Customs laws regulate the entry of goods into a country. In the United States, customs laws fall primarily under the jurisdiction of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”). U.S. Customs laws serve both to control the entry of goods that may be harmful or otherwise unlawful (such as counterfeit merchandise) and to raise revenue for the government.
CBP also serves as the border enforcement agency for laws administered by about 50 other government agencies that play a role in the importation of specific goods that fall under their purview, including the Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. As a result, customs law practitioners are often very knowledgeable in multiple areas of administrative law and use that expertise to secure the release of merchandise, mitigate or cancel penalties, and help importers develop business processes to ensure compliance with these laws.
Clients will often seek the advice of customs lawyers to implement policies that simultaneously minimize the tariffs they pay and ensure that they have robust customs compliance policies in place that allow them to import goods lawfully and efficiently. In this advisory role, customs lawyers will also help their clients to classify their imports under the “harmonized system” used by 183 countries around the world—including the U.S. implementation of that system in the Harmonized Tariff Schedule, properly assess the value for their imports, determine the country of origin of their imports, and determine whether the imports are subject to any additional duties imposed as a result of trade remedies actions.
Customs lawyers acting in an advisory role also have additional tools available to help their clients streamline their imports and minimize customs duties, such as the use of free trade zones, bonded warehouses and duty drawback. Customs lawyers have to also be experts in free trade agreements such as the new USMCA, and other preferential trade regimes such as the United States’ Generalized System of Preferences, which may allow importers of certain goods to not pay generally-applicable duties.
Customs lawyers also represent their clients before government agencies in customs enforcement matters, ranging from relatively routine requests for information to formal administrative proceedings such as customs protests and audits. Customs lawyers also litigate challenges to agency determinations before the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (and in certain instances in other federal courts). Compared to the trade remedies litigation discussed above, customs litigation is far more likely to include discovery, including depositions and document production, and may include trials with evidentiary hearings.
Within the government, customs lawyers perform the counterpart of the roles described above, ensuring that imports are being correctly classified, valued, and marked with their country of origin, that importers are paying the correct duties, and that unsafe or unlawful items are not allowed into the country. Attorneys within the government who specialize in customs matters can be responsible for drafting and issuing rulings and decisions, promulgating agency regulations, and advising the agency on policy and litigation matters.
Customs practice is a good option for lawyers who want to occasionally engage in litigation but prefer to work on many relatively short and discrete matters than on a handful of large and long- lasting cases. Customs practitioners deal with the widest range of products of any of the international trade practices, as all goods that cross borders must pass through customs. Customs lawyers also have good opportunities to move in-house at companies that engage in significant amounts of import activity, particularly large manufacturers, retailers and shipping/logistics companies.