This article first appeared on March 6, 2018 in ALB Insights, a weekly, ad-free newsletter that is sent to subscribers.
The youngest among South Korea’s Big Five law firms, Yulchon completed two decades of operation last year. John Kang speaks to managing partner Yun Sai-ree about the firm’s focus on collaboration and R&D, and its future as the next generation of partners prepares to carry on the firm’s legacy.
ALB: From starting out as Woo Yun Kang Jeong & Han in 1997 with 10 lawyers to more than 400 now as Yulchon, the firm has grown quickly in the past two decades and was recently ranked by ALB as the fourth-largest Korean firm. What’s been driving this growth?
Yun: If we had intended to grow only in size, we surely would have grown even bigger, and at a faster pace. What matters to us is organic growth that serves our clients’ needs the best. Nevertheless, Yulchon has achieved remarkable growth, and among many, I’d like to mention two drivers: collaboration and R&D.
Most law firms allocate cases to the lawyer who brought in the opportunity, but who may not necessarily be the most qualified person to do the work. At Yulchon, we make sure that cases go to the most qualified persons, and they take the job as if they have secured the work themselves.
The key lies in our partner remuneration structure, which is different from that of traditional Korean law firms. Whereas other firms award a handsome origination credit to the person who generated the opportunity, and lesser credit to partners who manage the project, Yulchon’s remuneration structure is the other way around. Our system awards a large project management credit to partners who do the actual work. They are fairly compensated for their hard work, and this works as a strong motivator behind our high-quality work and client service. At the same time, it has created an enthusiastic culture of collaboration in terms of both business development and execution of work.
Another key driver of Yulchon’s dynamic growth is our focus on research and development, with many research teams across each of our practice areas. We also created a centralised Yulchon Research Institute in 2016, and last year, we launched our own business consultancy, YC Consulting.
Yulchon has never stopped making R&D investments. This has two clear benefits. First, it makes our lawyers more informed industry experts as today’s lawyers must be equipped with deep industry knowledge. Second, R&D is the basis for foreseeing changes to the legal services market, and developing new services and products as a result.
Market competition is intensifying with the rise of alternative legal services, the growth of legal technology, and the Big Four accounting firms’ expansion into the legal services market. BigLaw is not safe from these changes, so to predict changes and devise optimal solutions for new legal services market demands, we must invest in R&D and ourselves undertake to innovate.
What’s next for Yulchon?
Yun: Next year, Yulchon’s two founding partners will step down from executive leadership positions, and the second-generation of our partners will carry on with our founders’ legacy. This presents Yulchon with an opportunity to renew our established commitments to collaboration and innovation as we open a new chapter in the firm’s history. As this change in executive leadership takes place, the current management will, of course, ensure a smooth transition.
Over a longer term, I envision Yulchon becoming a truly international law firm with diversity, deeper industry knowledge, and a continued spirit of innovation. Yulchon has continued to expand its international practice through a growing number of offices and collaborations outside Korea, and at the same time, we are strengthening the international capabilities of our practice groups within Korea, especially the strength of our international dispute resolution (IDR) practice. For example, this year we laterally recruited several top lawyers from a renowned boutique IDR firm in Korea – including most notably Baek Yun-jae, a heavyweight senior partner with extensive experience in litigation and international commercial arbitration.
Developing new markets and services through collaborative and innovative efforts, including strong R&D initiatives, will continue to be our primary goal. We will continue to study the rise of new industries, predict their impact on our clients, and be proactive in meeting new legal demands. It is Yulchon’s aim to continue to be known as a law firm that never stops innovating.
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