Shipping law deals with the movement of goods and passengers by sea. It’s divided into two categories: ‘wet shipping’, which involves incidents that occur during an actual voyage, and ‘dry shipping’, which concerns most other legal matters connected with the shipping industry. Here’s a breakdown of what being a shipping lawyer in the UK might entail:
Type of clients
Shipping-law clients seek out the help of solicitors for a wide variety of reasons. Wet shipping clients were typically involved in accidents, collisions, loss or destruction of freight while at sea, piracy, explosions, oil spills, fires on board ships, capture, salvage procedures and unapproved transgressions into the territorial waters of another country. Dry shipping clients could be the owners and charterers of vessels, those with cargo interests and insurers who need legal help with contractual breaches, charter agreements, ownership infringement, manufacturing flaws, insurance matters and the commissioning of vessels.
Kind of work
Shipping lawyers must have the capacity to think clearly under pressure, possess well-developed analytical skills and have the ability to give clear and succinct advice regarding complex issues. Because many clients are based overseas, the ability to develop strong personal relationships is important for lawyers in the shipping industry.
Those who represent wet clients are tasked with protecting the interests of their clients and minimising any loss they might have sustained. Wet lawyers are often asked to travel to analyse the condition of ships, interview crew members and witnesses, and prepare cases. They typically represent clients in court and for arbitration, and handle meetings with barristers and clients.
Dry lawyers handle tasks relatively similar to that of wet lawyers, at least in terms of contract disputes, but aren’t typically required to travel nearly as much. Instead, they routinely negotiate and draft contracts involving finance and shipbuilding, employment of the crew, sales and purchase agreements, freighter contracts and the registration and re-flagging of ships. Some focus on specialised areas such as regulatory issues connected with yachting or fishing.
To practice shipping law in the UK, solicitors usually require a background in constitutional and administrative law as well as EU law, land law, contracts, commercial law, equity and trusts, criminal law and torts. Most disputes involving shipping law involve contractual issues, but some matters require industry-specific technical knowledge. Generally, shipping lawyers who have an in-depth understanding of the industry are more able to apply the proper legal principles more efficiently to effectively resolve disputes.
Many shipping lawyers work in private law firms, although some work for the government. Certain mid-size and large firms have departments that specialise in shipping law, and there are also some smaller, niche firms that specialise in shipping law. Others work in-house for oil companies, shipping organisations, cruise lines and ship builders and manufacturers.
Like most practising solicitors, there’s really no typical day for shipping lawyers, although they may perform a variety of common duties:
• Shipping lawyers put in relatively steady hours, although those specialising in wet law are sometimes asked to travel abroad at a moment’s notice.
• Just as there’s no typical day, there’s also no typical shipping client, and solicitors must be comfortable dealing with a mixed clientele, from merchant seamen to major financiers.
• Parts of the shipping world remain male-dominated, so female lawyers practice more frequently in dry shipping.
• Much time is spent drafting agreements and contracts, but when the solicitor isn’t part of the drafting process, interpreting agreements and helping to resolve contract disputes consumes a substantial part of a dry lawyer’s time.
• Wet work is usually exciting, requires immediate investigation and quick decision-making.
• Maritime disputes frequently end up in court or arbitration, and shipping lawyers are often required to bring in expert witnesses to supplement their knowledge of shipping law.
To summarise, there’s rarely a dull moment in the life of a shipping lawyer, wet or dry.
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