Korea’s Pro Bono Landscape

by Min Jo Kim & Joong Won Park, Kim & Chang
Friday, 22 July 2016 11:33 GMT

REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Pro bono activities by South Korean attorneys are generally managed by the Korean Bar Association (“KBA”). Each local bar association requires individual attorneys registered at the KBA to spend 20 hours on pro bono matters per year, and to report on such pro bono hours and the details of the activities every year.

Attorneys’ pro bono activities in Korea are on the up. For example, as of 2016, in Korea, there are about 10 large law firms that have over 100 attorneys. Until 3-4 years ago, there were only one or two large law firms that had attorneys or departments dedicated to pro bono activities. In 2016, however, only one large law firm does not have a pro bono department, showing that these large law firms are putting their efforts into responding to the social demand for pro bono activities.

An interesting feature existing in the large law firm pro bono environment is that these firms have engaged in coordinating pro bono activities by establishing their own non-profit organizations (the “NPOs”). Out of the top nine law firms, five have separate NPOs for coordinating pro bono activities.

Particular Challenges

Pro bono activity in Korea has only recently begun drawing attention and still requires much discussion – it is now entering a stage where the social consensus regarding the concepts and criteria of pro bono has just started to be formed.

Large law firms face challenges such as solving conflicts of interest with existing clients, encouraging member participation, and endowing sustainability to pro bono activities. Another problem is that attorneys dedicated to public interest in large law firms (pro bono counsel) are still lacking.

Notable Developments

Thanks to the social awareness of the importance of pro bono, on April 2016, the Seoul Bar Association (“SBA”) established a “Pro Bono Support Center” to intermediate and support attorneys’ pro bono activities.The Pro Bono Support Center hired full-time attorneys and staff to facilitate public interest activities by intermediating lawyers and public interest groups, and to train and support attorneys working for the public interest. The center is operated with the financial support of the SBA and large law firms.

Kim &Chang’s Pro Bono Work

In 2013, the firm established the Kim & Chang Committee for Social Contribution (“K&C CSC”), and hired full-time lawyers to systemize its pro bono activities and expand knowledge-sharing programs. Led by Young-Joon Mok, the chairperson of the K&C CSC who is a former Justice of the Constitutional Court of Korea, K&C CSC hired two  attorneys and other relevant staff dedicated to public interest, and is contributing to society by providing legal education, legal support on public interest groups, support to improve public interest law and representing public interest litigations.

K&C CSC carried out following activities: (i) signing MOU and providing legal assistance to Korean NGOs (ii) establishing a legal academy for migrant women, North Korean defectors and small and medium-sized businesses (iii) improving legal system for reunification of Korea and enhancing the rights of social minorities such as physically disabled and children (iv) representing in international arbitration and constitutional appeals.

As an example of the achievement which created social impact, the K&C CSC held a national campaign to revise legal terminologies that are discriminatory towards people with disabilities, and helped set up a legal academy for migrant women in Korea. South Korea is rapidly turning into a multicultural society with number of immigrants reaching 500,000 out of Korea’s population of 49 million. Legal education is crucial for immigrant communities, particularly for migrant women from developing countries who enter Korea to marry Korean partners, as many of these couples are arranged through brokers and the women are often unaware of the conditions they face in their new home. This has given rise to issues like domestic violence, visa and citizenship issues. K&C CSC presents a six-part lecture series targeted to migrant women focusing on these issues and Korean law. The K&C CSC also opened a subsidiary printing company run by employees with severe disabilities - the first such attempt by a Korean law firm - to provide job security for the disabled.