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Shipping law: area of practice

Shipping law solicitors deal with real problems as they happen, explains Kevin from Ince & Co.
Piracy off the coast of Somalia has been a big issue in this practice area in recent years, as have Libyan sanctions.

Shipping law solicitors deal with the life of a ship from beginning to end. When a client wants to buy or build a ship, solicitors assist with the purchasing and the financing of the vessel. Once the vessel is trading and carrying cargo, there will be contracts such as charterparties that they will advise on. There may also be disputes arising with the charterers and the people who own cargo being carried by the vessel, and solicitors help on either side of those disputes. If the ship suffers an accident – such as colliding with another vessel, running aground or hitting a port terminal – solicitors will be required to help determine liability and the value of any claim. Finally, they will advise on the sale or scrapping of a ship.

Typical shipping law cases

I have around 100 cases open at any one time, of which maybe 20 are active. Putting together contracts or financing is often done quickly because our job is to get the deal through within the client’s timescale. Litigation, however, may take years – particularly if it goes through the appeal process. The length of the process is different in each country – in the UK and Singapore, for example, it’s quick but in India it can take decades. Practice is a mixture of short pieces of advice and heavyweight litigation, the latter often involving multiple jurisdictions.

In the example of a case such as the sinking of the Costa Concordia, a law firm’s involvement might begin with a phone call from the ship owner informing us of the accident. We would then send one of our mariners – a person who has spent time at sea and who also has legal training – to go and take evidence and assist the crew in dealing with any investigations by the local authorities. It will be very busy in the first few weeks or months after the incident. Following that, there will be a period of relative quiet when solicitors on either side will consider the case and correspond about liability and the amount of the claim. If they cannot agree, proceedings will follow. A case may take a couple of years to reach trial, during which time lawyers gather witness statements and expert reports. The minority of cases actually go all the way in court, however.

Dealing with real problems in real time

The best aspect of a practice is that the law is interesting and the subject matter is tangible; you’re dealing with real problems, such as a ship that’s on fire or a cargo of bananas that’s stuck in a port and is ripening, in real time. It’s not an area of law where events have occurred in the past – they are happening now and the advice is important.

The downside of that is the 3.00 am calls, often on on Christmas Day, when you must drop everything and may have to get on a plane to go and deal with a problem.

Pirates and the Arab spring

Piracy off the coast of Somalia has been a big issue in this practice area over the last year or so. There have been recent cases about whether it’s legal to pay a ransom – which it is – and where responsibility for the loss of the use of the vessel during a hijacking lies as between the owner and the charterer.

Sanctions have also affected the industry, particularly Libyan sanctions during the Arab spring and ongoing Iranian sanctions. The shipping industry is directly affected by geopolitical events such as these, as well as increasing environmental regulation.

As a trainee…

Trainees will typically work on larger cases, as smaller cases require the specialist knowledge of a partner or senior associate. As an example, we had a trainee on the Costa Concordia case who helped with the overall administration and was responsible for checking press reports to monitor the situation. Because you will be working in teams, there is a real opportunity to learn from partners.

Shipping law firms have a reputation for having a better work/life balance than, for example, City commercial firms. I usually start my day at about 8.00 am and finish at about 7.00 pm, but there is also out-of-hours work if you are required to deal with emergencies – and a trainee may need to be part of that response. Trainees work hard, but it is not unrelenting and the work is genuinely interesting.

Types of law practised

  • Tort
  • Contract
  • Private international law.

Good shipping law solicitors have....

  • Strong problem-solving skills.
  • An analytical mind: the law in this area can be tricky.

KEVIN COOPER is a partner at INCE & CO. He graduated from Oxford in 1988 with a degree in law.