International trade law is the set of laws and agreements that govern commerce between countries. International trade laws create the rules that countries and businesses must follow in order to do business across borders. Lawyers who work in the field help create international agreements. They also educate businesses about what they need to do in order to comply with rules and regulations for international trade.
International trade law is federal law
The U.S. government has exclusive authority to create international trade regulations. Individual states can’t make their own agreements without federal approval. Both the legislative and judicial branches of the U.S. government have a role to play in the creation of international trade laws.
The U.S. Constitution affords Congress the authority to regulate commerce with other countries. Article two of the U.S. Constitution gives the President the authority to make treaties with the approval of the Senate. The President appoints a U.S. Secretary of Commerce to oversee international trade efforts on their behalf.
The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade
The earliest major international trade agreement involving a significant number of countries is the 1948 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The Agreement prohibits economic activity that member nations see as unfair. One of the prohibited practices is dumping or lowering prices in one geographic area in order to push out a competitor. Another prohibited practice is offering subsidies in order to disproportionately aid a certain economic sector. The establishment of the World Trade Organization in 1994 supersedes GATT.
World Trade Organization
Established in 1994 and in operation since 1995, the World Trade Organization is a large and formal, international organization that creates rules for international trade. The Agreement Establishing the World Trade Organization, also known as the Marrakesh Agreement, is the document that creates and organizes the World Trade Organization. The World Trade Organization sits permanently in Geneva, Switzerland with a staff of more than 600 members. The highest body within the organization is the Ministerial Conference which meets every two years.
There are five guiding principles in the World Trade Organization:
- Non-discrimination – All member countries must grant the same, favorable conditions for trade to other member countries. They must apply uniform rules to every country in the organization. Once a product is in the country, the standards must be the same as they are for domestic products with regards to technology specifications and other requirements.
- Reciprocity – Member states should work towards lowering barriers for trade in exchange for the same concessions from other countries.
- Agreements are enforceable – Member countries may raise disputes and have those disputes heard exclusively in the jurisdiction of the World Trade Organization.
- Transparency – Countries must publish their trade regulations and make them accessible. They must also respond to direct requests for information.
- Safety – It’s permissible to restrict trade for environmental safety, public health or plant and animal safety.
Intellectual property rights
A major facet of the World Trade Organization is the protection of intellectual property rights internationally. Intellectual property rights include things like copyrights, trademarks and patents. Signatories to the World Trade Organization must recognize and uphold intellectual property rights.
When disputes arise regarding international trade law, the World Trade Organization has a system for mediation. As many as 25 percent of disputes resolve through the mediation process. For cases that don’t resolve through mediation, the disputing parties can resolve their case through a formal tribunal.
North American Free Trade Agreement
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is a 1994 trade agreement between Canada, the United States and Mexico. NAFTA eliminates trade barriers between the three countries. It bans tariffs on approximately one-third of American imports and on one-half of Mexican imports. NAFTA protects intellectual property rights between member states and provides for dispute resolution. The intellectual property provisions of NAFTA change some U.S. copyright laws and restore copyrights to some movies that were otherwise in the public domain.
The U.S. Department of Commerce
The United States Department of Commerce is a cabinet-level government institution that oversees and promotes economic activity in the United States. Within the Department of Commerce, the Bureau of International Trade Administration works to strengthen economic activity and competition in the United States. The Department of Commerce helps commercial activity by making recommendations for international regulations. They also provide information for businesses regarding standards and regulations so that businesses have the information that they need to comply with international trade laws.
Tax laws are an important area of international trade law
International trade law involves significant work in the field of tax law. An international transaction may occur in several different countries. Commerce that involves multiple countries is called a cross-border transaction. International trade attorneys must work to ensure that their clients understand and comply with tax laws in all of the countries where they do business. They must also work on behalf of their clients to reduce or avoid repetitive taxation.
Who practices international trade law?
A significant number of international trade lawyers work on behalf of the United States government. The United States relies on legal representatives to draft and negotiate trade agreements with other organizations. These individuals represent the United States in the World Trade Organization. Government international trade lawyers may also work for the Department of Commerce.
There are many roles for international trade lawyers within the U.S. Government. They may work directly with representatives from other nations. They may work to assist U.S. businesses to find the information that they need about standards and regulations. Attorneys may work to compile data and other information in order to make recommendations for commerce regulations.
International trade lawyers who are employed with the U.S. Department of Commerce live and work in all 50 states. They may also travel internationally as a U.S. representative to the World Trade Organization or to another international assignment. There are more than 46,000 employees in the U.S. Department of Commerce. In addition to working for the U.S. Department of Commerce, international trade attorneys may also work in the executive branch on behalf of the President of the United States.
In addition to government employees, many international trade lawyers work in private practice. Corporations large and small that do business internationally need to ensure that they comply with trade regulations including tariffs, taxes and customs regulations. They rely on international trade attorneys to help them navigate the process. Many corporations rely on attorneys that are in private practice. Law firms may have offices in multiple countries throughout the world in order to assist their clients with domestic and international laws.
Many attorneys who work in international trade law have advanced training. Because international trade law is a complex and diverse area of law, students hoping to enter the field may be wise to take advantage of international trade law courses offered in their academic programs. In addition, some schools offer advanced degrees with a concentration in international trade law. Many attorneys working in the field have this advanced training.
Why Become a International Trade Lawyer?
International trade law can be a dynamic and exciting career choice. International trade lawyers may work for a single organization for their entire career. They may work for the Department of Commerce for many years and through significant changes and updates in the law. Even attorneys in private practice may work their entire career for a single group of clients. International trade is a large and important area of international relations and commerce.
The U.S. government participates in international trade negotiations on an ongoing basis. Corporations must continually monitor their compliance with trade laws and regulations. The attorneys that work in the field can expect regular, ongoing work that forms the basis of an entire career. In addition, international trade law can be a good fit for attorneys with a background in business or international relations. International trade law can also be a good fit for attorneys who are hoping to travel frequently or even live abroad.
Helping the world do business
International trade regulations impact virtually the entire world. Attorneys make international trade regulations. They also help business understand them and implement them. Working in the field of international trade law can be an exciting and challenging career choice as you shape the way the world does business.