What is International Trade Law?

Generally, international trade law includes the rules and customs governing trade between countries. International trade lawyers may focus on applying domestic laws to international trade, and applying treaty-based international law governing trade.

Two main areas of international trade on the domestic side include trade remedy work and export controls/sanctions. Trade remedies are tools used by the government to take corrective action against imports that are causing material injury to a domestic industry because of unfair foreign pricing and/or foreign government subsidies. An example of a trade remedy includes antidumping duties set forth by the International Trade Commission (“ITC”) in response to dumping;this occurs when a foreign company sells a product in the U.S. that is below the price it sells for in its ‘home market’ and thus causes harm to the U.S. industry.

Export control laws govern the exportation of sensitive equipment, software, and technology for reasons related to foreign policy objectives and national security. Three U.S. government agencies have the authority to issue export licenses, including: Department of State; Department of Commerce; and Department of Treasury. Violations of export control laws can carry both civil and criminal penalties.

On the international treaty front, companies may need advice on the rules of the World Trade Organization (“WTO”), which is a formal international organization that regulates trade. Other relevant treaties include the North American Free Trade Agreement (“NAFTA”) and bilateral investment treaties.

Some firm practices focus on only one aspect of the law (such as antidumping), whereas others are very broad practice groups that touch all areas of international trade. The predicted growth area for the future is the laws surrounding data and privacy information flow, since what is permissible differs greatly by country.

What do international trade lawyers do?

International trade lawyers may advise both U.S. companies doing business abroad and foreign businesses operating in the U.S. Companies hire international trade attorneys to counsel them on the relevant international trade rules, advise them on compliance with such rules, as well as to conduct internal investigations, prepare voluntary disclosures, and/or represent them in enforcement actions related to the violation of such rules.

On the domestic side, international trade attorneys may represent their clients before the ITC or the Department of Commerce (“DOC”) regarding disputes related to import laws and remedies (e.g., antidumping actions). If the ITC, DOC, or U.S. Customs and Border Protection make a determination that a client disagrees with, the attorney may represent the client in a protest at the Court of International Trade. Lawyers will also assist clients with customs classification, valuation, and rules of origin matters. International trade attorneys will also help their clients secure the proper license from the DOC or Department of State to export goods. The lawyers may assist companies looking to acquire a U.S. target that is under review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (“CFIUS”), a committee that reviews the national security implications of investment in U.S. assets.

Trade lawyers on the international side handle a lot of disputes, for which the WTO is the primary arbitrator. Only sovereign states can bring disputes to the WTO, and the United States does not hire outside counsel to represent them in these matters, so international trade attorneys often represent other countries. Attorneys may also become involved in lobbying efforts on behalf of their clients to influence international rules.

International Trade Law Resources

Relevant Bar Associations

Where it’s Hot

While a lot of the international trade work is done in the Washington, DC area, you don’t need to be here in order to practice international trade. There is a lot of work in Silicon Valley. The Department of Commerce has opened offices in both San Francisco/Silicon Valley. Customs practices exist wherever you can find a major port, and international trade compliance can be found anywhere, though the work may be industry based in locations outside of DC. The majority of trade remedies work is found in the DC area, though there is a little work in New York.