Maritime law blog

Maritime law: Is it your niche?

Maritime law, also known as Admiralty Law, includes and covers all kinds of issues related to the law of the sea and other maritime disputes, including but not limited to, ships. It governs the relationship between countries concerning their maritime activities and covers both national and international law.

Being in a law school, it is uncommon to come across this field of expertise in law. So, what if one has an interest in admiralty issues? What if one seeks to determine in-depth aspects of this field before deciding whether to pursue it as a career or not?

Let's find out!

Addressing your query:

Sindhura Natesha Polepalli

Maritime Legal Consultant (Directorate General of Shipping, Ministry of Shipping, Government of India)

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Being an insider: What it looks like!

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1. Working as a maritime lawyer: What to expect

Having a career in maritime law is a versatile affair because, as a maritime legal professional, one is called upon to study the application of not only national law, but also international law. This means that the maritime sector requires the application of legal principles that may vary country to country.

For example, take the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, where the shipping industry continues to play a crucial role in ensuring the availability of essential goods to sustain the national and international needs. This means the seafarers serving on board ships are at the forefront of the supply chain, irrespective of the adverse impact of the pandemic. However, despite their key role, the seafarers have been unfavourably hit by the rigid lockdown restrictions in different countries, which prohibited their disembarkation from the ships to land. This meant that innumerable seafarers were stranded on board ships at sea for months together due to closed borders, even in situations where their contracts had expired.

Today, the lockdown restrictions are being gradually relieved in various countries, including India which has actively eased seafarer disembarkation and has been among the first to put in place a detailed standard operating procedure for crew changes during this pandemic. This situation is a prime example of how labour laws, human rights and contract laws interact in the maritime sector and meet at the cusp of international and national law.

Further, ships are also entities that carry goods or substances, which may be of hazardous or dangerous nature warranting a legally prudent and diligent approach towards their handling, storage, transport and disposal, particularly to avoid any environmental damage or pollution and to protect life at sea. Accordingly, a profession in maritime law summons the study of the legal regime concerning maritime safety and protection and preservation of marine environment. Besides, there are a number of other cases that often appear in this sector, including of carriage of goods by sea, marine insurance and ship arrests to realize different maritime claims.

2. Career prospects

The field of maritime law has diverse career prospects. One could contribute to academia, think tanks, non-governmental organisations, international organisations and Government through research, consultancy and advisory. There are various prospects for work with classification societies, law firms, legal counsels, shipping companies, shipbuilding companies, ship recycling companies, insurance companies and P&I clubs. The requirements for different positions may or may not require qualification of legal practice in that jurisdiction. Besides, maritime law being a niche field may appear as a field of practice by a concentrated group of a few in comparison to the other fields of law. However, it is not a closed group and there are many opportunities to explore.

3. Financial Aspect

The financial scope is immense as you climb up the ladder in the field of maritime law. Particularly, because it is a niche field with a selected few interested to practice in the field and it is at the center of international trade and commerce. For instance, shipping law deals with ships and allied aspects, which by their very nature are capital intensive matters and accordingly, so is the dispute resolution affecting them.

Being a law student: What can you do?

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1. During your law school days

Pursuing an interest in a niche and specialised subject like maritime law, which is not taught or studied in depth in under-graduation level law studies, would be to gain research or practical experience with law firms, counsels, think tanks or professionals practising in the maritime field and participating in co-curricular or extra-curricular activities, such as moot courts or undertaking specialised maritime law courses.

For example, I learnt about maritime law while I pursued an internship as a law student under Mr Hon'ble Justice S. J. Kathawalla at the Bombay High Court, where I was exposed to admiralty cases. I also interned with Bose and Mitra and Co., which is a law firm specialising in shipping and trade law.

Meanwhile, I attended academies conducting short courses in the field of maritime law held at the Gujarat National Law University, Yeosu Academy of the Law of the Sea and Rhodes Academy of Oceans Law and Policy, before pursuing an LL.M. in International Maritime Law at the International Maritime Law Institute, Malta.

2. Importance of LL.M

It is highly valuable to pursue an LL.M. in maritime law. It builds a stronger base to practice this subject. However, before pursuing an LL.M. in maritime law, it may be prudent for one to determine whether their interest lies in private maritime law, that is shipping law, or public maritime law, that is the law of the sea. Although both the private and public aspects of maritime law are interdependent, they are extensive subjects in themselves and determining one's focus area among them is beneficial in determining one's career path early on.

For instance, shipping law deals with ship finance, shipbuilding, ship registration, ship recycling, limitation of liabilities, etc., in addition to subjects that fall within the broader field of international trade and commercial law. The law of the sea concerns maritime boundaries, marine environment, navigational rights, rights and duties of the coastal states, flag states and port states, in addition to allied aspects imported from the broader umbrella of public international law, including human rights, customary international law and treaty law.

3. Building your profile

According to one's interest, students should build their profile through research, participation and traineeship or any similar experience during their under-graduation and target to secure an admission based on the syllabus and course pattern at different Institutes and Universities offering an LL.M. in maritime law.

In India, LL.M. programs in maritime law are being conducted at Indian Maritime University, Gujarat Maritime University, Cochin University of Science and Technology and Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Studies. Internationally, students may look at IMO-International Maritime Law Institute, University of Singapore, University of South Hampton, Swansea University, Tulane University, etc.

In conclusion,

Build a story that explores one's interest a level further each time. The mantra to find a career in a field which interests one is ideally through participation and involvement to strike out that which does not interest one and get a step closer to determining what is of true interest among the broad list of options.