Shipping law: area of practice

There’s plenty of opportunity for solicitors to travel abroad as English law is the preferred choice for global shipping contracts, explains Cristan Evans from Stephenson Harwood LLP.

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The best aspect of shipping law? Knowing that a vessel somewhere in the world will do (or not do) something depending on your advice.

Shipping solicitors are an integral part of the global shipping industry. We are involved in every aspect of shipping and international trade: from the construction of vessels, through the disputes that arise during trading, to the point at which they are recycled at the end of their working lives.

Typical shipping law cases

Generally, I have around 50 open cases and 20 to 30 of those cases are active at any given time. The clients are usually the owners and charterers of vessels, the cargo interests and their respective insurers.

The caseload is extremely varied. We are asked to: advise on the interpretation of individual clauses in contracts; act in disputes arising out of the trading of vessels and the carriage of goods on board; and deal with major casualties. The cases invariably have an international element and we regularly act alongside lawyers from other jurisdictions.

Dealing with real problems in real time

We are often involved in the very early stages of disputes, when the events that will ultimately give rise to a claim are still unfolding. The way in which these 'real-time’ situations are handled can be of critical importance if formal proceedings are later required. On the admiralty side, shipping solicitors (particularly those with seagoing experience) will attend the vessel in the immediate aftermath of a casualty to collect evidence. Most cases will require the involvement of a partner, an associate and a trainee – but larger teams will be engaged on significant matters.

It has been said that shipping is the industry that brings you 80% of what you have but that you know nothing about. The reality is that shipping only attracts the attention of the mainstream media when there is a significant casualty.

Developing strong personal relationships is important in the shipping industry. Given that the vast majority of clients are based overseas, this necessarily involves international travel – I normally travel overseas to visit clients about once a month. Shipping firms can also offer overseas secondments and as an associate I spent two months working for a client in Copenhagen.

Shipping solicitors are able to maintain a relatively good work/life balance. While preparing for hearings or dealing with serious incidents can involve working long hours and over weekends, this is the exception rather than the norm. I arrive at the office at around 9.30 am and leave at around 8.30 pm. However, as a supervising partner once said to me: ‘Ships never sleep, and neither do their lawyers’. If you are dealing with a real-time situation in another time zone it can involve working unsociable hours.

The best aspect of being a shipping solicitor is being able to resolve those real-time problems for clients – knowing that a vessel somewhere in the world will do (or not do) something depending on your advice. The worst part is that the call from the client who needs that advice will undoubtedly come in the middle of the night when you are on holiday.

The nature of the shipping industry means that there will always be disputes over contracts, damage to cargoes and, unfortunately, casualties that necessitate the involvement of solicitors. Furthermore, English law has for many years been the preferred choice for contracts in the global shipping industry, even where there is no direct connection with the UK.

What sort of legal work will you be given as a trainee solicitor?

On larger cases, trainees are asked to conduct legal research and to take responsibility for matters such as the administrative aspects of disclosure, particularly in document-heavy cases. However, the varied nature of the caseload means that it is possible for more experienced trainees to be given a significant degree of responsibility for the conduct of smaller cases under the supervision of more senior fee-earners.

Types of law practised

  • Tort.
  • Contract.
  • Private international law.

Good shipping law solicitors have....

  • The ability to think clearly under pressure.
  • Excellent analytical skills.
  • The ability to provide clear and succinct advice on complex issues.

CRISTAN EVANS is a partner at STEPHENSON HARWOOD LLP , specialising in marine and international trade. He graduated with a degree in law and French from Cardiff University in 1998.

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