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GPSolo Magazine

GPSolo March/April 2024: Niche Areas of Law Practice

Maritime/Admiralty Law

Jessica Link Martyn


  • Maritime law is a specialized legal field that deals with federal admiralty procedures and activities and issues related to navigable waters.
  • As a niche practice area, maritime law offers unique opportunities for small firms and solo lawyers to thrive.
  • In the author’s marine law practice, she supports law firms, corporate counsel departments, commercial marine clients, and marine insurers throughout the United States to navigate the intricacies of maritime law and admiralty practice and procedure.
Maritime/Admiralty Law
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My advice to young lawyers considering their career paths is to find an industry that interests them and that is full of people they want to spend a lot of time with. I encourage them to look for a combination of great clients, kind colleagues, and interesting work. With maritime law, I found all three from the start.

Maritime law is a specialized legal field that deals with federal admiralty procedure and activities and issues related to navigable waters. As a niche practice area, maritime law offers unique opportunities for small firms and solo lawyers to thrive.

With globalization of trade and transportation, there is a steady demand for maritime law expertise and experience with admiralty practice and procedure. Small firms and solo lawyers entering this field can position themselves as valuable assets to clients navigating the complexities of maritime regulations, commercial contracts, and federal maritime common law.

A maritime specialization allows a smaller practice to establish a unique identity to attract clients with maritime business interests. Maritime law is globally impactful and can involve business interests from around the world, providing a chance to build a global client base of people who tend to be big-picture oriented. Further, clients in need of maritime legal expertise may prefer smaller, more personalized relationships and services, creating a niche market for small firms and solo practitioners to cater to and potential teaming opportunities with larger firms. I started my career with a large firm, but the maritime group at that firm was a handful of lawyers in Norfolk, Virginia. So, my perspective has always been that of a small firm lawyer. Our practice group would often team with employment lawyers, commercial litigators, government contract lawyers, criminal defense lawyers, or finance lawyers within our own firm to work together on various matters.

My current law practice is a similar model. It is designed to support law firms, corporate counsel departments, commercial marine clients, and marine insurers anywhere in the United States, so we get involved in a great variety of issues and practice styles and interact with many lawyers, most of whom I have known since I began my career.

What Is Admiralty/Maritime Law?

For a niche practice, maritime law covers a broad variety of activities and issues, and there are many subspecialties, sometimes influenced by the geographic area where you practice. For example, many oil and gas lawyers practice near the Gulf of Mexico. A number of cruise line, yacht, and recreational boating lawyers practice in Florida. Marine finance is a popular subspecialty in New York and Connecticut. Many maritime regulatory lawyers practice in Washington, D.C. Further, as a maritime lawyer, you might practice litigation, regulatory, or transactional work, or all three.

Maritime litigation covers such matters as commercial shipping disputes, personal injury, collisions, and cargo damage claims. Regulatory work might involve advising clients about Federal Maritime Commission (FMC), Coast Guard, or Customs and Border Protection rulemaking, interpretive decisions, and enforcement activity. Transactional work could include negotiating charter agreements, service agreements, contracts of carriage for cargo, recreational or commercial vessel purchase and sale agreements, or vessel financing.

This diversity allows small firms and solo lawyers to handle a variety of legal matters or focus on one area. I enjoy specializing in this one very interesting area of law and digging deeply into subsets of it as clients require and for my own interest. This year, for example, my firm drafted, reviewed, and advised clients on identifying and mitigating risks in commercial contracts such as master service agreements, purchase and sale agreements, and commercial vessel brokerage agreements; advised on regulations that affect U.S. flag carrier operations and management, leverage between cargo interests and ocean carriers, and the logistics of executing submarine cable installations; represented parties in disputes arising from deviations in shipping schedules and obligations under charter agreements; and supported litigation teams as maritime counsel and local counsel and with research, legal memoranda and brief writing, and deposition and trial preparation for matters involving oil spills, cargo damage, enforcing maritime liens, and commercial contract disputes. We provided advice pursuant to negotiating labor contracts and legal frameworks for insuring cargo.

Plus, it’s cool to work close to water, to put on your steel-toed boots and hard hat and take a launch boat out to board an ocean carrier to investigate a collision or injury aboard the vessel, to work with the Coast Guard, or to arrest a ship with the U.S. Marshals Service. It’s fun and interesting to simplify complex issues and educate the court on various aspects of the maritime industry and admiralty procedure.

How I Got into Maritime Law and Why I’ve Stayed

I got into maritime law by being alert to and pursuing opportunities that interest me and continuing to take the next step until I arrived where I wanted to be. Then, I stayed there until it was time to move on and find the next thing. The admiralty bar is a collegial group that spans generations. When I was a new lawyer, many of the senior lawyers I encountered were generous with their relationships and connections and with invitations to join them on industry association projects and social and networking events. They are a group that invites new people in.

In law school in Washington, D.C., I was targeting a career path in national security law or art law. I found more networking and clerkship opportunities available in national security law than in art law, and I heard about one clerkship with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Criminal Division, Office of International Affairs from another student who was finishing her clerkship there and asked if I’d be interested in the position. I hopped on the Metro, interviewed, and got the job. The case I happened to work on the most while I was there involved a forged shipping document—that was my introduction to maritime law.

I like big international things such as intergovernmental relationships, so I took a few more federal government clerkships with DOJ and the State Department and attended any events I could find geared toward that kind of career trajectory. I was involved with the Military and National Security Law Students Association (MNSLSA) at my law school and became president of MNSLSA in my third year. MNSLSA had a good relationship with the Judge Advocates Association American Inn of Court (JAAAIOC), and I attended the JAAAIOC events and presentations on various topics and got to know their members. I kept attending and meeting and developing and maintaining relationships with lawyers who practiced in areas that I was interested in, and those connections eventually led to an opening for a first-year associate at Troutman Sanders’ (now Troutman Pepper) Maritime and Government Contracts Group in Norfolk, Virginia. The maritime lawyers I reached out to for my job search were generous with their time, advice, and networks. They invited me into their community and helped me take the next step toward my goal of practicing maritime law, even when they didn’t have a position to offer me. As a young associate, I worked with a team of outstanding partners, and I had a community of mentors and friends with the Norfolk admiralty bar. I maintain and highly value those relationships and haven’t had an experience like that since leaving Norfolk.

I think I love maritime law because I love old things—I was a philosophy major, not an engineer. I love digging into early maritime cases and legislative histories and the tone of judges and lawmakers who write and speak as if everyone grew up with a firm grasp of seamanship and commercial shipping arrangements. I enjoy untangling statutes and regulations, litigating liability, and drafting agreements to avoid litigation. Maritime law is a space to do all of those things.

How to Transition to Admiralty/Maritime Law

For solo or small firm lawyers adding a maritime specialization to their current practice or transitioning into the maritime space, many practice areas arise in the context of maritime law: employment, bankruptcy, personal injury litigation, commercial disputes, etc. If you encounter these areas of law for clients involved in the maritime industry, you are likely to encounter maritime law. Some examples of how to expand from work you already do into maritime are (1) if you already handle workers’ compensation claims, learn how to handle Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act cases; (2) if you practice personal injury law in an area where U.S. flag vessels operate, it might be of some benefit to you and your clients to understand how Jones Act seafarer status affects your clients’ defense or claim and entitlement to damages; (3) if your clients transport their products by ocean carrier, they would likely benefit from advice on FMC regulatory activity, handling cargo claims, or negotiating contracts of carriage.

Legal research and learning opportunities are now more accessible than ever. Small firms and solo lawyers interested in maritime law can leverage online resources, attend webinars, and participate in forums dedicated to this field. There are many conferences and networking opportunities from the international to the local level focusing on various aspects of the maritime industry. Once you begin exploring the options and talking with maritime lawyers in the subspecialty of your interest, ask them to direct you to the best industry groups and events for that practice area, whether it be energy, finance, insurance, or anything else.

Email updates and newsletters from various publications, regulatory bodies, bar associations, and industry groups help small law practices stay abreast of the latest developments relevant to their particular practice area. This democratization of knowledge levels the playing field and allows practitioners to stay updated on the latest developments in maritime law. I receive a number of news and industry updates in my inbox daily. Once you get in the habit of reviewing them, you can easily identify topics for further reading.

As with most industries, maritime law is a relationship business. Being “known” contributes to anyone’s success in this field. All my clients in my current practice have been referred to me by colleagues and friends I’ve had since I started practicing. And now, I practice with attorneys and friends I’ve known for a long time or who were referred to me by attorneys and friends I’ve known for a long time. To that end, solo and small firm lawyers should identify professional associations and committees dealing with the areas of maritime law they are interested in. There are many opportunities to attend events and get a sense of the kind of people involved in a professional organization. For example, attend the American Bar Association Tort Trial and Insurance Practice Section Admiralty and Maritime Law Committee’s monthly meetings via Zoom, and when you hear about an opportunity to work on something that interests you, volunteer to help run a program, speak on or moderate a panel, coauthor a paper, present a recent development, host a networking event, or attend a networking event. Identify opportunities to demonstrate competence and dependability—build trust. Do the same thing with other international, national, regional, and local bar associations and industry groups, depending on your goals. Get a sense of what each group is about. When you find a few that you like, keep attending until you find your people, and then just strengthen those connections.

There are many opportunities to get involved with the admiralty bar. In my experience, its members are open, welcoming, and generous in helping young and new practitioners get a foothold and find their way.

The practice of maritime law holds immense potential for small firms and solo lawyers. The diverse range of cases, global opportunities, niche specialization, accessible learning resources, collaboration opportunities, and industry demands make maritime law an attractive field for those seeking a fulfilling and prosperous legal career.