The Korean firm said farewell to some long-serving team members
|Pending cases as counsel||50|
|Value of pending counsel work||US$20.5 billion|
|Treaty cases as counsel||3|
|Third-party funded cases||0|
South Korean firm Bae Kim & Lee got serious about arbitration in 2002 at the suggestion of partner Kap-You (Kevin) Kim. Since then, it has gone from being respected co-counsel working with the big international names, to being one of those big names.
With around 30 specialist lawyers (who are qualified in Australia, India, Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Singapore, the UK and the US), it is one of the largest dedicated international arbitration practices in Asia.
Bae Kim & Lee 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.
However, the practice has faced some upheaval recently. Kim, who had led the group since its inception, left Bae Kim & Lee in 2019 to start a new firm. John Bang, who built the team with Kim and took charge after his departure, followed him over to his new firm a year later. The firm has also lost a handful of other partners, including a trio to a local rival (more on that below).
The international arbitration and litigation team is now led by Tony DongWook Kang, who joined the firm in 2006 after working in the Korean judiciary. Another senior arbitration partner is Junu Kim, who has acted in a wide range of commercial and treaty disputes. Kang has overseen several new partner hires and promotions since taking charge as he looks to rebuild the arbitration team.
The group prides itself on its expertise in two areas that were not previously catered for by Korean law firms: international construction and engineering claims, and 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, Korea Exchange Bank, satellite operator KTsat, LG Display, Olympus, Samsung, Stryker Sales, SK Engineering & Construction, Daehan, Woori Bank, Hanwha, POSCO Group, Hyundai Home Shopping, Hyundai Engineering and Steel Industries, Pyunghwa Holdings, Korea Electric Power Corporation 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 local co-counsel to the Korean government in the first investment treaty claim against South Korea at ICSID, filed by private equity fund Lone Star.
It was counsel to the organising committee of the 2018 Winter Olympics, which took place in the Korean resort of Pyeongchang.
In 2019, the firm helped Korean banking group Hana defeat an ICC claim reportedly worth US$1.4 billion. It also successfully defended state-owned entity Korea Electric Power Corporation in an LCIA dispute with a Hyundai-Samsung joint venture over the construction of a UAE nuclear power plant.
Along with Debevoise & Plimpton, the firm picked up a GAR Award in 2010 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.
In 2011, the firm secured a victory for LG Display in an ICC claim worth over US$100 million brought by a Japanese company over intellectual property. And four years later it also won in another US$100 million ICC case relating to a Middle East power plant project.
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.
As sole counsel, the firm won a SIAC arbitration for a long-time engineering client in 2017 over a high-rise construction project in Mongolia. 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.
Bae Kim & Lee reports helping the owner and developer of a luxury resort favourably settle an HKIAC dispute over a long-term contract for management of a five-star hotel.
It represented Korea’s Asiana Airlines in an ICC case relating to a catering contract, which ended with a US$29 million award against the client.
In another case, a Korean biotech client was ordered to pay US$40 million in an ICC dispute over the mislabelling of a gene therapy treatment.
Bae Kim & Lee is representing a South Korean video game developer in an ICC dispute with its former partner, in which it faces a US$2 billion damages claim in the quantum phase.
The firm continues to defend South Korea in the US$5 billion ICSID claim filed by Lone Star, which is still awaiting an award. It is also advising the state in a more recent treaty claim worth US$265 million brought by a Swiss elevator maker.
Korean steelmaking group Posco is using the firm in two ICC disputes; one being a US$2 billion claim filed by a US real estate investor concerning an international business district; the other relating to the supply of steel for a Canadian bridge.
A new instruction comes acting for a Korean retailer in an arbitration relating to its corporate affairs.
Following the departures of Kim and Bang, the firm saw partners Seokchun Yun, Woochul Hwang and Matthew Christensen leave for local rival Kim & Chang. And another well-known partner, David MacArthur, left for Japan’s Anderson Mori & Tomotsune.
But the firm has rebuilt its partner ranks in response. It hired Changhyun Lee, who spent almost two decades in the Korean judiciary, and former Shearman & Sterling practitioner Brandon (Hyung-Sik) Bang. Hyunjung Lee and Sangchul Kim were both promoted to the partnership.
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.
BKL was the first law firm in Korea with a fully dedicated, specialist international arbitration practice since 2002. Now combining a globally recognized international arbitration team with our leading cross-border litigation specialists, BKL has formed a preeminent disputes practice group deeply focused on resolving some of the most complex and cutting-edge issues faced by our clients, regardless of forum, seat of arbitration, and governing law.
Ranked every year as one of the top global arbitration practices, we have represented hundreds of clients engaged in a range of industries in disputes across all major continents. In addition to our broad commercial disputes practice, we differentiate ourselves in the market with specialisms in industry-focused dispute practices in construction, energy and technology. We also handle some of the most significant investor-state disputes, having led the first ever investor-state dispute in Korea in 2012. Recognized as a “pioneer in arbitration in Asia” by Who’s Who Legal, the arbitration team continues to lead the market.
Consistent with our cross-border disputes strategy, BKL has established a team of top litigators in Korea with extensive experience in in-bound and out-bound litigation. Our litigators are former members of the Korean judiciary, former US judicial clerks and lawyers trained in a wide range of legal systems, and they bring together the depth of experience unparalleled by our peers in and outside the courtroom that our clients regularly demand and depend on as they face new challenges in both established and frontier markets across multiple jurisdictions.