University: University of Cambridge
Shipping law is one of the oldest and most developed branches of commercial law. It falls into two areas: ‘dry’ shipping, which involves contractual issues such as bill of lading and charterparty disputes; and ‘wet’ shipping, which involves disputes over the ship itself (eg, collision and salvage). Although the shipping industry is by its nature international, London remains the preeminent venue for dispute resolution.
After studying classics at the University of Cambridge, Ralph Morley came to practise shipping law for what he describes as a “slightly unusual reason” – he simply had an interest in shipping. Ralph was part of the university’s Royal Naval Unit, training under the supervision of the Navy, navigating small petrol boats around the North Sea and the Baltic, and learning about ships and the sea. “I didn’t want to join the Navy, but it was something that I learnt a lot from and I thought it was a really valuable experience. When I was wandering around a barristers’ career fair in my last year as an undergraduate, I took lots of flyers away and one of them, which was in fact from 7 King’s Bench Walk, where I am now a tenant, mentioned shipping law. I did a mini-pupillage there to find out more and discovered that shipping offered immense variety and knotty problems of law and fact.”
Launching into shipping law
After graduating, Ralph completed a law conversion course at City University and went on to do pupillage at 7 King’s Bench Walk (7KBW). He found his pupillage “surprisingly” stress-free: “I always felt that my four supervisors really wanted to help me put in the best work that I could. They were engaging, kind and funny, and always willing to give me the time and resources to help me learn about the areas of law 7KBW practises in. Shipping throws up some complicated questions – about the conflict of laws between different jurisdictions, for example – which I hadn’t studied at all on the law conversion course, so I appreciated their support. I still pick their brains when I have a question I can’t answer.”
While most of his work tends to be more paper and office based in comparison to criminal or family lawyers, Ralph explains that he particularly enjoys “the fact that you get to discover a lot about the world, both past and present. In terms of learning about the past, I recently had to look at coverage of piracy, barratry and scuttling in marine insurance policies going back to the 18th Century. In terms of the present, you learn a lot about people and commercial situations across the world. You’ll suddenly find yourself reading about fraudsters in Singapore or shipments of rice from Thailand or weather conditions in the Indian Ocean. You’re always learning something new about things that make up our world and how interconnected it is and that’s really fascinating.”
Navigating the role
“As a junior barrister you’ll often be asked to advise on discrete points of law,” explains Ralph. “Very commonly, that will be a question on the construction of a contract such as a shipping charter, and you’ll have to analyse what the words the parties have chosen to use mean. There might also be questions on jurisdiction or the proper procedure – such as whether arbitration should be used instead of litigation. Beside advice, writing statements of case is the other most common task. If you have bigger cases, you may be involved in drafting witness statements and in reviewing expert evidence. Experts are quite common in shipping law: you’ll be involved in scrutinising their reports and questioning them about their analysis. Ultimately, if you’re the junior barrister on a case, you will be the person responsible for writing the skeleton argument, where you set out your side’s position in advance of the trial.”
Although there are several benefits to working as a barrister in shipping law, the nature of the work means that a lot of cases, in particular ones which include arbitration, have flexible deadlines: “Arbitration is a consensual process, so deadlines can get moved more commonly than in court. You can find that you’ve planned your year on the basis that there’s going to be an arbitration hearing one month, only for your opponents to ask to move it to another point in the year, which may be much less convenient for you.
The fact that cases are so big, and can run on for some years, can mean that something will crop up unexpectedly on an existing case just when you’d least like it to. If it comes to Friday afternoon and you get a letter from the other side that suddenly requires your attention over the weekend, it can be quite wearing.”
In addition, when considering key issues facing the profession over the next five years, Ralph highlights questions that arise in terms of “how we attract people from a range of backgrounds and interests to be barristers. Being a barrister in shipping – or any other area of commercial law – isn’t about looking or talking a certain way. It’s about having the skills to analyse and argue cases. But commercial law as a whole needs to do more to say so and to encourage a broader range of applicants in our direction. At 7KBW we’re giving a lot of thought to that at the moment, which I’m hopeful will bear fruit.”
Patience is quay
Having developed his practice at 7KBW, Ralph is now part of his chambers’ mini-pupillage committee. He shares his thoughts on what a good application looks like: “We are always impressed by people who have worked hard and got good academic results. We also like to see candidates who really understand what skills are needed for shipping and other branches of commercial law. Our areas of practice require a willingness to read and digest lots of information, an ability to write well and the flexibility to deal with diverse questions of law and fact. Good applicants relate their experiences to those skills: if you’ve done a dissertation, for example, that may well tick those boxes. If you’ve done something related to one of the sector-specific areas we work in – for example, a module in shipping or international trade law, a job or placement with an insurance company, training as an accountant, or even something like a sailing course – that can be helpful, but it’s not essential.”
It is safe to say that it is not an easy industry to break into – “patience is key,” says Ralph, as well as “using university careers services and mentoring services. A lot of the time, you can see that somebody has good material in their CV but they are let down in terms of how they present it – simple things like spelling, grammar, language and getting the name of the chambers right. That’s where a university careers service can be helpful. Also, some of the Inns of Court, such as Middle Temple, offer mentoring schemes, which are invaluable if you don’t know anyone who works in law. A mentor will help you to approach pupillage applications with more of an understanding of what is being looked for.”
In terms of the skills necessary for working as a barrister in shipping law, Ralph reiterates that the nature of this area of practice means that it is important to enjoy and be good at research and writing. Further, “clients want people who can break down the law and explain it. In shipping law, advice is often read by commercial managers who are not legally qualified and for whom English is not a first language. Being able to explain simply and concisely what effect complicated case law has on their position is an important skill, as is being able to identify what they really want and what a good outcome looks like for them. Commercial people usually want to know how a case will impact on their business’s bottom line.”