Increasingly taking on solo instructions for major international disputes
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|Pending cases as counsel||45|
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|Current arbitrator appointments||11 (of which 8 are as sole or chair)|
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South Korean firm Bae, Kim & Lee got serious about arbitration in 2002 at the suggestion of young partner Kap-You (Kevin) Kim. Since then, it has gone from respected co-counsel working with the big international names, to being one of those big names.
It did so in part by creating its own local opposition: each time Kim took part in an international case, he convened an event to share know-how with local rivals. Together, they promoted use of arbitration to their clients and an arbitration culture quickly developed in South Korea.
Nowadays. Bae, Kim & Lee sits at the heart of Seoul’s impressively busy arbitration scene. With 30 specialist lawyers, including six at the partner level, qualified in Korea, Australia, England and Wales, Singapore, Pakistan, India and the US, it is one of the largest dedicated practices in Asia. Its members are highly visible locally and internationally: the firm has a task force aimed at assisting clients caught up in litigation abroad, particularly in the US, and Kim is acknowledged to be a driving force behind Seoul’s effort to become an internationally recognised seat. The quality of its work has been summed up by Jan Paulsson as “worthy of Freshfields”, his former firm.
Bae, Kim & Lee also produced the first English-language textbook on the law and practice of arbitration in Korea (along with a similar volume in Korean), and hosts the annual Seoul Arbitration Lecture, attracting speakers of the calibre of David W Rivkin and Gary Born.
Having headed the firm’s international arbitration practice group since its inception, in 2015, Kim became leader of a new overarching group dealing with construction, real estate and international arbitration combined. He continues to co-chair the firm’s international arbitration team with the practice’s other founding partner, John Bang.
The team’s partners have begun to develop specialisms: Seung-Hyeon Kim and Matthew Christensen in construction, David MacArthur in engineering, and Sue Hyun Lim in investor-state disputes.
The arbitration practice is overwhelmingly Seoul-based, but the firm has long-standing offices in Beijing and Shanghai, and in recent years has opened in Dubai, Hong Kong, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Yangon.
Who uses it?
Thanks to its incredibly strong brand, Bae, Kim & Lee is one of the first ports of call for South Korean entities facing foreign arbitration. Many are construction firms and automotive parts makers.
Clients have included Daewoo, Dongkuk Steel, Hyundai Heavy Industries, Doosan Heavy Industries & Construction, Lotte Engineering, Keangnam Enterprises, Korea Exchange Bank, satellite operator KTsat, LG Display, Olympus, Samsung, Stryker Sales, Daehan, Woori Bank, and Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power.
The firm launched what it suggests is the first ever investment treaty claim by a Korean investor against an African state. It is also co-counsel to the Korean government (alongside Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer) in the first ever investment treaty claim against South Korea at ICSID, filed by US-Belgian private equity fund Lone Star.
It was also counsel to the organising committee of the 2018 Winter Olympics, which took place in the Korean resort of Pyeongchang.
Along with Debevoise & Plimpton, the firm picked up a GAR Award for its work on behalf of Hyundai Heavy Industries in an ICC dispute worth US$2.3 billion. It helped the client to enforce a punitive call-option in a joint venture agreement, thus allowing it to obtain full ownership of an oil refinery at a sizeable discount.
There have been plenty of favourable awards since. In 2016, it defended a Korean state-owned enterprise from a US$180 million claim over its alleged failure to perform obligations under a government procurement programme.
With co-counsel Addleshaw Goddard, it prevailed in 2015 in a US$100 million ICC case relating to a power plant project in the Middle East after succeeding in an interim application to restrain a threatened bond call.
The same year, it successfully defended a subsidiary of Korea’s largest electric utility against a US$50 million claim by a US supplier of nuclear power plant components, winning full costs.
Bae, Kim & Lee won a SIAC arbitration for a longtime engineering client over a high-rise construction project in Mongolia, acting as sole counsel. Again as sole counsel, it achieved a favourable settlement in a three-party shipbuilding dispute heard at the LCIA; and in a mediation for another longtime client, handling English law issues using its own English-qualified lawyers.
In a Singapore-seated ICC case, the firm won a US$53 million award for a Lotte entity in a post-M&A dispute relating to a Chinese hypermarket chain.
The firm represents Korea Electric Power Corporation in a high-value LCIA case against a consortium including Samsung and Hyundai entities over the construction of the United Arab Emirates’ first nuclear power station. The firm won the retainer with a foreign co-counsel after a bidding process against most of Korea’s other big law firms.
It followed through on a long-threatened investment treaty case against an African state brought on behalf of a Korean engineering client, after settlement talks failed.
But an investment treaty case the firm brought on behalf of Ansung Housing against China relating to a golf course was summarily dismissed in March 2017, with a tribunal ruling it had been brought outside the BIT’s three-year limitation period. It was the first ICSID case brought by a Korean investor and the first ICSID case against China to reach an award.
Kevin Kim was named chair of the Korean Commercial Arbitration Board’s international arbitration committee, a newly created role.
An IP client that hired the firm for a complex arbitration spanning multiple jurisdictions says the firm’s “extensive experience” allowed it to manage the nuances of the case, which was “fundamental” to the company’s future business strategy. “They did an outstanding job,” the client says.