Lawyers Go Global Mission to Seoul, South Korea
21 to 24 February 2023
“안영하세요 저는 이름이 마이클입니다. 저의 명함입니다.”
(Hello, my name is Michael. This is my name card.)
With that introduction, which I repeated at least 67 times with various persons whom we met in Seoul Korea, I tried my level best to represent Singapore and Singapore lawyers in the best possible light, during the recent Law Society of Singapore (Law Soc), Lawyers go Global, Mission to Seoul.
When the eblast by Law Soc first went out in December 2022/January 2023, inviting interested lawyers to take part in this trip, I signed up almost immediately and upon receiving the first set of confirmed instructions, booked my hotel and flight. That was how excited I was to take part in my first Law Soc mission trip, to a city I was very familiar with.
My family and I had holidayed in Seoul almost every year in winter before 2020, and when borders opened, we returned in December 2022. So visiting Seoul per se was not that important to me. What I really wanted was to meet with Korean lawyers or legally related persons to expand my experiences and horizons. Yup, meet new people and understand how and why they are lawyers, and put myself out there, really out there, eight hours away by plane. As it turned out, quite a few members of the delegation were regular visitors to Seoul as well.
When I started drafting this reflection about the trip I didn’t want it to be the same old chronological report of a trip, whom we met, what we did and the Koreans did. Err no, I think I will write it this way.
We had three days. Three days! It was mad mad mad and go go go almost from the moment we landed.
So what did we do?
- We met with big law firms as planned. Really big law firms, humongous. Like amongst the top in Korea. Some even owned entire buildings and all of them occupied multiple floors, with lawyers in the hundreds, some even more than a thousand.
- Word got out that we were coming so another two large law firms contacted us for additional meetings.
- We attended the Seoul Central District Courts to see its IT set up and even attending some hearings. Walking up and down the stairs to the various courts and IT rooms brought to mind memories of the old State Courts Building, for those who know.
- Attending at the Ministry of Justice to understand its function and role in the Korean legal scene.
- Mingling with legal organisations (Korean and Seoul Bar Associations, In House Counsel Forum, SIAC) and a business group (Singapore Chamber of Commerce).
- Enjoying, to some extent, Korean food.
We were on the move each day from 7.45am (after breakfast, if at all!) till about 9pm. In between the locations, it would be a bus ride which at times lasted an hour or more (Seoul traffic) with many of us catching up on zzzzz’s. [A very senior lawyer with us grumbled (commented?) that we should teach them about our COE and ERP systems].
Three days of information overload! Each law firm, organisation or entity which we visited were prepared to the nines, from seating arrangements to refreshments, slide presentations and Q&A sessions, and gifts/mementos.
After each introduction, Gregory Vijayendran SC who led our delegation, did us proud by responding well with his opening words, tailored specifically for each destination and session. I mean really how many ways can one talk about travelling from Singapore to Seoul, about what we wanted to achieve and what we are about? Still Gregory managed to take a different approach each time. Brilliant.
A partner in one of the big law firms commented that they did not expect a team of 35 participants. As such, the mere/sheer number of visitors from the equator, clearly was an honour for them. We were not disappointed at all.
In fact, many times, we (or at least I) were overwhelmed, with the senior and top partners and management who took time out to meet with us and stayed back after the formalities to chat with as many of us as possible. At Kim & Chang, Dr Oh Jong Nam presented to us a short history of Korea, which I will elaborate a bit more below. He worked with the Korean Government for 30 years advising on economics and even worked at the IMF.
Each of the organisations prepared gifts and mementos for us in packaging bearing their own names and logos. My favourite is a box inlaid with mother-of-pearl in figures representing the traditional sports and games of Korea.
The views from the law firm offices were breath taking. From the offices of Kim & Chang, we could see the Blue House. From the offices of Yoon & Yang, we saw Lotte Tower, the tallest building in Seoul. And yes, if you were at the top floor, you could just make out the DMZ.
At Bae Kim & Lee, we were brought to see the famous (K-drama famous) picture of a pacific blue whale in one of their meeting rooms. This was indeed a highlight of the trip for me. Almost everyone in the team wanted their picture taken with the whale in the background. And from the explanation of the significance of the whale, did I then know that Korean firms have a Korean name but may have a different Western/English name. So for Bae Kim & Lee, they are literally “Pacific Ocean” Law Firm locally.
Of course, meeting Korean lawyers must mean trying to learn something about Korean law right? And we each would take any opportunity to ask questions during Q&As, or individually during meet and greets.
The take away for me about the legal scene in Korea is that although there is a lively arbitration culture in Korea, mediation still has not taken traction yet. Even at the Ministry of Justice, the persons charged with looking into this had just starting to understand what mediation is, and they are studying Singapore’s experience very closely.
As we understand it, before litigation, all efforts at mediation would have been exhausted. Once litigation commences, the parties just want a decision and are not interested in mediation again. Also, the amount of cost awarded to the winning party is at a minimal amount, much lesser that what we are used to in Singapore. This probably is another obstacle in the acceptance of mediation as a viable alternative dispute resolution method in Korea.
We had a brief introduction to the Korean legal system and some differences with the Common Law system. The one thing that struck me most was that there was no discovery in the Korean legal system. A claimant presented his documents and so did the respondent, and that was it. Also Judges took an active part in the proceedings, leading in the resolution of disputes. They themselves would identify issues that the two opposing counsels might have missed.
There was little “me-time” during the trip but some of us still managed to get our fill of cow intestines, live octopus and marinated blue crab. For those who partook of live octopus, they described it as an experience, and liked it! I brought some people in the group for lunch at a dumpling shop in Myeong Dong that had survived Covid-19. I did not even know that it was actually Michelin starred. We were introduced to Korean efficiency – there were only four items on their menu, and once we placed our order, we were served within five minutes.
My own highlights of the trip?
I am sure that for all, if not most of us, one of the highlights of all the visits and presentations was a historic/economic “mini-lecture/presentation” at the offices of Kim & Chang, by Dr Oh Jong Nam, Senior Advisor to Kim & Chang. We learned, in a light hearted manner, the history of Korea from the Joseon Dynasty, through WW2, the Korean War, the utter devastation it suffered in 1953, to the dictatorships in the 70’s and 80’s, the democratisation in the 80’s, and the financial crises in the 2000’s till the present. He concluded with a brief analysis of the economic future under President Yoon Suk Yeol, who himself is legally trained.
Dr Oh was old school. No slides. Just whiteboard and markers, scribbling and drawing on the whiteboard as he went along.
All of us, knowing that time was limited, did our best to mingle during networking sessions, exchanging name cards, and making contacts and new friends. Our Korean counterparts were very friendly and keen to learn about the Singapore legal landscape.
On the night of the third day, we attended our last function which was a networking session with the SingCham, Korea (the Singapore Chamber of Commerce in Korea) sponsored by Law Soc. We were introduced to many Singaporeans living and working in Seoul, which was fascinating for me.
Some of us took our last group photograph at the close of the event and as we left the ball oom, I, and I am sure many of the participants, was glad that the mission had ended after the three gruelling days.
And just like that, the three days came and went, with unique food eaten, American English heard and an entire box of specially printed name cards given out. Already as at the writing of this article, I have made contact with five Korean lawyers/legal persons in Linkedin.
What was the most memorable for me?
Well, the whale will always be embellished in my mind, as well as the hospitality of the Koreans, the frenzied hurrying from place to place and the speed mingling will be something to chat about when we meet fellow participants in the future.
But really, as I sat on the bus, I realised that it was reconnecting with some of the fellow lawyers in the delegation, and making connections with the young-uns that was as important to me as the trip itself. I have missed the days we used to spend waiting for mentions, and the raucous and oft off-colour banter at the old State Courts bar room. Zoom hearings, though efficient, did little in the way of getting to know new lawyers, and the exchanging of battle wounds. I mentioned in the group chat that Covid-19 had been a bad thing for the camaraderie of the bar. Personally, I do not think it will ever recover and be the same as the days of old.
Nevertheless, with reference to “Casablanca” during our meeting at Kim & Chang, this could be the start of a beautiful relationship, between the lawyers of Singapore and Korea.
P/S: Yes I did memorise that introduction in Korean at the start of my article. And yes I do understand and speak the language. And yes, I can write it as well.
Look out for our eDM on the next overseas mission.