View From The Top: Attorney Kelsey Rule

Meet and learn about the future of agricultural trade from attorney Kelsey Rule at the Executive Women in Agriculture conference, which takes place Jan. 15–17, 2019 in Chicago as part of the Top Producer Summit. ( Farm Journal )

Company: Kelsey Rule opened The Rule Law Firm in Washington, D.C., in July 2018. She is the firm’s principal attorney alongside three employees. The firm advises clients on issues related to U.S. imports and exports.

Education: Bachelor’s degree, University of Oklahoma; law degree, American University in Washington, D.C.

One book managers must read: “12 Rules for Life” by Jordan Peterson. No. 9 is my favorite: “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.”

Describe your leadership philosophy: To me, leadership is the art of serving others.

Best piece of business advice: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” I don’t remember who said that originally, but it helps me remember to keep moving forward and not get bogged down in minutiae.

What is your connection to farming? 

I grew up in the suburbs in Oklahoma, but my grandfather was a hog farmer. I remember how important it was to him to continue farming like the generations before him and the many challenges he faced. Now, I advise farmers on international trade issues such as market access and trade remedies. I love that the work I do helps farms of all sizes succeed in the global marketplace.

What does a global trade attorney do?

Basically, I advise businesses on how to move goods across borders, whether they are tapping into new fertilizer export markets or importing necessary inputs for U.S. production. I also help U.S. industries obtain relief under U.S. law from the price-suppressing effects of unfairly traded imports.

What challenges did you face in transitioning from working for a law firm to starting and owning your own? 

Every business owner trying to gain momentum has their own set of challenges. For example, you have to do your bookkeeping and figure out how to manage employees. Those were the big ones. I’ve also learned a lot from my clients. My clients have skills that I’ve been able to adopt for myself in my own business. 

What’s a day in the life of a trade lawyer look like?

I start my day by going through as much trade news as possible. A few years ago, nothing would happen in the trade space over the course of a month and now every single day there is something new, especially with the China trade dispute. There’s always something changing and going on out there. I try to start there to make sure we’re up to date. Then I transition into thinking about my clients and going through the work I’m doing for them whether it’s advising on customs issues related to importing or exporting, making sense of a legislative issue related to trade or answering emails. 

Is the concept of a trade lawyer new?

Trade lawyers have been around forever, but trade has only been a hot topic for about five minutes in the grand scheme of things. Before, I’d say I was in trade law and explain to people what I did and they were like, “Oh really? Why would you do that?” Now, I’m so cool.

What do you think is one of the biggest challenges with trade in our country?

I think for agricultural producers, market access is by far the biggest challenge. We produce so much and finding a market for those products is always a challenge. There are always going to be barriers to entry to overcome to reach markets that can absorb all of our output. The interesting thing about agriculture and when we went through the great trade liberalization movement in the mid-1990’s with the World Trade Organization agreement, agriculture was largely left out of that. Agriculture subsidies are widely accepted, and so are some non-tariff barriers related to agriculture products, so even though you might see duty-free treatments for a lot of normal consumer goods crossing the border, the same is not always true for agriculture. 

In your line of work, how are you seeing a direct effect of the trade issues with China affecting farmers?

Existing sales contracts or exports to China are now suddenly subject to retaliatory tariffs. So from a producer perspective, you’ve got to look at your sales contract and figure out if you’re actually liable to that increase. There are these unforeseen costs and who’s going to bear the risk? From a macro level, if this is going to be the new normal, how do we get sales to other export markets that aren’t subject to these crazy tariffs? What can you do going forward to protect from the volatility that’s inherent in the market right now? You have to take it one day at a time. 

How do I know if my business is eligible for the help a trade lawyer provides?

Pick up the phone and call. There are good resources on the U.S. Trade Representative and USDA websites. Trade associations also have some great resources available. If you need help figuring it all out, reach out to a trade attorney. In most cases, it’s free or cheap to call and talk.  

Meet and learn about the future of agricultural trade from attorney Kelsey Rule at the Executive Women in Agriculture conference, which takes place Jan. 15–17, 2019 in Chicago as part of the Top Producer Summit. Make plans to attend, register and learn more at