For conference-goers, this will likely sound familiar: You're listening to some important but dull speaker droning on about some important but dull subject. Your eyes close, your head droops … until you suddenly jerk awake and look around, bleary-eyed, hoping that no one noticed.
That is definitely not a problem for attendees of the American Association of Exporters and Importers (AAEI) annual conference in New York. Each year, the group puts on a "legal drama" about a decidedly unentertaining subject: customs compliance. Under the direction of David Newman, who heads up customs and international trade law at Sony Electronics, a judge, international trade attorneys, and customs compliance managers act out their real-life roles in a play about a current, pressing compliance problem. Part of the play is scripted but much of it is off-the-cuff, and performers invariably find opportunities to engage in improvisational humor.
Although entertaining, the dramas address serious concerns. This year's session followed the travails of a fictional home-furnishings retailer as it strove to comply with the provisions of the Safe Port Act of 2006.
In the scenario, the retailer/importer was slapped with fines for filing inaccurate data, even though many of the inaccuracies were unintentional or caused by factors beyond the company's control. One complex regulatory thing led to another, and customs officials began holding inbound containers for inspection. Shipments arrived late, orders and money were lost, and importer and agency filed complaints against each other. The case ended up in the U.S. Court of International Trade before real-life Judge Leo Gordon, bedecked in a British-style wig.
Who won the case? We'll never know. The judges in AAEI's plays never rule on the issues, to avoid compromising themselves if similar issues arise in their courts.
Even without a verdict, these events provide a valuable service to the international trade community. "My goal in these presentations is to air the issues and create greater awareness, and perhaps activism, within the community," Newman says. "If we are effective, we are creating greater opportunity for the trade and the government to have a full and meaningful exchange of information and viewpoints."
For more information about AAEI, visit www.aaei.org.