The Growth of Systemic Pro Bono in South Korea

by Takgon Lee – Attorney at Law – Dongcheon Foundation
Thursday, 4 February 2021 07:27 GMT

In the Republic of Korea, there has been a strong tradition of human rights advocacy with lawyers participating in the democracy movement of the 1970s and ’80s. Systematic pro bono work by law firms only emerged in the past decade, but has seen explosive growth in the past few years.

The first effort to institutionalise law firm pro bono started with Bae, Kim & Lee, LLC (BKL), which set up an internal pro bono committee in 2001 and established the Dongcheon Foundation in 2009. Under this distinctive model, the firm established a separate non-profit organisation staffed by full-time public interest lawyers, functioning both as a public interest lawyering entity and a preliminary pro bono coordinating body for the firm. It has proven successful in both the accumulation of expertise and in the efficient coordination of pro bono activities, and the model has been adopted by most other major law firms. Together in 2016 they formed the Law Firm Public Interest Network (Network), which now has 12 members. Most of the member law firms focus on the rights of various social minorities, including refugees and migrants, persons with disabilities, children, women, North Korean refugees and homeless people. To this end, they actively engage in partnerships and coalitions with other public interest lawyer groups and civil society organisations.

Growth of systematic pro bono practice was in part helped by the mandatory pro bono requirement which is, interestingly, stipulated by hard law (the Attorney-at-law Act). The Korean Bar Association is granted discretion in regulating the number of pro bono hours required for individual attorneys, generally 20 hours per year. Individual attorneys are also required to report their pro bono work to local bar associations. This mandatory requirement, while not strongly enforced in practice, has reinforced the public perception of the legal profession’s duty to society, and has set a minimum bar for major law firms to meet and exceed in their fulfilment of corporate social responsibilities.

In the past few years, attempts to establish local pro bono clearinghouses have also begun. The Seoul Bar Association, by far the largest local bar association in Korea, established the Seoul Bar Association Pro Bono Support Center in 2016, as the first full-fledged pro bono clearinghouse in Korea. The Dongcheon Legal Center for Non-profit Organizations, also established in 2016, has taken a slightly different approach: it matches individual lawyers with NGOs one-on-one, rather than referring individual cases. The Korean Bar Association also established its Pro Bono Support Center in 2020, which, it is hoped, will lay out a framework for the coordination of systematic pro bono practice of individual bar members.

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