Like in other countries in Asia, Korean law firms found themselves affected by the COVID-19 outbreak, but they moved swiftly to mitigate the impact, and ensure business continued as smoothly as possible. In this roundtable, leaders of three of the largest Korean firms talk about the year so far, and the lessons they will take from the experience.
ALB: This has been a most unique year. In what major aspects have you seen the pandemic impact your firm and its work to date?
SUNGJIN KIM, Bae, Kim & Lee: It has been a particularly unique experience for us because we executed a major move earlier this year from South of the Han River where were we located for most of our ﬁrm’s history to North where the old city centre is located. Therefore, we were already prepared to make some adjustments while we settled in and our clients got used to the new location. Having established the most up-to-date infrastructure in our new ofﬁce (e.g. video conference system and IP phones), it has become rather helpful for us to work under the new work environment in the COVID era. That preparedness and the government’s relatively early response to the pandemic helped us keep most of our operations relatively normal.
Of course, we were not without our challenges. Relocating in the middle of a global pandemic heightened awareness of everyone’s health concerns and therefore it was difﬁcult to ﬁnd appropriate opportunities to promote our beautiful new ofﬁces.
Also, we noticed some differences in the workload of each practice area after the outbreak of the pandemic. We have experienced an increase in urgent legal advisory and litigation needs of clients including in areas of corporate restructuring, labour/employment, construction and contract disputes. In contrast, transactional matters including M&As and IPOs saw some slowing down.
KYE SUNG CHUNG, Kim & Chang: The major impact is in the way our mode of interaction with clients and with one another within the ﬁrm has been trans-formed. With clients, video conferencing has become the norm, even for clients in Korea. In place of in-person brieﬁngs, webinars have become an important tool for reaching out to clients to provide updates and discuss new developments. We do miss the in-person interactions with clients, but the shared experience of living and working through the pandemic has made communication whatever the medium more personal and franker than before, contributing ironically to a strengthening of relationships with clients.
Video/audio conferencing has also become the norm with colleagues, with clear advantages and some downsides. We had some misgivings in the beginning, given our highly collaborative work culture at Kim & Chang, but we were pleased by the gains in efﬁciency made possible, especially by doing away with the need to move among different buildings. However, the move to video/audio conferencing has required management step up communications with colleagues, especially younger colleagues, to maintain morale and show that management cares.
Fortunately, the pandemic has not had a major impact on the nature and magnitude of the work we do. There was a small adjustment at the outset of the pandemic, but work levels quickly recovered.
JINSU JEONG, Yoon & Yang: It is true that the pandemic has adversely affected our ﬁrm’s M&A and other investment transaction activities, as many deals have become suspended or postponed. The uncertainties posed by the pandemic, like elsewhere, have temporarily stopped many of our clients from pursuing new business ventures.
But other practice areas remain strong, with some even expected to grow as a result of the economic fallout of the pandemic, namely those associated with insolvency, restructuring and contractual disputes
For Yoon & Yang, the uncertainties posed by the pandemic are not new. We have been here before, notably during the 08-09 financial crisis, and like then and now, we have and will come out much stronger as a law ﬁrm with new avenues for conducting legal work through innovation and adaptability.
Indeed, when the pandemic ﬁrst broke out in January, the firm was quick to adopt technology to facilitate safe communications. Online meetings with clients, via Zoom, Webex or MS Teams, have become the norm. The computer networking system has also been updated to allow attorneys and staff members to work safely from home.
The change is also welcomed by our corporate clients who have had to roll out a work-from-home protocol to their employees. Although we look forward to the day when we can get back to a sense of normalcy with in-person meetings, for the present, we are committed to providing top-quality legal service by tapping all the resources that we have available.
ALB: What were some of the key challenges you had to overcome early on in the pandemic period, particularly when it came to employee safety and client relationships? Now it is September – what are your priorities now and going forward?
KIM: Luckily for us, the Korean government started its response quite early and effectively, so our main task was to implement the suggested precautions, but this involved securing the health of over 1000 members along with keeping our office relocation on track. Most people in Korea are familiar enough with mask-wearing that it didn’t cause any social opposition so, other than being extra vigilant about social distancing, we were able to operate mostly as normal.
However, the extended period of crisis globally seems to have worn down our will power as well evidenced by some recent increases in cases. From mid-August, Korea has shown signs of a second wave of the pandemic. Our ofﬁces outside of Korea, which are strategically spread over seven key global cities have also been signiﬁcantly impacted by the inability of our professionals to smoothly and continuously travel between the ofﬁces since the outbreak of COVID.
To date, since our practices have not felt substantially threatened by the pandemic, we were able to operate with less stringent measures (for example, remote working in shifts, ﬂexible working hours to accommodate mass transportation conditions) compared to others. However, if the current resurge of COVID looks to be getting worse, not better, then we may need to implement more aggressive measures such as working fully from home for all employees. CHUNG: The key challenges at the outset were to protect the health and safety of our clients and colleagues as well as the broader community, maintain effective communication with clients, and advise clients when they looked to us to help them navigate the legal and practical challenges brought on by the pandemic.
Although it has been six months since the pandemic erupted, the need for vigilance to protect the health and safety of our colleagues and clients has not changed fundamentally, as Korea has experienced continued waves of infections despite having done relatively well at containing the virus when compared with other countries. The challenge of maintaining meaningful communication with clients when in-person communication is not possible continues to be with us, while the need to advise clients on pandemic-related issues is less so.
A newer challenge now is to maintain high morale among our younger colleagues and to make sure they get the training and mentoring they need to thrive given that face–to-face interaction with colleagues is somewhat more limited than before.
JEONG: The COVID-19 pause felt like a small parting with our clients. Without regular face-to-face meetings, it certainly became more challenging to fully understand their legal needs. Early on, we did everything we could to avoid any miscommunication that could arise from physical separation. Nonetheless, when physical contact was necessary, we were there to meet them in our conference rooms, under the protection of strict safety protocols.
Going forward, the health and safety of our workplace will remain our top priority. Yoon & Yang rigidly implements the government’s guidelines. Finally, we have developed an internal COVID-19 response guideline for everyone to follow should an outbreak occur inside the building. All in all, our ﬁrm is committed to overcoming the challenges posed by the pandemic.
ALB: With employees generally working from home, how have you looked to balance productivity with employee morale and wellbeing? What are some lessons you will take for the future when it comes to employee engagement going forward?
KIM: If the situation worsens, we may have to implement working from home more fully, however, to date, we have not had to take such drastic measures. Therefore, with most of our workforce still commuting to the ofﬁce, the impact to our productivity as well as morale and wellbeing are probably a lot less of a concern for us. With that being said, we are sensitive to the morale and wellbeing of our people being impacted by the “Corona Blue” in general. Therefore, we are continuously endeavouring to create a corporate culture where our members can rely on each other for support and comfort with a common sense of purpose even in these tough times.
CHUNG: Korea was never under lockdown, so our ofﬁces have continued to remain open, and despite flexible work from home arrangements, most colleagues have continued to come to the ofﬁce for work. Nevertheless, while we are mindful to abide by distancing measures, being able to see colleagues at work and sharing in the sense that everyone is getting through this together has helped a great deal. We are also taking care to communicate often to our colleagues, apprising them of the measures that the ﬁrm is implementing, being transparent as possible about the why and the how of these measures and on areas where we can do better to ensure everyone’s safety.
The key lesson we have learned is that effective, meaningful communication within the organisation and lots of it is critical to over-coming unprecedented challenges like those posed by the pandemic.
JEONG: Despite the disruptions, work productivity has remained the same. But for some, it has even shot upward thanks to the time saved from not having to travel to work and the extra efforts input by our various practice groups to smooth the transition.
The technical team at Yoon & Yang has done an excellent job at setting up the computer networking system so that whether you are working from home or in ofﬁce, you can have an identical PC setting. The ﬁrm is ﬂexible and is open to the needs of those attorneys and staff members who feel more comfortable working from home.
“Our team had to stay up to date on all of the changes imposed by the government so that we could provide proper feedback to our clients on a timely as well as practical basis. The importance of maintaining our high standards under this year’s unique circumstances were especially pronounced.”
— Sungjin Kim, Bae, Kim & Lee
ALB: Companies today are facing a challenging period and having to make difficult decisions. What are the ways you feel that you as their legal counsel can help them during this time?
KIM: Our employment and labour practice group has had a particularly difﬁcult time in this regard. Although they often have to help guide clients through the most difﬁcult of times, this year the challenges posed by COVID were mostly unplanned and therefore, many companies were caught off guard. Employment issues and labour relations under Korean laws can be complicated enough under the best of circumstances with plenty of planning so you can imagine the challenges this year. Our team had to stay up to date on all the changes imposed by the government so that we could provide proper feedback to our clients on a timely as well as practical basis. Again, providing practical advice on a timely basis is nothing new for us but the importance of maintaining those high standards under this year’s unique circumstances were especially pronounced.
Taking this opportunity, BKL has been activating more virtual meetings via phone and video conferences, creating an atmosphere conducive to contacting clients more frequently and having discussions more candidly. Further, BKL is also considering more ﬂexible fee arrangements for clients that are suffering from ﬁnancial difﬁculties since the pandemic.
CHUNG: We believe continuing to be a trusted adviser to clients as well as their legal counsel is the best way to help our clients, to advise on challenges holistically, while seeing the “big picture.” At the outset of the pandemic, we created a COVID-19 taskforce comprised of senior management and attorneys specializing in employment, health and safety, ﬁnance, privacy, contract law, corporate governance and other relevant areas to leverage our professionals’ collective knowledge, expertise, and experience to serve clients’ COVID-19 related legal needs in various areas.
On a more personal level, we are checking in often with clients to see how they are doing, outside of ongoing projects or outstanding tasks – everyone appreciates having an empathetic ear to share this unprecedented experience with.
Finally, we have been exploring more ﬂexible fee arrangements to help clients manage legal costs in these difﬁcult times.
JEONG: Our ﬁrm has been proactive in preparing for the legal issues stemming from the pandemic. We established our COVID-19 taskforce early on to monitor the COVID-19 situation and to identify and explore customised ways to address the legal issues faced by the companies during the pandemic. The taskforce has been composed of senior partners and professionals from across the board, and it regularly holds seminars to share their ﬁndings with our clients so that our clients can proactively assess their legal positions. The information is also shared with the wider public through newsletters, articles and reports.
ALB: What are some major takeaways for you from this period when it comes to the firm itself and how it is being run? How do you feel you will use some of these lessons in the future to build a more resilient firm?
KIM: We realised the importance of transparent information-sharing and swift internal communications to prevent unnecessary misunderstanding and conﬂict between BKL members, enabling them to return to and focus on their work. In addition, we are also aware that a solid VDI system should be built and maintained well in case of natural disasters or for creating a more efﬁcient working environment to improve productivity. BKL’s management group will run this ﬁrm based on the belief that only a healthy law ﬁrm which is able to respond to emergencies ﬂexibly can resolve its clients’ issues thoroughly.
CHUNG: We feel that the technological aspects of the virtual ofﬁce are here to stay – and for the better, especially as we grow larger in numbers and more diverse in terms of lifestyles and work habits. The COVID-19 taskforce we set up to advise clients on pandemic-related challenges, which is also responsible for setting the ﬁrm’s virus-related policies, has proved to be very effective; We will be relying on this taskforce-based approach to meet future challenges.
Perhaps most importantly, the sense of common well-being is some-thing that we were concerned was being diluted as we grew in size but we have gratefully been able to recapture as we worked through the new challenges together.
JEONG: The major takeaway from the COVID-19 experience is the importance of being flexible and proactive. The ability to respond swiftly to any crisis and to effectively adapt to the new environment, I think, is the key to success going forward.
Our partners and the management always place the interests of our clients first. The swift establishment of our COVID-19 taskforce is a statement of our commitment to providing top-quality legal service to our clients. Yoon & Yang will always remain one step ahead to meet any challenges going forward.
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