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Shipping law deals with the movement of goods and passengers by sea. It’s actually divided into ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ shipping. Wet shipping refers to incidents or issues which come up during the actual voyage; whereas dry shipping refers to all other matters such as contracts, charter agreements, construction and funding for ships, port and harbour infrastructure.

What does shipping law involve?

Most disputes arising out of both wet and dry shipping law are greatly based on contract and tort laws. English admiralty law is a popular and generally accepted reference, even in overseas jurisdictions. Given the pan-global nature of international trade, it is inevitable that a majority of cases which come before the courts have plenty of international flavour.

Typical ‘wet’ disputes that arise are accidents, collisions, loss or destruction of freight at sea, piracy, explosions or capture by hostile groups, salvage operations and transgressing into the territorial waters of other countries without approval or prior notice.

‘Dry’ shipping disputes can be contractual breaches, infringement of ownership rights, manufacturing defects, insurance and reinsurance matters, portage, commissioning and decommissioning of vessels.

What makes a good shipping lawyer?

Lawyers working on admiralty cases should have an excellent mastery of contracts, commercial law and tort law. The nature of disputes in the shipping sector will mostly involve issues of contractual significance; however, in some instances, there could be a requirement for you to have some industry-specific and technical knowledge. People working in support roles will also need to be well-organised and a background in the shipping industry would be a great asset.

Generally, shipping lawyers in this area can really get to the heart of disputes if they have an in-depth understanding of the industry they are dealing with. They can then apply suitable legal principles more effectively. These guys will need strong logical reasoning, a disciplined approach to work, meticulous attention to detail, and cogent and creative thought processes.

It goes without saying that that shipping lawyers will need an excellent academic record, e.g. a top class degree and good grades. Furthermore, proficiency in verbal and written communication, people management and interpersonal skills are essential.

Natalie Nielsen is a trainee solicitor at Ince & Co, currently undertaking a seat in Shipping Law. Here, she details a typical day in the life of a shipping trainee, from reading relevant shipping newspapers to attending conference calls.

I try to get into the office a little early so I have time to read the Lloyds List daily update or any Tradewinds articles that caught my eye the previous day.  These are the main shipping industry newspapers. It’s important to keep informed about what’s happening in the shipping world because our clients come to us for solutions and it’s vital that we can put the law into a practical commercial context. This is only possible through familiarity with the industry our clients operate in.

I will have received a number of emails overnight, from clients or law firms based in other time zones, so I first review these thoroughly and assess whether they require any action on my part. On one particular day, an expert has sent through a draft report on the technical aspects of a cargo shortage claim. It’s a case where we are acting for receivers of a cargo who found that substantially less cargo was unloaded at the discharge port than had been recorded as loaded. There was no indication of cargo being lost in transit (this can happen with valuable oil cargoes where an unscrupulous shipper will siphon off part of a cargo during the voyage to sell on themselves). We think on this case the measurements had somehow gone awry so we sent the technical documents to an expert to get his opinion on what went wrong. I had drafted the expert’s instructions so I read his report carefully to make sure he has dealt with all the issues we raised. I note down a few areas I have queries on and send an email to the partner on the case with a quick highlight of the report’s most significant findings and a draft email to the expert asking for further clarifications.

Once I’ve finished checking my emails, I resume work on a larger case which is heading towards arbitration. It involves a vessel which suffered a major fire in her engine room and subsequently became a total loss (thankfully all the crew were evacuated unharmed). We are acting for owners who claim that the fire was caused by faulty repair works while the vessel was last in dry-dock. We are preparing to exchange disclosure with the defendant shipyard, and I have been tasked with reviewing the client’s documents to determine what is relevant to the case and what documents should not be disclosed due to privilege. The arguments are quite technical so I have learnt a lot about ships’ engines in the process. I send an email to the solicitor working on the case to update her on my progress.

We have some marine surveyors visiting the office and giving a presentation on ship fuel over lunch.  It’s a topical subject as the world’s largest fuel supplier very recently and very suddenly declared bankruptcy and Ince & Co. have been instructed by a large number of the shipowners who are affected.

After lunch a partner asks me to sit in on a conference call for a new case. The call is between our firm, the clients and their Norwegian lawyers. The clients own a subsidiary chartering company in Norway which they are considering winding up. The issue is complicated by a Japanese shipowner threatening the charter company with legal action. When the call is over the partner asks me to quickly check the cross-border insolvency regulations, to see whether court proceedings by the Japanese owners would be automatically stayed if the charter company is in insolvency.  He needs the answer fast as he wants to report back to clients that afternoon. I quickly check the international and EU laws and send him my reply.

The partner on the cargo shortage case asks to meet and we discuss the expert’s report and the queries I have raised.  He suggests I discuss the matter with one of the mariners from the firm’s wet shipping team. The firm employs a number of master mariners who have had years of experience at sea and their input on cases is often invaluable. I talk to one of the captains and he proposes a few amendments to my draft. I then send the queries out to the expert.

As I have no outstanding work for the day, at 6:30pm I head off with some colleagues to drinks put on by the marine surveyors we met at lunch. As lawyers, we are often hosting client events for shipowners clubs, so it’s nice for us to be taken out for a change!  After a couple of drinks and swapping a few business cards it’s time to head home – ready for another full day of work tomorrow...

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