Celebrating the 10th anniversary of its international arbitration group, the South Korean firm has emerged as a leader at home and internationally
- People in Who’s Who:
- Pending cases as counsel:
- Value of pending counsel work:
- US$12.5 billion
- Treaty cases:
- Current arbitrator appointments:
- 6 (of which 2 are as sole or chair)
- No. of lawyers sitting as arbitrator:
Ten years ago, Bae Kim & Lee created a separate practice group angled at international arbitration. Since then, it’s gone from new kid on the block, to co-counsel beside the big names, to big name in its own right. It’s also been a big promoter of international arbitration among Korean clients. The firm has emerged as such a credible force that these days it is cited as proof that arbitration’s borders are expanding and that lawyers from the periphery can become serious players.
The current practice encompasses a mix of international as well as regional arbitration work, particularly under ICC rules, overseen by the two co-founders of the practice group: Kevin Kim and John Bang.
Kim, who is in his late 40s, was recently made the president of ICCA – the International Council for Commercial Arbitration. He was included in GAR’s first “45 under 45”, back in 2005, while Bang made the grade for the follow-up “45” in 2011. Both also feature in The International Who’s Who of Commercial Arbitration. Apart from his role at ICCA, Kim is a member of the ICC and LCIA courts and the AAA board. He is also a listed ICSID arbitrator, senior adviser to the Korean Commercial Arbitration Board and vice chair of the IBA arbitration committee.
Together, those partners oversee a group of 16 dedicated arbitration lawyers (out of 300 in the firm as a whole) that is becoming ever more diverse. Members are fluent in various European languages as well as all the major Asian languages, and the group recruits with an eye on common law and international arbitration experience. In 2009, it recruited the former counsel for the Asia-Pacific region from the ICC secretariat in Paris, James Morrison.
The arbitration practice can also call on the firm’s 100-strong litigation department for any court proceedings relating to arbitration.
Korean firms are soon going to have to deal with the impact of liberalisation on their market. While some are worried about the arrival of competition in the form of foreign law firms, Bae Kim & Lee’s arbitration team seems not unduly concerned. While some of his countrymen were on the streets protesting against the arbitration clause in the US-South Korea free trade agreement, Kevin Kim was sanguine. He told a reporter the furore was a “wonderful opportunity to educate Korean people about arbitration. Even to lawyers, [investor-state dispute clauses] used to be quite unknown. Now, even elementary school students know the term.”
Who uses it?
The firm is first port of call for many Korean corporations, including Hyundai Heavy Industries, the world’s largest shipbuilding company; Daehan Shipbuilding; Doosan Heavy Industries & Construction Company; Dongkuk Steel; LCD manufacturer LG Display Company; welding group SeAH; and the now-liquidated Daewoo Motor Company.
Outside Korea, the firm has advised Stryker Sales Corporation, a major US-based manufacturer of medical technology, as well as US-based private equity funds Unitas Capital and Olympus Capital.
Other clients include property developers and the lead consortium member in the relocation of a US military base from downtown Seoul to a nearby city.
The firm often acts as co-counsel with Debevoise & Plimpton.
Bae Kim & Lee has emerged thanks to competence and results. There was no better example that in late 2009 when it co-ran a multibillion-dollar ICC case between Korea’s Hyundai Heavy Industries Group and an Abu Dhabi investment vehicle over a jointly-owned oil refiner. The firm was co-counsel on an equal footing with a Debevoise & Plimpton team led by David W Rivkin. In a favourable award for the Korean side, the tribunal enforced a punitive call-option under the joint-venture agreement, ordering the Abu Dhabi company to sell its 70 per cent stake at a significant discount. The award was enforced last December – earning the two firms the “Arbitration Win of the Year” gong at the first GAR Awards in Seoul in March 2011.
The firm calls the award “unprecedented in Korea, and perhaps globally, in enforcing this type of co-investor remedy on such a scale” and the “biggest win for our team to date”.
Another recent highlight was a victory for Stryker Sales Corporation in late 2010 in an ICC arbitration in Singapore brought by one of Korea’s most prominent publicly listed pharmaceutical companies in a dispute over a distribution agreement. In the final award, nearly all of the claims against Stryker were dismissed with the claimant ultimately recovering only about 7 per cent of its original US$16 million claim.
Korean lawyer Sue Hyun Lim was promoted to partner in 2011, and the team welcomed a new foreign lawyer: New York-qualified Woochul Hwang. Hwang came fresh from working as chief research assistant to LCIA president William W Park at Boston University Law School and is fluent in Spanish, English and Korean.
Although its bread and butter remains international arbitrations before foreign institutions such as the ICC, the firm reports a rise in the number of international cases before the Korean Commercial Arbitration Board over the past year.
Several members of the team played an active role in advising the KCAB in connection with the recent amendment of its rules, particularly Kevin Kim (in his capacity as a member of the KCAB rules amendment committee) and James Morrison as a member of the institution’s international advisory counsel. Other team members worked closely with KCAB to harmonise the Korean and English version of the rules.
A team from the firm published Arbitration Law of Korea: Practice and Procedure, the first book-length, systematic treatment in English of the law and practice of commercial arbitration in Korea.
Kevin Kim’s responsibilities as secretary general of ICCA continue to keep him busy, particularly as Asia prepares to host the next ICCA Congress (which will take place in Singapore in June 2012).
At the 2011 GAR Awards in Seoul, Bae Kim & Lee not only won the “Arbitration Win of the Year” award but shared a special recognition award for development of arbitration in Korea with Kim & Chang.
Dr Soon Song, a business consultant in Korea, offered a first-hand account of Bae Kim & Lee in action, saying that although the cases he had in mind were of only medium strategic significance, he would nevertheless have no reservations recommending the team. “They are very competent, most likely the best [team] in Korea. I would definitely recommend them.” He said one striking difference was “how BKL help experts prepare for cross-examinations”.
A leading arbitrator who works in Asia said that he’d seen Kevin Kim perform against leading advocates from Korean and Western law firms. He said a combination of aggression and flexibility in Bae Kim & Lee’s approach had impressed him a lot and he would recommend the firm “very strongly.”