A Seoul Journey

A headshot photo of John Ohnesorge, wearing a twill black suit jacket, with a maroon pinstriped shirt, and UW-themed tie that is mostly black with white stripes and UW logos.
John Ohnesorge

John Ohnesorge returns to South Korea as Fulbright Distinguished Scholar.

As a young lawyer fresh out of law school in 1989, John Ohnesorge never thought he’d be practicing law in South Korea.

Sure, he had taught En­glish in China prior to his legal studies, returning to Shanghai during his second year of law school for a unique semes­ter in the law department of Fudan University.

At the time, the mid-1980s, China was just beginning to re-establish its legal system and legal profession after the Cultural Revolution, Ohnesorge explained.

“And they were just beginning to reopen their economy to foreign investment and international trade, so it was a really interesting time to be in China,” he added.

As a student, Ohnesorge was originally interested in how law affects innovation and commerce.

“So, my first interest was coming back to the greater China region to be an international commercial lawyer,” he explained.

When Ohnesorge graduated with his J.D. from Univer­sity of Minnesota (U of M) Law School in December 1989, he first set his sights on achieving that goal, hoping to maybe work in Taiwan or Hong Kong.

“There were really very few opportunities in mainland China at that point for a foreign lawyer,” he said. “There were a couple foreign law firms that had tiny offices in Beijing and Shanghai, but China was very closed still to foreign firms. The Chinese firms that existed at that time were just beginning to separate from the state bureaucra­cy and were not ready to hire foreign lawyers themselves.”

But then his wife, Jin, received a Fulbright fellowship to study intellectual property law in South Korea. Almost simultaneously, a Korean lawyer happened to write to the U of M placement office seeking an associate to work in his firm in Seoul.

“So, I wrote back and expressed interest, and he hired me through the mail,” Ohnesorge recalled. “I had never been in Korea. Well, I had been in the airport once on my way back from China. But I came over on my own, before Jin even, and started working as a foreign legal consul­tant.”

Working in Seoul

Being a foreign legal consultant basically means you’re not admitted to the local bar, he explained, adding that several countries in the world create this category.

The firm that hired Ohnesorge was a local Korean firm that had international clients or other international business. As part of his practice, Ohnesorge assisted interna­tional clients interested in investing in Korea.

“My role was not to advise on Korean law in a technical sense, because I’m not licensed there and shouldn’t be offering legal advice, but to help facilitate the transactions,” he said.

It was work Ohnesorge, now George Young Bascom Professor of Law and director of the East Asian Legal Studies Center at University of Wisconsin Law School, said he “really enjoyed.”

“There was a lot of variety in that sort of international transaction practice,” he explained. “I worked on investments by Korean companies around the world. The Soviet world had just fallen apart, so Korean companies were going out, and I worked on deals in Kazakhstan and Vietnam. There was also a lot of incoming commerce involving American companies, European companies, etc., and whenever there was an international transaction going on in the firm, one of the foreign legal consultants was on it.”

One of the more memorable moments of his work in Korea occurred when a foreign vessel exploded in a Korean shipyard where it was being repaired, a matter that involved Korean criminal law as well as international politics.

Though the work was uniquely and excitingly varied, there was a downside to starting a law career as a foreign lawyer practicing abroad.

“You became specialized in a particular kind of practice but didn’t get a lot of training in any specific area of U.S. law,” Ohnesorge explained. “I was an American lawyer and wanted to work more closely with core areas of American law related to international business.”

It was this limited nature of work in Korea which led to the couple’s decision to consider leaving.

Returning to America

At first, Ohnesorge said he was talking to law firms about staying in Asia somewhere, maybe going into a more China-focused practice. He was also applying to LL.M. programs both in the U.S. and in the UK.

“I had done a lot of work in Korea with a London maritime law firm and there was some talk about me becoming a maritime lawyer and moving to London, the center of the maritime law world,” he explained. “But I ended up being accepted into the Harvard LL.M. program and decided to head to Boston instead.

In the spring of 1995, after completed the LL.M. program, Ohnesorge entered the school’s S.J.D. program, which took his future career possibilities out of the world of practice and into the academic. At Harvard, he worked most closely with Professor William Alford, a China law specialist who also directed Harvard’s East Asian Legal Studies Center. Toward the end of his S.J.D., he also clerked in the federal district court in Boston, for Judge Rya Zobel, an opportunity Ohnesorge said influenced his career a great deal.

“I hadn’t really worked in U.S. litigation ever,” he said. “I had been abroad, and I was doing transactions, so it was really cool to be able to clerk at the trial court level because you get to watch the lawyers and judges interact at a really interesting level.”

During his S.J.D, Ohnesorge also spent a year at the Max Plank Institute in Heidelberg, Germany, conducting research for his dissertation on the importation of western administrative law into East Asia.

Path to Wisconsin: A Return to Roots

While finishing his education at Harvard, Ohnesorge started to explore the law teaching market, and the University of Wisconsin.

Law School was one of the most interesting opportunities for him.

“I was very excited about the possibility of coming to Wisconsin for a couple of reasons,” said Ohnesorge. “First, it has an outstanding intellectual tradition of international scholarship, legal history scholarship, the law and society and law and development tradition, and I knew about that. Second, UW Law had this great East Asian Legal Center that Chuck Irish had founded and built. It was really the perfect job for me professionally.”

It was also the perfect fit personally, he said.

“I grew up in South Minneapolis, but my mother’s family had immigrated to Wisconsin from Norway, so we came to Wisconsin a lot as kids,” Ohnesorge explained. “My mom grew up in Wisconsin, on a dairy farm in Iola Township. Iola is just north of the town of Scandinavia, and one of my ancestors, Isaac Eliason, is credited with founding Scandinavia.”

So, it’s no surprise, he said, that when Wisconsin made him an offer he accepted over the phone; “no haggling.” It’s a decision he said he doesn’t regret.

Return to Seoul

This year, after decades away, Ohnesorge (alongside his wife Jin) returned to Seoul as a Ful­bright Distinguished Scholar at Yonsei Universi­ty. In addition to teaching in the spring and fall semesters, Ohnesorge is researching Korea as a case study of democratization and the role of law in the region. It’s a burgeoning area of scholarship that Ohnesorge said he’s excited to engage in.

“There’s a lot of literature recently about the role of law in democratic backsliding,” he explained. Much of the literature focuses on Central and Eastern Europe, with some discussion of Latin America, he added.

But South Korea and Taiwan, Ohnesorge said, “managed the transition from authoritarianism to democracy, and they’ve maintained it.”

“I think if you’re trying to isolate the factors important to backsliding, you should study countries that transitioned and didn’t revert back to authoritarianism, and Korea is one of those,” he said.

For Ohnesorge and his wife, being back in Asia is “very normal.”

“Jin was born in Korea, so we have relatives here,” he said. “We also have many friends and colleagues here, and, throughout the whole region, I have former students and friends from Japan to Indonesia, so it’s just nice to connect with these people face-to-face again following the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Korean society has also become more open than it was in the ’90s, he continued.

“So, it’s a little more comfortable, a little easi­er to live here now than it used to be,” he said.

Building Blocks for the Future

While Ohnesorge completes his teaching and research as part of his Fulbright obligations, as director of the East Asian Legal Studies Center he’s also working to maintain and expand the Law School’s connections across Asia. Over the summer, alongside Dean Dan Tokaji, Associate Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Rebecca Scheller and Assistant Dean of Graduate Programs Jason Smith, Ohnesorge met with deans, faculty and alumni in South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand. In September, he returned to Taiwan to present his research at several institutions in Taipei, and he also plans work trips to Vietnam, Hong Kong and Thailand before he returns to Madison in December.

“Over several decades, East Asian Legal Studies and the Law School built an amazing network in East and Southeast Asia, primarily through the work of Professor Charles Irish and a series of internationally minded deans,” said Ohnesorge. “In a globalized world, it’s crucial that we maintain and expand this network for the benefit of the Law School and the UW as a whole.”

By Kassandra Tuten