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Solicitors' practice areas

Shipping & trade

Matthew Wilmshurst


University: De Montfort University
Degree: Law

Shipping law tends to fall 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 international law, tort and jurisdiction (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.

Matt Wilmshurst had visions of joining the army, but the dream was not to be. The army’s loss, however, was law’s gain: “Although I had originally planned to join the army, law seemed like a good solid degree, and it felt to me that you could do a lot with it. I had also had the chance to do some work experience at a firm in the shipping department; at 18 years old, it felt pretty exciting to be dealing with claims from Japan, the US and all over the world!”

Going on to train at Walton & Morse, which is now part of Kennedys, Matt had another taste of life as a shipping lawyer: “It was a small and very traditional London market firm, and while there, I’d often been on the opposite side to HFW lawyers. When I had the chance to shift to HFW on qualification, I jumped at the chance. That’s an opportunity as an NQ that you don’t turn down.”

Navigating the high seas of law

Now a partner at the firm, Matt works within the disputes section of the shipping department – there are also finance and corporate sections. His clients are predominantly shipowners, transport operators, ports and terminal operators, and insurers, and he tends to be defending them in relation to a variety of logistics and supply-chain related disputes and projects, which “could be worth £50,000 or £50 million”.

He is also involved in more general commercial disputes: “For example, there may have been a falling out with customers over the provision of a particular service or the contractual renegotiation of pricing levels. Another common example is where a UK retailer has gone bust, owing many different companies money, and a shipowner wants to exercise its right of lien over the goods, but the administrators are screaming for the goods to be returned. That type of claim tends to come in cycles, often following on from retail premises rent reviews.”

"Generally speaking, lawyers who work in shipping are passionate about it – I’d even say borderline nerdy; I know a lot of people with Lego ships!"

There was a run of high street collapses in 2012, including Jane Norman, Focus DIY, Peacocks, JJB Sports and La Senza. “They came thick and fast, so we had a lot of work on – the La Senza claim went to court on expedited proceedings, and from start to finish it took just two weeks,” he recalls. “We were working round the clock on witness statements, culminating in a good win for our client,  changing the law and even making it into The Sun!”

Matt describes a couple of the court proceedings he’s currently involved with: “We have a number of cases for shipowners whose vessels were hijacked by pirates in 2011 and who are trying to recover part of the ransom-associated costs from the owners of the cargo that was being transported. We are invoking a mechanism called a general average claim, which is essentially about sharing the cost involved with getting goods to their destination. I’m also involved in a claim that centres on damage to parts of large oil pipes that occurred in transit, and a series of cases relating to high-value designer clothing, which was being transported by road, where interesting arguments are being raised including whether some of the drivers were gassed while sleeping and whether others may have been involved in the theft.”

Matt also sees some collision work, much of which involves intense crisis management: “We’ve had situations where a big vessel comes into a container terminal and fails to stop, knocking down cranes and worse! I have been involved in cases where vessels collide and sink, where they ground themselves on an island or a beach(!) and where they have suffered an explosion. These types of case require working non-stop for a few weeks, dealing with the fallout.” As you’d expect, it is very international work: “The main region I deal with is the far east, which has a lot of container lines and is where most of the goods we consume here in the UK come from, but other colleagues focus on different geographies.”

Matt notes that one of the best bits of the job is the excellent people he works with: “Generally speaking, lawyers who work in shipping are passionate about it – I’d even say borderline nerdy; I know a lot of people with Lego ships! So we all enjoy what we do, which creates a great atmosphere in the team.”

Riding the tech wave

In terms of how shipping law and its practice might change, Matt cites Blockchain and technology generally as the developments that are likely to have the greatest impact. He says: “Every week there’s a seminar on Blockchain and tech, including autonomous vehicles or going paperless. It has the potential to change everything. Cyber issues are also becoming more and more common. Last summer one of the world’s biggest container lines was crippled by a cyberattack, so it’s very real. Companies are looking at their crisis management plans, whether they have the correct insurance in place, and changing their contracts to cater for these events so as to avoid or minimise liability.”

Technology also has the ability to enhance – and disrupt – daily lawyering: “In terms of how we practise, tech is creeping in, with many more firms using automatic contract review programmes and so on. I’m slightly sceptical, as a lot of what we bring to the table is strategy and not pure law, but the tech certainly has the potential to make our lives easier on some fronts. For example, the client that dumps eight folders of documents on us: tech can sort that out more efficiently than we can!”

There is also a trend among shipping lawyers for many to have had a career in another, related industry: “We’re seeing more people come to us who have had a previous career, often in insurance, or with a shipowner or operator, and as a result they understand the work that we do and what clients need. It’s taken as given that everyone is good at law – that’s a small part of what we do really – but it’s all about how we can help clients.”

Matt offers a few tips on how to stand out from among the hordes of others seeking training contracts: “Everyone has straight As and has done their volunteering, so when it comes to standing out on paper, I’m impressed by the slightly off-the-wall answers to the questions about what the future might hold for the profession or the firm. It’s preferable to reading the same thing over and over again, often simply regurgitating what is on our website. Then, once you’re at the assessment centre, it’s always a good start if someone comes in smiling and is personable. You also then need to be able to do well in the exercises, follow instructions and try not to show off!”