William E. Fork: Finding a Mission to Serve in International Law

William Fork ’06 grew up in Southern California and owned a sole proprietorship in high school. His first business venture, Fork Publications, published a school directory that generated significant income, which was promptly donated to the Parent Teacher Association. Fork was also an Eagle Scout and watched his father who had been a county prosecutor for over thirty years. “I had a calling for service,” he says. “I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do, but believed it should be something in public interest.”

That calling drew Fork to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and eventually to a field of law that serves the public interest on a global scale. Now a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, Fork is one of the world’s most respected experts in international nuclear law. 

“The nuclear industry holds great promise: the possibility of power generation that is safe and that can provide countries remarkable long-term prosperity,” says Fork. “Nuclear energy lawyers help explain how civil nuclear programs can be developed to provide peaceful and clean energy.” Pillsbury fields one of the oldest and most distinguished nuclear civil practices in the world.

Fork’s sense of adventure, study of international affairs, and willingness to take on seemingly insurmountable challenges are distinguishing factors in his success, says Charles “Chuck” Peterson, a pioneer in the nuclear power industry. Peterson was Fork’s mentor at Pillsbury and now manages his own law firm. “I remember calling Will and telling him to get on a plane,” says Peterson. “We needed him in Abu Dhabi to help manage a $20 billion project to build and operate four nuclear reactors in the United Arab Emirates. I knew he was adventurous. His Army record demonstrated that!”

At West Point, Fork received a B.S. in engineering but majored in international relations. “I have always had an interest in international affairs, going back to high school,” says Fork. He was in Model U.N. and won an essay contest that took him to Japan. He was later co-president of Model U.N. at West Point, where his team won the national championship. 

Fork was assigned to the Armor branch of the Army, attended tank and air assault schools, and jumped out of airplanes at airborne school. His first foreign assignment was in Germany. “They waited to tell us exactly where we were going,” says Fork. “We disembarked on the military side of the airfield in Frankfurt. A group of us were bussed to a base near the French border. On my third night, I was sent to a forested training area via Humvee, where the driver directed me to the top of an old concrete tower. Without a flashlight, I made my way up a snowy hill and winding staircase and reported to my first commander. He instructed me, under the backdrop of red light and a night fire exercise, that we were to deploy to Bosnia in two weeks and I would take command of a platoon that evening.” 

“West Point does an extraordinary job of preparing you for a world where you have to learn things for yourself and learn to work with people from all backgrounds,” says Fork. “The Academy attracts people who are academically inclined, physically adept, and interested in service and leadership. Basically, Type A personalities in an intense learning environment.” They employ what they call the ‘Thayer Method’, which is based on the principle that cadets are responsible for much of their own education. “You are required to learn everything you can about a lesson before you walk into the classroom. As a student, you essentially do the teaching. It forces you to learn on your own, to develop curiosity, and the ability to present to others the material that you’re learning.”

Clearly, Fork was prepared for the rigors of law school. He took full advantage of the Law School’s international opportunities, spending his third summer in Paris at Cornell Law’s Sorbonne program; studying international nuclear law in Montpellier, France; receiving a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Germany at Bucerius Law School in Hamburg and at Humboldt University in Berlin, and serving as an editor for the Cornell International Law Journal. He returned to Cornell Law to complete an LL.M. in International and Comparative Law and taught a course to undergraduates in “War, Peace, Terror, and the Law.”

Fork pursued in-person meetings with hiring managers at firms that specialized in nuclear law. Nuclear law includes forging contracts for the sale and purchase of goods and services for nuclear power projects, regulation, licensing, security, environmental protection, and the transport of materials and technology across borders. 

“Will had the maturity and the judgment we look for,” says Sheila McCafferty Harvey, senior counsel at Pillsbury. Harvey was a partner at Pillsbury when Fork became an associate. “He was a quick study and has focused discipline. You can throw him into something new and he doesn’t freak out. He just gets to the task. Will sees the big picture, and the good that can be achieved in the nuclear field. He’s schooled on national and international rules about the transfer of sensitive nuclear technologies, and has both specialized and deep knowledge.”

“We didn’t know just how good he was until we got him,” says Peterson. “We got the pick of the litter.” Though Peterson was the lead attorney on the nuclear building project in the UAE, he says Fork managed the relationship with the client so well that he ended up becoming their general counsel. “He took the more difficult job and essentially became my boss. He handled it with dignity.”

With a large team of other Pillsbury lawyers, Fork and Peterson demonstrated that nuclear power could be safe and low cost. “Our projects came in largely on time and on budget.” The two worked together again on a lengthy litigation involving a dispute over ownership of uranium that was claimed by a Brazilian nuclear fuel company in Germany and an American company. It involved an arbitration connecting Switzerland, Brazil, Germany, Luxembourg, and the United States. “We won for our U.S. client,” says Peterson, and in doing so, “we gave American nuclear lawyers real prominence. It was a distinguishing moment.” 

Fork continues to distinguish himself in the burgeoning field of fusion power. He serves as lead counsel for emerging fusion energy companies seeking to commercialize fusion power, including on commercial, corporate, and regulatory issues. He is a member of the International Group of Legal Experts on Fusion Energy, which provides guidance for the commercial development of fusion energy for peaceful purposes.

“There is possibility and promise in fusion technology,” says Fork. Fusion is environmentally friendly, producing energy by bringing hydrogen isotopes together under extreme pressure (fusion reactions take place inside the sun, which is essentially a giant fusion machine). 

“I am optimistic that we will see fusion power in our lifetimes and in a much shorter time period than most people predict,” says Fork. “The basic physics have been demonstrated. Today, key leading companies are solving engineering and cost issues. There’s a saying in the nuclear field that fusion is the energy of the future—and it always will be. But there is good reason to believe fusion will be available as an energy of the foreseeable future.” 

When Fork looks up at the skies, he sees the future and all of the ways the law can help bring energy into the present. He has co-written about microwave transmission of space-based solar power, in which photovoltaic panels on a satellite in space can convert the sun’s energy to electromagnetic waves at microwave frequencies. The satellite could then beam the microwave energy to a receiver on Earth that transforms it into direct current.

“Every morning, I wake up humbled to be practicing international nuclear law,” says the man who was drawn to service from a young age. “It can help all of us today, and future generations.”