By Jacco Zwetsloot
A full-service law firm in Korea like HMP Law potentially handles any kind of legal matter that can arise: from criminal defense, through inheritances, to obtaining government licensing to build and operate a nuclear power plant.
As well as lawyers (our firm has around 80), there are tax specialists, notary publics, advisers, patent attorneys and many back-office support staff, such as receptionists, secretaries, librarians and paralegals, without whom the office could not function.
And then there are people like me. My business card says that I am Director of Business Innovation, and when I introduce myself and hand over one of these cards, people always ask “what does your job entail?” or “what does a director of business innovation actually do?”
I’ll come back to that question later. But first of all, how did I end up here? It has been a long and circuitous journey, and I could not have predicted landing at a law firm.
A quarter of a century ago, when I wore a younger man’s clothes as Mr. Joel sings, I actually set out to become a lawyer. In high school, the idea of arguing for a living and being a member of the jet set held a strong appeal. No other profession seemed as attractive to me. But during my first year of law at the University of Melbourne, the massive and soporific readings for compulsory subjects “Torts and the Process of Law” and “History and Philosophy of Law” were enough to convince me that law was not my path. At least not for the moment.
The call of humanities beckoned, and so I finished my first degree with a Bachelor of Arts in Modern European Studies and German Language (now quite rusty). My vague plan upon graduation was to find some work, save some money and go to Germany to study more. But life is, as they say, what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.
July 1996 saw me coming to Korea on a one-year contract to teach English for the Korean Ministry of Education. I was to be a part of its fledgling Korea English Teacher Training Assistant (KORETTA) program, renamed in 1997 to English Program in Korea, or EPIK. I arrived at Kimpo (now Gimpo) International Airport wearing far too many clothes for the sultry summer weather, and immediately started sweating.
Because I had not received the guidebook for new teachers before departing Australia, and the instructions I did have were very scant, I was looking for a sign in the arrival hall with my name on it. Not seeing one there, and not realizing that KORETTA meant me, I made several laps of the hall, scanning faces for anyone who might be waiting for a lone young foreign newcomer. With each lap I became more and more nervous that nobody had been sent to meet me.
One hour later, I was asking for change from the snack bar. I needed to use the payphone to call the only phone number I knew in Korea, the number of a man around my age who was already teaching English here. His name was John, and he kindly came out from Sinchon to the airport in a taxi and took me to stay with him for the night.
Jacco Zwetsloot works for HMP Law as Director of Business Innovation. The thoughts expressed in this column do not necessary reflect those of HMP Law.