Hee Woong Yoon is a joint managing partner of Korea's Yulchon, the country's fifth-largest law firm. Yoon, who specialises in M&A and corporate finance, joined Yulchon in 2001. In 2019, he was named as a managing partner along with Yong Sup Yoon and Seok Hoon Kang. Prior to this, he served as the head of the firm’s Corporate & Finance group.
Founded in 1997, Yulchon, which translates to "a village of lawyers," also has offices in Russia, China, Myanmar and Vietnam, and an associated office in Indonesia.
ALB: What are some of the big challenges the firm has been facing in the past few months, and how are you looking to tackle them?
Yoon: As with the entire world right now, our key challenge at the moment is how to weather the COVID-19 pandemic. The economic slowdown is taking a toll on corporate financials, and this will inevitably slow down legal demand. For ourselves and our clients, our hope is not just to survive, but to thrive. Internally, we implemented flexible work arrangements and introduced technology-based work-from-home setups for all employees. To address the issues clients are confronting in this unprecedented situation, we are delivering informed and relevant commentary to our clients via virtual methods such as webinars, video conferences and online courses. Specifically, we focused on our restructuring and insolvency practice to prepare for new demand from the COVID-19 crisis. We continued to invest in private equity work as it is relatively shielded from economic fluctuation, and invested more resources in healthcare, bio-industry, and Fintech.
Every crisis produces winners and losers. We understand and predict these market dynamics, and our lawyers develop their industry knowledge based on an understanding of the market. Changes in industry trends have always happened. COVID-19 has accelerated these changes, and we are trying to stay on top of these trends. For Yulchon overall, the firm’s leadership team considers it one of our most important tasks to maintain the sound growth we have successfully continued over the last two decades. Yulchon is the youngest of the Korean “Big Five” and one of the fastest-growing law firms in Asia. For our leadership team, continuing this successful track record is an important legacy to uphold.
ALB: How do you feel the pandemic will reshape not just the way your firm operates, but also the legal services industry in Korea?
Yoon: The pandemic has impacted every corner of the world, including law firms. It will have lasting effects on how law firms continue to provide services to clients. The legal services industry as a whole is undergoing significant adaptation. Remote working, video conferences, and webinars are now common modes of interaction. Both clients and law firms have experienced remote working and understand that not everyone has to be in one place to work together. This has changed many of our client meetings as well as how we work together with other firms. Technology makes it possible to stay connected via online regardless of jurisdiction, and many have found that we can collaborate effectively beyond our borders just as well as if we have met in person with foreign law firms and clients. The meaning of collaboration is changing. It is now shifting much more toward virtual, technology-aided collaboration and communication.
Nonetheless, there are still certain areas that cannot be replaced entirely with virtual interaction. The legal services industry is largely based on trust – trust between clients and lawyers, and among lawyers too. Hence, meetings that require intense discussion on strategies or negotiation can still feel somewhat awkward if handled through video conference. This tells us that the human factor is important as ever in our professional relationships.
We can see in-person meetings becoming more special, and this will call for lawyers to be better prepared to lead their meetings more efficiently to achieve what they are designed to achieve. Virtual interactions are here to stay in the post-COVID-19 era, but in parallel, in-person meetings will carry even more importance and value.
ALB: How have clients’ requirements evolved recent times (either generally or as a result of the pandemic), and how are you as a firm meeting them?
Yoon: Clients’ requirements have of course evolved in recent times, and the pandemic has accelerated this even further. Despite changing requirements, clients’ expectations remain essentially unchanged, and our lawyers are well-trained and experienced to meet these expectations.
As virtual interactions increase, there is greater importance in providing clear and effective legal services. Also, because video conferences can be held with greater ease, anytime, anywhere, clients are asking for even more meetings. This calls for preparation on the law firm’s side.
Crisis teaches us that we must remember the basics of our services. First, lawyers need to understand the business concerns of their clients. Second, lawyers need to be relevant and efficient when communicating with clients. Third, clients need their lawyers to be available and responsive.
We introduced an online education platform for both our firm’s lawyers and in-house lawyers. Our partners record 15 to 20-minute sessions on each topic or recent legal development, and in-house lawyers can access the program. Webinars have already replaced our program of on-site seminars.
Throughout all these initiatives, we are focusing in particular on strengthening client service. As a key example, for this year’s annual partnership meeting, we selected client service as the main topic and engaged in extensive discussions around this focus.
ALB: How important is law firm culture, according to you? What kind of internal culture are you looking to foster?
Yoon: “Collaboration” has been a principle embedded in our Yulchon culture from the birth of the organization. While most law firms are named after their founders, the name Yulchon in Korean literally means “a village of lawyers”.
Lawyers can be quite competitive, whether by nature, or training, or both. With that in mind, we are focused on cultivating an environment for exceptional individuals to work together and create synergy. This internal culture rooted in collaboration helps us overcome challenges and handle crises. It channels more energy toward camaraderie and team focus, rather than individual distinction. As the law becomes ever more complex, building good teams is an ever more crucial component of excellent legal work in service of the client’s needs. Its benefits can’t be overstated.
Particularly with the outbreak of COVID-19, many may feel a sense of isolation with remote working and social distancing. We encourage our collaborative culture internally and stress the importance of staying in communication both online and offline. At Yulchon we take great pride in the fact that we’ve grown organically and built our own unique culture from the ground up, to become one of Korea’s big five firms, so maintaining our open, transparent and collaborative culture is all the more important for us.
ALB: How would you describe your approach to technology? How has the use of tech at your firm evolved since you started at the helm, and what is your blueprint for the next year or two?
Yoon: Yulchon’s interest and investment in technology has been evident since the firm’s inception, and we are a leader among Korean law firms in this regard. We were the first among Korea’s law firms to introduce a centralized Knowledge Management (KM) platform, a knowledge database hub for all our lawyers and staff. Additionally, long before the pandemic, we had already implemented a virtual PC system, so that both our lawyers and staff were fully prepared and able to use this system to work remotely when we faced the outbreak of COVID-19.
Since our transition last year to a new leadership team, Yulchon has put even greater emphasis on internal collaboration and client services. We developed several mobile applications – such as one for associate evaluation, several for international tax, and an F/X reporting application, just to name a few – to enhance work efficiency and better service our clients.
We expect that due to market conditions under COVID-19 outbreak, webinar and video conferences will become more common. Since at Yulchon we already have a state-of-the-art IT infrastructure, we plan to focus more on providing valuable content. Taking optimal attention span into account, we plan to offer shorter webinars and video conferences, while providing impactful messages. I think that the key to remaining connected with our clients in this market environment depends on providing effective online content.
ALB: Where would you like to see the firm in five years from now?
Yoon: Our goal is to distinguish ourselves as the best Korean law firm and the most trusted law firm in Asia. To achieve that goal, we will spare no effort and will continue to invest in people and technology.
ALB: What motto do you live by?
Yoon: My motto can be summarized in two words – people and basics. We must always put people first, and stick to the basics. It’s about exercising wisdom and making the right choices: heaven helps those who help themselves.
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