Admiralty, or maritime, law, is a unique body of law that governs maritime activities and offenses and transcends national borders and the respective legal systems different countries use. It is both ancient and intricate and paralegals who work in the field will end up studying, referencing, and sometimes citing legal precedent with roots stretching to ancient Rome, the Phoenicians, and Sharia law.

Even more than most types of law, admiralty law is steeped in tradition. Shipping is one of the most ancient tools of organized commerce and litigation over disputes on the high seas stretches back centuries. Although technology occasionally presents new interpretations of the principals of admiralty law, many of the landmark cases in the field still date to the 17th or 18th centuries.

This gives paralegal positions at law firms that specialize in admiralty law a different tone and emphasis than other common roles. Indeed, there are relatively few firms that specialize in admiralty law and limited demand for paralegals to staff them. This allows admiralty law firms to be very selective and choose only the cream of the crop when hiring paralegals.

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Maritime Law Presents Jurisdictional Challenges

Although maritime law is international, and courts from different countries routinely cite decisions other countries have made, the specific code is established in United States federal law. This is enshrined in Article III of the Constitution, which expressly delegates that power to the federal judiciary. Despite that classification, state courts enjoy concurrent jurisdiction in maritime matters when an issue can be resolved under common law principles.

This presents another challenge for maritime law paralegals, who must be prepared to work within different venues that have different processes and procedures. Even within the federal courts, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure are amended in admiralty law cases by the Supplemental Admiralty Rules, which add another layer of procedural complexity to the cases.

Whether or not a case falls under admiralty law jurisdiction rests on three tenets:

  • Whether a vessel is involved
  • Whether the occurrence in question takes place on navigable waters
  • Whether the occurrence bears a significant relationship to traditional maritime activity

Since the first two are, in most cases, readily established facts of the case, most jurisdictional arguments take place over the third component. Paralegals have to research and cite precedent of traditional maritime activity and be prepared to draw points of similarity between those and the current case.

This question of standing often has significant impact for the parties involved in these types of cases. For example, in a 2013 case in California, a woman engaged in parasailing at a resort on Lake Tahoe was injured and sued the operator of the parasailing vessel, despite having signed a waiver. Under California state law, her claim would likely have been upheld, since California has a statutory duty requiring “utmost care” to vessel passengers.

Under admiralty law, however, the standard is only “reasonable care.” And although inland waters are not typically considered navigable, the attorneys for the defendant were able to make the claim that maritime law applied because Lake Tahoe borders two states, and is therefore governed under federal commerce rules.

The court agreed and found for the defendant, potentially saving millions of dollars from an adverse judgment.

Admiralty courts do not typically offer trial by jury, which means paralegals are not involved in voir dire and focus primarily on crafting arguments that appeal directly to judges rather than juries.

Paralegals In Maritime Law Work a Broad Range of Cases

Much of the general doctrine a paralegal will learn in the average training program may not be applicable in maritime cases. For example, admiralty law has very different provisions for:

  • Limiting liability of vessel owners
  • Arresting and attaching vessels involved in court actions
  • Employment and personal injury protection for seamen
  • Claims for damage to cargoes carried

Most admiralty law work is commercial in nature, since the body of law evolved primarily to govern transactions of commerce on the high seas. A paralegal specializing in admiralty law can expect to be involved in work very similar to any paralegal working in business.

Their tasks will include:

  • Drafting, negotiating, and reviewing contracts for shipping or carriage.
  • Examining and negotiating insurance coverage.
  • Drafting corporate policy and procedure manuals.

But admiralty work is more varied than the typical corporate law position. It has considerable overlap with a number of other types of law:

  • Environmental Law – National law and international treaties including the United National Convention on the Law of the Sea govern aspects of vessel operation including dumping and discharge of plastics, oil, and dunnage.
  • Labor Law – The care and treatment of seamen falls under the governance of admiralty law, with different provisions, requirements, and remedies than shore-based employment.
  • Personal Injury and Torts – Cases of injury or damage on navigable waters (including at marinas or aboard docked vessels) can be heard under maritime law.

All of this adds up to a position for paralegals that offers a lot of variety and new and interesting cases to work on.

In other respects, however, maritime law paralegals have the same roles and responsibilities as any type of paralegal. They are responsible for conducting research and drafting briefs, motions, and other types of filings and responses. They are typically in charge of the case calendar, ensuring that paperwork is filed on time and that all necessary appearances are made. They participate in depositions and line up and interview witnesses for cases. They may work closely with office attorneys on strategic matters.

In addition to absorbing all the esoteric language of legal practice, admiralty paralegals have the burden of learning the nautical terminology that is so bedeviling to landlubbers. Allisions, collisions, sound signals, steaming lights, salvage, piracy, stand-on and give-way vessels…

A strong knowledge of the so-called Rules of the Road governing navigation at sea (the COLREGS, or Collision Regulations, that govern the interaction of vessels on navigable waters), and a familiarity with the ordinary practices of seamen are also things paralegals in admiralty law will need to be familiar with.

Becoming a Maritime Law Paralegal

Paralegals looking for work in admiralty law have a relatively narrow range of possible employers. Any major U.S. port city will have a handful of firms that specialize in admiralty law. Major international law firms also often have departments that handle maritime cases.

But most paralegals in the field are actually employed in corporate legal departments, working for logistics companies and manufacturers with significant shipping interests or whose products are commonly conveyed by ship. These specialists handle details of contracts, employment, and insurance as it relates to maritime law.

There are no certifications available specific to admiralty law and most paralegal programs cover the topic only briefly. Work experience is the golden ticket to finding a permanent position working in maritime law. Finding a corporate position in the field, or finding a job with a corporation that has admiralty interests where you might possibly work your way into such a position, is the clearest avenue.