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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    February 07, 2023

    10 Questions
    Ngosong Fonkem: Providing International Trade Law Advice to Business Clients

    Ngosong Fonkem is an attorney at Harris Bricken Sliwoski LLP, an international firm that provides companies with business-practical representation on all aspects of international law. Fonkem is chair of the State Bar's International Law Section and also serves on the boards of the Section Leaders Council and the Business Law Section
    Ngosong Fonkem

    What does a trade compliance lawyer do?

    In simple terms, a trade compliance lawyer helps companies, countries, and individuals navigate domestic and foreign legal issues from an import and export perspective.

    What was your path to becoming a trade compliance lawyer, including your background?

    My path really started with my interest in learning about foreign countries and cultures as well as political issues affecting world events.

    That interest led me to relocating to southeast Asia after completing my JD/MBA/LLM in 2012. In southeast Asia, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to teach international law-related courses as a full-time member of the law faculty at the oldest private university in Malaysia, while also working as an energy consultant for a French energy-intelligence management consulting firm.

    By the time I returned to the United States in 2016, I knew that I would focus my practice entirely on international trade law. So, I began strategizing on what I needed to do to break into that practice sector, especially given that it is a relatively niche field dominated by large East Coast law firms.

    I read everything available about the type of work attorneys typically encountered in the field, and I attended every trade law-related conference, national and international, to meet some of the players and learn about issues affecting the profession. I authored numerous articles and spoke at national and international conferences on trade-related issues and wrote a book about international trade to demonstrate my knowledge of the subject matter.

    Fortunately, my hard work did not go unnoticed. In 2022, I was appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce and the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) to serve as an industry sector advisor within the USTR’s Industry Sector Technical Advisory Committee (ITAC) on Small, Minority, and Women-led Business.

    At ITAC’s first meeting, I was elected chair of the committee. In 2019, I was appointed by the Turkish Investor and Industrialist Businessmen Association to serve as its U.S. representative. I am the chair of the State Bar of Wisconsin’s International Practice Section; vice-chair of the International Trade Committee of the Inter-Pacific Bar Association; chair of the events committee at the International Trade Club of Chicago; and board member on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Business Law Section. From 2016 to 2018, I served as a commissioner on the Board of Brown County Harbor Commission at the port of Green Bay.

    All these diverse experiences have helped shape the lawyer I am today. They have provided me with skill sets to think creatively to find solutions tailored to my clients’ scenarios.

    What made you interested in international issues?

    My interest might be due to my background – I was born in Cameroon, a country located in west Africa. I also love to travel and learn about other cultures, with particular interest in traveling to non-popular destinations around the world. I have had the opportunity to live in or visit more than 50 countries so far.

    Ngosong Fonkem at World Cup

    How did you learn the specialized knowledge it takes to become a trade compliance lawyer?

    I have had the opportunity to work under the supervision of some of the best international trade lawyers that I know. My entrance into the practice began when I connected with the coauthor of my book, Bruce Aitken at Aitken Berlin LLP, a Washington D.C.-based boutique firm that focuses on international trade.

    Thereafter, I worked for Ulice Payne at Addison Clifton (a boutique trade-compliance consulting firm) based in Milwaukee. And most recently before joining my current firm, Harris Bricken Sliwoski LLP, I worked at Page.Fura P.C., a boutique international-trade law firm based in Chicago. All these experiences gave me valuable insights into the various aspects of international law practice, both litigation and transactional. With these experiences, I naturally gravitated to the transactional side because I prefer the regulatory and deal-making aspect of legal practice.

    What does a typical day entail for you?

    The most interesting aspect of being an international trade lawyer is that there is never a boring day at the office – the work varies depending on the clients’ business needs and the projects they are seeking to accomplish.

    A typical day might involve videoconferences and phone meetings with clients about their business operations overseas or explaining the trade laws of the U.S. and other countries in laypersons’ terms and then strategizing on plans of action to help them accomplish their goals. I also analyze ongoing geopolitical developments in the U.S. and around the world and provide strategic advice to clients on how to navigate the business and trade risks associated with those events. And I also spend a fair amount of time drafting legal documents necessary to accomplish the clients’ goals.

    What is the biggest challenge of the job?

    One of the challenging aspects of having clients that are located overseas or travel overseas frequently is that sometimes I must attend meetings at 3 or 4 a.m. Further, I am never truly on vacation because my work revolves around clients’ needs.

    What is most rewarding?

    It brings me a lot of joy to help clients accomplish their goals.

    What advice do you have for a new lawyer interested in pursuing your area of practice?

    It is a difficult field to break into because there are very few law firms with international trade practices and most of them typically require three to five years of relevant experience. If new lawyers have the opportunity to work in this field, they should not hesitate to develop the necessary skill sets, even if that opportunity is not financially rewarding at that time. Once they have the skills and experience, the money will come.

    One of your hobbies is sailing. What do you love about it?

    When I was young, I loved reading stories of sailors, merchants, and explorers traveling by sea to distant, faraway lands. I suppose it is the sense of adventure, exploration, and connection to history.

    You played soccer in college. Did you watch the World Cup?

    I had the opportunity to travel to Qatar to experience the World Cup firsthand. It was such an amazing experience. Despite all the allegations and controversies that grew louder in the weeks leading up to the World Cup, I believe this edition of the World Cup will be celebrated by many as one of the best in terms of its administration and entertainment value. Every match was competitive. Lots of surprises. My hope was to see a first-time winner. So, I was a little disappointed in that regard.

    » Cite this article: 96 Wis. Law. 8-9 (February 2023).

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