Shipping & trade

Shipping & trade

Ceri Done

Thomas Cooper LLP

University: University of Plymouth / University College London
Degree: Maritime Business and Maritime Law / Law

Shipping law is one of the oldest and most developed branches of commercial law. It falls into two areas: contentious and non-contentious. On the contentious side, ‘dry’ shipping involves contractual issues such as bill of lading and charterparty disputes, whereas ‘wet’ shipping tends to involve issues of tort and insurance law (eg, collisions). Non-contentious work includes ship finance (eg, lending and security) and the drafting of commercial agreements (eg, charters and shipbuilding contracts). Whereas the shipping industry is by its nature international, London remains the pre-eminent venue for dispute resolution and marine insurance, and English law is the legal system of choice.


An upbringing split between the seaside town of Brighton and the Caribbean capital of Kingston, Jamaica gave Ceri Done a life-long love of all things aquatic. A keen sailor as a teenager, he initially planned to study marine biology at the University of Plymouth to keep close to the water. Unfortunately, those plans ran aground and after an A-level resit year, he changed tack from science to business. After further considering the maritime section of the UCAS handbook, he settled on a course in maritime business at Plymouth and added on maritime law as an option out of interest.

Ceri’s interest in maritime law was indeed piqued and at the end of his second year he undertook a week’s work experience at the Plymouth firm of Davies Johnson & Co, which helped to cement that interest. On graduating from Plymouth, he was awarded the maritime law prize and then undertook a further three years of study, reading for an undergraduate degree in law at University College London. To give himself the best chance of securing a training contract with a maritime firm and to gain some valuable experience, he then spent a year and a half with a niche professional indemnity insurer before moving to a leading maritime insurer, where he remained for the next few years.

It was during his time at the latter insurer that he came to know Thomas Cooper (then Thomas Cooper & Stibbard) and in September 2007 he joined as a trainee, qualifying in 2009 and becoming partner in 2014.

Industry insight

“It perhaps took me slightly longer than my contemporaries to secure a training contract in my chosen area and I did so via a somewhat circuitous route. However, the experience I gained from working in the maritime insurance sector stood me in good stead. When I joined Thomas Cooper as a trainee, I had both academic and industry experience of their core practice area, which definitely gave me a head start and helped me get on both as a trainee and as a junior solicitor post qualification”.

Today, Ceri’s work predominantly revolves around litigation, with a focus on dry shipping contractual disputes arising under charterparty contracts and bills of lading. However, as the firm has a broad contentious practice, he also works in wet shipping, is a member of the firm’s emergency response team taking evidence on casualties around the world, and is involved in yacht disputes, sale of goods disputes and international arbitration work.

“Shipping is a fast-paced and technically complex area of law, where your advice can have a bearing on operational and commercial decisions taken by clients in real time”

“One of the great things about shipping is that you can be involved at the genesis of a dispute. Shipping is a fast-paced and technically complex area of law, where your advice can have a bearing on operational and commercial decisions taken by clients in real time. You therefore need to think fast and to think a few moves ahead, bearing in mind the underlying commercial relationship and the business reasons that brought the parties together in the first place.”

Ceri elaborates. “In the context of a casualty, for instance a ship fire, we will be involved from the outset meaning that I have on occasion found myself on board ships that are still smoking. My task is to find out what happened and how the ship and crew responded. I will typically take an expert with me and will take witness statements from the crew – those statements could be used in litigation years later so at this stage we still have to give thought to the case the client will potentially bring or face in litigation and the arguments that might be run. That can be quite a challenge, but when gathering evidence we work as a team, with the result that those on the ground are assisted by other members of the Thomas Cooper team back in the office.”

Responsibility and initiative

As trainees at Thomas Cooper, prospective lawyers won’t be sent out to smoking ships, but they will be expected to roll up their sleeves and get stuck into the work of the firm. Taking responsibility at an early stage is encouraged, as is showing initiative in the conduct of a matter, while working under the close supervision of a partner. 

They will also soon discover something else that Ceri enjoys about the area: although there is plenty of law involved, other skills and strengths are also required – not least the ability to digest a lot of technical information and understand the bearing it might have on the client’s case as a matter of law: “For instance, if we are instructed on a case where the ship’s main engine has broken down, we need to have a working understanding of the engineering or science involved, helped by the input and guidance of a relevant expert. We then need to consider how the technical or scientific aspects affect the client’s case as a matter of law and develop the evidence as appropriate. With this in mind, in addition to the usual trainee tasks of research and drafting, trainees will also be involved in liaising with witnesses, experts and, if the matter develops, counsel. They might also continue working on cases as they move seats and so there is the possibility of seeing a matter through from start to finish.”

Those keen to steal a march on the competition and give themselves an advantage when applying for a training contract could do a lot worse than to follow Ceri’s lead and spend some time gaining experience within the shipping industry itself. As a starting point, candidates should have an awareness of the industry and the role it plays in international trade, which can be developed by reading the trade press or the business sections of the broadsheets, as more and more shipping stories appear in the mainstream media. “Being able to see and understand how the wider global economy affects the sector is important as that will aid your understanding of at least some of the commercial issues affecting the clients’ business.”