuer's counsel for Hyundai Oilbank and the underwriter's counsel for Hanwha Systems and SK Biopharmaceuticals.

Successful Issuance of Negative Interest Rate Bonds for KOGAS

Representing American companies for its listing on the Korean Exchange as well as large Korean corporations such as KEB Hana Bank, LG Display, Korea Development Bank, Korea Railroad Corporation(KORAIL), and the Korea Gas Corporation(KOGAS) in the issuance of foreign bonds, the Corporate Team in GT's Seoul office has a strong track record in debt capital markets(DCM). In March of this year, GT successfully advised KOGAS on its issuance of USD 300 million Swiss franc bonds with a real interest rate of -0.02%, marking the first of such negative interest rate financing by a Korean company.

◇Lawyers of GT's Seoul office are posing with Vice Chair, Edlin. Second from the right is Chang Joo Kim, representative of Seoul office.
◇Lawyers of GT's Seoul office are posing with Vice Chair, Edlin. Second from the right is Chang Joo Kim, representative of Seoul office.

GT's steady growth in size and practice areas can be evidenced by the increased number of resident attorneys in the Seoul office. GT Seoul, established by Chang Joo Kim as the sole resident back in 2013, began its expansion when Iksoo Kim, widely acknowledged for his expertise in the capital markets and M&A sectors, joined as a shareholder in 2017. And in 2018, the office further widened its spectrum of fields with the addition of an experienced dispute resolution attorney, Dongdoo Choi, expanding the office's capacity to include capital markets, M&A, general corporate, litigation and international arbitration, government investigation, financial regulation and compliance practices. Earlier this year, the office welcomed a new addition-Eun Sang Hwang, a capital markets attorney specializing in DCM.

"The globalization of the Korean market and its corporate players will continue," Edlin said. "As a legal service provider, we want to keep making contributions to the further growth of Korean companies," he remarked, once again demonstrating his passion for the Korean market.

No drastic increase of the size of the Seoul office

However, it is still his firm opinion that he does not intend to drastically expand the office in the future. On the firm's relationship with the Korean law firms, he commented, "we have cooperated with Korean law firms on many occasions and hope to further cultivate productive collaborations with them down the road."

Given his experience and reputation as litigator, we asked Mr. Edlin to give some advice to Korean companies that are often sued in the U.S.

"It’s difficult to give a tip on how to avoid lawsuits entirely. When it comes to being sued, though, it is critical to retain good lawyers," he said. "The common quality of great lawyers is the ability to explain convoluted facts in a simple manner, which is a key factor to winning a case."

Edlin likens the litigation process in the U.S. to a movie with an intricate character web. "Explaining technical complexities in a simple manner is a necessary element to convince the jury, which is again a key factor to winning a case," While it is helpful to have technical expertise, what is more important for a lawyer is the skill to communicate facts in a simple way, Edlin says. In his words, "simple stories win."

By Jinwon Kim(jwkim@legaltimes.co.kr)