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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.

A day in the life of... Claire Don, Associate, Reed Smith

What’s the first thing you do when you get into the office?
I usually check my emails on the way into work. Due to the international nature of shipping and the fact that our clients are spread across time zones, it might be important to deal with specific matters before those clients or co-counsel go home for the day. Otherwise, I usually head straight to the kitchen to grab a coffee and catch up with colleagues. It is always nice to hear how everyone’s evenings have been (and whether anyone has any new restaurant recommendations) and it can be really helpful to know what everyone else is working on. You never know when you are going to be handling a similar issue or might need to discuss a matter with someone and it can help to plan your day if you know when people are going to be out of the office or in back-to-back meetings. Then it’s time to head back to the desk and revise my to-do list, working out what needs to be dealt with first.

How do you handle and organise/prioritise your workload?
Handling workload is definitely different as an associate. I work in the dry shipping team which predominantly works on contractual disputes. Unlike some other firms, we do not have strict sub-teams, so associates here are often handling work for multiple partners or counsel and having to deal with competing demands. Reed Smith really encourages you to learn from the styles of different partners and the access to the range of work you get from doing this is such a positive early on in your career. I always have a to-do list and anything new that comes into my inbox gets flagged and added to the list and I am constantly reassessing the priorities. Communication really is key when it comes to juggling multiple matters. It is important to keep everyone updated on the progress you are making and to let people know as soon as possible if deadlines are conflicting or if something urgent comes in which has to be dealt with straight away. Issues such as arrests, piracy or queries surrounding withholding performance or discharge of cargo can often require you to put everything else you are working on on hold, so it is important to be flexible.

What sort of daily responsibilities does an associate have in shipping law? How does it differ from a trainee role?
I was fortunate as a trainee at Reed Smith that I was never stuck doing admin or bundling for days on end and I felt like I had plenty of responsibility. As an associate, your role and responsibilities build upon the experience you have here as trainee. On smaller matters, associates are responsible for the day-to-day running of the case. That means speaking to clients and counsel directly, taking the lead in considering strategy and procedure, and drafting advice, submissions and witness statements. On larger matters, it is common to end up taking responsibility for a key portion of the workplace. That can often mean being responsible for documents and disclosure. While that does not always sound particulary exciting, when you are the one person with detailed knowledge of the documents, you become the go-to person for colleagues and counsel to ask questions. This means that when it comes to drafting instructions, pleadings and witness statements you can really contribute a lot to the process.

Can you give us an idea of the sort of projects you manage from day to day?
I am currently working on some traditional-type shipping disputes. These cover issues such as speed and performance claims, disputes over the non-payment of hire and disputes relating to the arrest of vessels for disputes over bunker payments (we are still seeing claims related to the collapse of OW Bunkers, one of the main suppliers of bunkers in the industry). However, I am also currently working on a shipbuilding dispute, a dispute about the design and production of cranes and a number of matters for a mining company which are more general breach of contract claims. The range of work means that every day really is different, and you never know when you are going to get an urgent request for advice from clients who are considering withholding performance, refusing to discharge cargo or terminating charterparties. It can make it challenging to plan your week, but it keeps you on your toes and there is never a dull moment.

What sort of clients do you generally deal with on a day-to-day basis?
Due to the international nature of the work, our clients are spread all over the world and the type of clients we act for is more diverse than you would expect. Advising vessel owners, charterers and P&I Clubs is the backbone of what the group does, but we also regularly act for shipbuilders, commodities houses and logistics and transport companies. The type of clients you deal with on a day-to-day basis largely depends on the part of the department you sit in (wet shipping, dry shipping or finance), but there is always scope to express a preference and get more involved in specific types of work.

Is it common for those with a background in shipping to go into this area of law?
Given Reed Smith’s reputation in the area many people that join have studied maritime law or have some sort of shipping connection and it is common, especially in wet shipping, to have a shipping background. However, it is not essential—I had no experience or knowledge of shipping at all when I arrived in the department on my first day as a first-seat trainee. Until that point I had only been on a boat a few times in my life! I did not study any maritime law at university, but the training here at Reed Smith really is second to none, so as long as you show a willingness to get stuck in, a lack of background in shipping definitely will not hold you back.

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