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Sector focus: transport

Sector focus: transport

Harriet Iles


Transport is multifaceted and covers areas of the economy such as aviation, logistics, rail, shipping and infrastructure. As energy (eg, electricity and fuel) directly impacts how transport can be used, these two sectors are greatly intertwined. Transport is also heavily regulated, with the concerns of clients typically relating to regulatory change, increasing insurance risk and liabilities, and a need for innovation and new routes to finance. Many law firms have a strong footing here – Linklaters, Eversheds Sutherland, Norton Rose Fulbright and Dentons, to name a few. Although, most firms will cater to the needs of transport clients due to the sheer size and span of the sector.

Transport lawyers can be involved in a wide range of work from contractual drafting, disputes, real estate, competition and employment law. Transactional lawyers might advise on acquisitions involving the typical mosaic of due diligence – competition clearance, assessing the target’s IP rights and licences, checking financials and pension schemes. Contentious lawyers might advise clients on legal issues relating to the damage or delay of goods being shipped overseas, pollution claims or the renegotiation of long-standing contracts that have become uncompetitive over time. Disputes relating to passenger transportation, such as a serious accident, can also arise; the risks of which are reflected in the high importance of regulation and insurance in this sector.

There are many attractive aspects to working as a lawyer in this sector. Transport is at the heart of the world economy, and you can have a tangible impact on the world as the legal catalyst for industry breakthroughs such as driverless cars or eco-friendly aviation. The work can be large scale, with teams of lawyers advising manufacturers, charterers, traders, superyacht owners, train or bus companies, freight forwarders, hauliers or insurers. The types of issue are often cross-border and highly complex, requiring the interpretation of various international legal systems. 

What are some things I should know?

The pandemic

The pandemic has sparked mass uncertainty in nearly every crevice of the transport sector. Work from home policies temporarily eliminated the commute for most, but what will be the effects of this in the long term? Uncertainty – whether travel patterns will ever return to their pre-covid state - will likely have an adverse impact on public transportation. The challenge in this vein will be enticing passengers back while remaining flexible and adaptive to the changing behaviour of consumers. Further, the weaknesses of our logistics networks were magnified during the height of the pandemic, as companies and governments alike struggled to ensure key workers and essential freight were continuing to move. The unforeseen disruption of our fragile and fragmented supply chains meant that essential goods such as PPE and pharmaceuticals became scarce when they were needed the most. This, coupled with political pressures, could motivate manufacturers to increase domestic production and employment at home, reduce or eliminate dependence on risky outsourcing, and minimise international inventory – resulting in lower demand for the cross-border transportation of goods. Finally, the reduced capital that has been available to transport companies in the pandemic means that these companies are likely to remain reluctant to invest, with a view to maximising cost-effectiveness. This is at odds with the current boom in the tech sector caused by the virus – encouraging investment and expansion. 

The environment 

Environmental concerns were largely put on the backburner during the pandemic. As we inch closer to regaining normality, these will likely rise back to the fore. Clients in the transport sector will once again be forced to consider how they’re staying ahead of the change and remaining compliant as well as competitive. One example is to examine sustainability within aviation. On 20 May 2021, Airports Council International Europe announced that 235 European airports have now committed to net-zero carbon emissions from airport operations fully within their own control by 2050, and 91 of these airports will deliver on their net-zero commitment by 2030. Many of our own airports have been setting ambitious net-zero goals and launching clean aviation projects in the UK. However, the biggest barrier to this is the ongoing pandemic and subsequent lack of capital to invest and change core business models. 

New technology

On the topic of new projects within the transport sector, we’re most likely all now aware of driverless cars and hyperloop – although other major developments have been overlooked, such as the Digital Railway. The UK relies heavily on the rail system, and the country is approaching a point where the demand for increased capacity and performance is felt now more than ever. The Digital Railway is a programme by Network Rail aiming to integrate new technologies and ways of working to run trains closer and faster, replace outdated signal systems with automated traffic management and support drivers in their decisions to boost safety. Data will be used to improve predictions and preventions – allowing railway stakeholders to operate and use the railway more efficiently. Data will also allow stakeholders to access more accurate, precise information about delays, resulting in an improved service for passengers. 

Lawyers will follow these developments as they advise companies about the potential impacts. Specifically concerning new technology in the transport sector – the decreased journey times, reliability and cost-savings will increase the market's competitiveness, particularly for freight rail. This could result in more goods contracts being drafted or acquisitions being proposed. However, there are several challenges that clients will also face – particularly regarding privacy and security around data. With the increased use of technology and data will come higher regulation relating to data ownership. Transport lawyers should be poised to address client concerns about mitigating risk and remaining compliant while modernising business practices. 

What you can do to build awareness

There are many ways for you to expand your knowledge of the transport sector. One great way is by looking into law firms with strong specialisms in transport (or even better, sub-sectors such as rail or shipping) and reading their feature articles about developments in the space. These articles are useful to improve your understanding of any sector and client base while gaining a view of the actual role that law firms play. Articles on a law firm's recent deals may sometimes include a background to the case, allowing you to build a perception of the kind of concerns and objectives that the client would have had (and how these may have now changed).

You can bolster this understanding by developing your commercial awareness. Keeping track of trends will enable you to talk about the reasons behind certain events or predict the industry's future. Reading into other sectors, or business news, in general, will help you to put your knowledge into context by understanding how the sector relates to others in the economy. 

Finally, transport affects all of us – whether we drive, walk, cycle or catch the bus. Simply staying aware of changes around us is hugely helpful. If you notice new touchscreen displays providing live travel information on your way to catch the tube, instead of ignoring this, make a note to investigate it later. It really doesn't get easier than that!