Global reach: Lawyer facilitates foreign expansion for businesses

By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

Her University of Michigan economics professor urged Jean Schtokal to steer clear of the law.

"He told me I should work for the legislature and see how laws are made--the old sausage analogy, once you see it being made you'll want nothing to do with it," she says.

With her professor's help, she landed a 12-month stint with the Michigan House of Representatives Taxation Committee, as an aide to the Tax Expenditures Subcommittee. Her professor's advice somewhat backfired.

"I fell in love with the law and complexities involving tax issues," says Schtokal, now a leading international business attorney with Foster Swift in Lansing.

After earning her degree from Wayne State University School of Law, where she dabbled in anything international--including a winning Niagara International Moot Court team dealing with U.S./Canada law issues - she joined Hill Lewis (now Clark Hill) in Detroit. New associates rotated around specialties.

"I had a strong interest in tax law, but seemed to find an international issue in whatever project I was handed," she says.

In one case, the firm represented a steel company planning build a pipeline under the Detroit River to import gas from Canada. Approved by the FERC, it was contested by the MPSC. Schtokal was tasked with the briefing and oral argument for her federal appellate rotation.

"Where everyone saw the legal issue as one of federal preemption, I found an international treaty between the U.S. and Canada and saw an international issue," she says. "The firm finally said, 'Enough already, okay, you can work on our international transactions.'"

Schtokal, who joined Foster Swift in 1991, notes there is a lot of international business work in Michigan.

"Our clients are doing very exciting things internationally," she says.

Legal systems around the world can be a challenge. In one case, an employee of a client's foreign subsidiary was jailed over a product defect dispute that involved a politically connected union.

"We worked on the national and international level pulling every string I could think of to try to resolve the matter, including calling in our federally elected officials and using the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) investor protections," Schtokal says.

Once, overseeing a tax dispute as a result of transfer of a foreign plant facility, where there were no requirements to serve filed pleadings to the other side, Foster Swift had to have its lawyer drive to the court weekly to check the docket and get copies of pleadings filed by the other side.

In an acquisition in the U.S., Schtokal was called in at the last minute when the foreign client failed to get the appropriate authorizations, in a highly regulated industry, to permit the sale to go through.

"We scrambled, used our excellent reputation with the regulators, and were able to weave a path that permitted the transaction to obtain the needed approvals, set up the appropriate systems and successfully complete the transaction within the window of opportunity," she says. "The board of our foreign client was elated!"

Schtokal enjoys helping clients set up lucrative international alliances and build on them.

"Problem solving and bringing value added to our clients is the greatest thing about this job," she says. "I'm very proud to say that I have attorneys and law firms as clients. We're delighted to assist them with their own clients when they themselves do not have expertise in the technical ins and outs of international trade and transactions."

When Michigan's economy tanked, Schtokal became an export evangelist, with the mantra "Don't shutter your plant, if you have excess capacity consider opening the door to new markets--we can guide you, show you how."

U.S. defense budget cutbacks provide new opportunities for sales of defense items to nations with policy goals and controls in line with the U.S., she says.

"It's great to see two areas of law--procurement and international--intersect like that, and of course defense trade is a highly regulated area which fits right in with my interest. Remember I was one of those crazy people who was attracted to tax law!"

A client's chairman of the board wrote to say his firm's joint venture with a foreign partner would not have happened without Foster Swift's guidance.

"It was an important international relationship for the corporate client to establish at a critical time," Schtokal says. "That's my greatest pleasure, to see an international transaction move from an idea in a boardroom strategy meeting to a successful reality with a positive effect on the bottom line. And of course, it's always a pleasant surprise to have your expertise and effort recognized."

Extracurricular activities for Schtokal run wholly and exclusively international. She serves as vice chair and a board member of the Michigan District Export Council-West, supporting the nation's joint industry/government export expansion effort in line with President Obama's National Export Initiative.

"Some of us are involved in regulatory changes afoot to relax regulation on some types of exports. Some of us are involved educational programming for businesses related to export trade. All of us are working hard to help business succeed in exporting and international trade," she says.

Published: Mon, Jul 2, 2012

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