In a nutshell

Shipping lawyers deal with the carriage of goods or people by sea, plus any and every matter related to the financing, construction, use, insurance and decommissioning of the ships that carry them (or are arrested, sunk or salvaged while carrying them). Despite being the preserve of specialist firms, or relatively self-contained practice groups within larger firms, the discipline offers varied challenges. The major division is between 'wet' work relating to accidents or misadventure at sea, and 'dry' work involving the land-based, commercial and contractual side. In extension, disputes or litigation relating to contracts mean there is also a contentious side to dry work. While some lawyers in the area may be generalists, it is more common to specialise.


What lawyers do

Wet lawyers

  • Act swiftly and decisively at a moment’s notice to protect a client’s interests and minimise any loss.
  • Travel the world to assess the condition of ships, interview crew or witnesses and prepare cases.
  • Take witness statements and advise clients on the merits of and strategy for cases.
  • Handle court and arbitration appearances, conferences with barristers and client meetings.

Dry lawyers

  • Negotiate and draft contracts for ship finance and shipbuilding, crew employment, sale and purchase agreements, affreightment contracts and the registration and re-flagging of ships.
  • May specialise in niche areas such as yachts or fishing, an area in which regulatory issues feature prominently.
  • Handle similar tasks to wet lawyers in relation to contractual disputes but are less likely to jet off around the world at the drop of a hat.

The realities of the job

  • Wet work offers the excitement of international assignments and clients, so lawyers need to react coolly to sudden emergencies and travel to far-flung places to offer practical and pragmatic analysis and advice.
  • Despite the perils and pleasures of dealing with clients and instructions on the other side of the world, the hours are likely to be steady beyond those international rescue moments.
  • Non-contentious work touches on the intricacies of international trade, so it’s as important to keep up with sector knowledge as legal developments.
  • Dealing with a mixed clientele from all points on the social compass: you’ll need to be just as comfortable extracting a comprehensible statement from a Norwegian merchant seaman as conducting negotiations with major financiers.
  • Contentious cases are driven by the procedural rules and timetable of the court or arbitration forum to which the matter has been referred. A solid grasp of procedure is as important as a strong foundation in tort and contract law.
  • Some shipping lawyers do come from a naval background or are ex-mariners, but you won’t be becalmed if the closest comparable experience you’ve had is steering Tommy Tugboat in the bath as long as you can show a credible interest in the discipline.
  • Old superstitions thought it bad luck to have women aboard a ship. Though not an all-boys club, parts of the shipping world are still male dominated; women lawyers and clients are more commonly found on the dry side.
  • In the UK, shipping law is centred around London and a few other port cities. Major international centres include Piraeus in Greece, Hong Kong and Singapore. Some trainees even get to work in these locations.

Current issues

October 2023

  • By 2050, shipping is projected to transport more than half of traded low carbon fuels, but at present the industry does not have the infrastructure to support this trade on a commercial scale. The creation of the Clean Energy Marine Hubs Initiative, unveiled at a summit this year, is a platform aimed at creating private and public partnerships to develop the infrastructure necessary for trading low-carbon fuels at a large scale. 
  • The United Nations has adopted the High Seas Treaty in a move that will allow the creation of cross-sectoral Marine Protected Areas. It is hoped that this will help biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ) targets of 30% global MPAs. 
  • In March 2021, the 400-metre-long vessel ‘Ever Given’ was grounded in the Suez Canal for six days, causing heavy delays to 370 container ships blocked at either side of the canal. The disruption – which cost an estimated £7 billion a day – created wide-ranging legal implications for the owners and charterers of ships and their insurers. Many companies have sought to recuperate some of the losses caused by delays, and meet the higher cost of insuring the ships most likely to cause blockages.
  • The incident in the Suez Canal in March 2021 also raised questions around the dependence of global trade on increasingly large container ships navigating such specific trading routes. In recent years, the size of the vessels has been a point of contention, and it is expected that the incident will result in stricter regulations around the size of the ships being introduced.
  • According to the International Chamber of Shipping, the majority of nations that play a significant role in global trading acknowledge the value of Vessel Sharing Agreements (VSA), cooperative arrangements that allow operators to share cargo. However, these agreements may be restricted by increasing competition laws in Asian jurisdictions. Authorities have pointed to both the economic benefits of these agreements and their capacity to contribute to a reduction in emissions.
  • International Chamber of Shipping 2022-2023 notes that the biggest concerns to the shipping industry have shifted post pandemic; global instability catalysed by the war in Ukraine, political and financial instability and cyber attacks were all pinpointed as key risks - a switch from epidemics, supply chain fragility and trade barriers in 2021.
  • It is estimated that the demands placed on the transport of goods will increase substantially in the next few decades. The International Transport Forum (ITF) think tank predicted in 2019 that global freight demand will triple by 2050, which in turn will lead to substantial increases in global seaborne transport and a 4% increase in CO2 emissions.
  • In response to the war in Ukraine, the UK government, along with countries all over the globe, implemented sanctions on Russian cargo in an effort to discourage the Russian invasion. The various shipping sanctions ban Russian ships from entering UK ports, and extends to ships that have any connection with Russia.  It is now a criminal offence to ignore any sanctions related to Russia - maximum sentences include prison time.
  • In August 2022, the UK’s then Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, met with the Minister of Infrastructure of Ukraine to discuss the devastation Ukrainian transport has endured at the hands of the Russian invasion. Shapps agreed to the UK’s participation in an action plan that sets out to rebuild the country's infrastructure. The care package will contain £10million of finances and is intended to restore vital transportation assets, including bridges, roads, airports, tunnels and over 100 shipping containers. The action plan will also bolster the Black Sea Grain Initiative – a scheme that ensures safe shipments of produce out of Ukraine via the Black Sea. According to Gov.UK, 721,449 metric tons of cargo have already been released from Russia blockages due to the initiative.
  • In 2019, the IMO Ballast Water Management (BWM) Convention sought to address a recurring problem whereby ships inadvertently transported invasive marine species into vulnerable ecosystems in their ballast water tanks. The International Chamber of Shipping estimates that 40,000 ships will be required to install something called a ballast water treatment system, costing the industry around $80 billion.  
  • In line with the increasing global effort to combat the impacts of climate change, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) led an industry-wide commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2050. Over time, it is expected that there will be substantial investment in the development of green fuels to incentivize an ultimate transition to a zero-emissions. Earlier this year, the International Chamber of Shipping supported the IMO’s net zero goals.
  • In September 2022, around 2,000 workers the UK’s biggest container port, Felixstowe, went on an eight day strike following a dispute over pay. This overlapped with a two-week strike at Liverpool port. According to MDS Transmode, the combined value of weekly trade exported from both ports is $7 billion. Nearly 600 workers at the Liverpool port engaged in a second week-long strike in October.