A Degree for the High Seas: A Look at Maritime LL.M.s

With burgeoning global trade and evolving issues like piracy and oil spills, maritime law is an evergreen field for young law graduates

The light went off in Debbie Obiegbu’s head a few years ago at a conference her office was holding on maritime issues. 

She had been working at the department of civil litigation at the Ministry of Justice in Nigeria, where she grew up and completed her undergraduate studies in law. 

“It just sparked my interest,” said Obiegbu, who is currently pursuing an LL.M. in international maritime law from Swansea University.

“I wanted to know about it, and was due for study leave then, so I began applying to programs.”

After submitting applications to Swansea, University of Southampton, and University of Hertfordshire, she chose Swansea for its diverse curriculum and roster of lecturers, who were “well-published” and working on research with growing relevance in the field. Professor Simon Baughen’s book Shipping Law, for instance, is in its fifth edition and widely used by academics and students on the topic. Tabetha Kurtz-Shefford, a lecturer in commercial and maritime law, is currently researching civil liability regimes for offshore oil pollution damage for her doctoral thesis. 

Like many students looking to specialize in the field, Obiegbu chose to study in the UK, as the vast majority of contracts in maritime law are historically and traditionally governed by English law, due to its efficiency.

With burgeoning global trade and evolving issues like piracy and liability threats at sea, maritime law has been an evergreen field for young law graduates.

Most of the programs include courses on a wide range of maritime and admiralty issues; Swansea, for instance, currently offers five separate maritime-related programs, including LL.M.s focused on commercial and maritime law, international trade law, and international commercial law, among others. 

Southampton, which has around 120 students in its LL.M. program, offers some 15 modules covering similar topics, with around 80% of its students choosing to focus on the shipping sector, according to Filippo Lorenzon, a professor of maritime and commercial law at the Southampton Law School.

While Tulane Law School offers a reputable LL.M. in Admiralty Law, very few other US law schools offer maritime-related programs. Indeed, most maritime programs are offered either in the UK or Europe, along with a small but growing number in Asia.

In general, the curriculum and offerings of the major players in maritime LL.M.s haven’t changed all that much over the past few years, says says Stephen Girvin, director of National University of Singapore’s Maritime LL.M. program;  the law moves slowly, and takes a long time to enforce. 

Troubles at sea

The shipping industry suffered heavily during the recession, but the economic downturn hasn’t seemed to affect enrollment, deans say. 

“There’s always something happening at sea,” says Girvin. 

Nonetheless, industry revenue remains more than 16% below its 2008 peak of more than $200 billion, and the global container carrier industry is still struggling, according to a 2015 report on container shipping by consulting firm Alix Partners.

A few years ago, piracy had been a big issue; ships suffered frequent attacks in the gulfs, although that activity has died down recently. Pollution from offshore oil production—which has drawn increased attention after the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico—has become a more pressing concern for those in the maritime industry, as there remains no international convention that addresses such cases, notes Dr. Theodora Nikaki, a professor at Swansea. All these liabilities have catalyzed big changes in insurance law in the UK, she adds. 

[ See a list of all law schools offering LL.M. programs in Maritime Law]

In turn, Swansea—which has around 150 students across its five separate maritime LL.M. programs—has responded to these developments by adding a sixth program, focused on oil and gas, which is set to launch this fall. The degree will cover legal issues across the entire energy supply chain, from licensing to drill and rig implementation and distribution. 

“Oil and gas has been a very important topic in maritime law,” says Nikaki. “There’s a lot of pollution involved—with deepwater [exploration], anything can happen. It can destroy the environment, fishermen livelihoods, hotel developments—and there’s no international convention surrounding these issues, so it can be a grey area, from a legal perspective.”

Rise of Asia

Although the UK has historically been the center for maritime studies, Asia represents the center of the shipping industry—a field in which many graduates find jobs after graduation. Shanghai, Singapore, Shenzhen and Hong Kong are the world’s busiest ports in terms of shipping volume; Chinese ports account for seven out of the top ten ports in the world, according to the World Shipping Council. 

Singapore is also making a significant push in recent years to encourage those deciding the jurisdiction of their contracts to choose Singaporean law over English law, Girvin adds. With roots in English law, Singapore law has absorbed common law and best practices from other mature legal systems to make it more attractive for business. 

NUS, which has both undergraduate and graduate maritime programs, enrolls many students from China and India who want to study in English and gain exposure to the common law system. 

“But law takes a long time—we’re creatures of habit,” Girvin says. “That’s why maritime programs have traditionally had traction at UK universities, and still manage to attract a constant flow of students.”

But Debbie Obiegbu also finds the region alluring, and considers plans to potentially work there after a few years in Nigeria, where she hopes to return upon graduation.

“I feel that Asia has a more open economy, especially to foreigners, unlike the UK or America,” she says. “Almost all ships pass through ports like Singapore or Hong Kong—so I feel there’s a greater need for expertise there.”

For now, she’s planning on a rather unconventional path: to continue working in the public sector in Nigeria, where she hopes to join a maritime-related governmental department like the Institute of Maritime Safety, or the Nigerian Customs Administration.

“I want to see how far I can go in the public sector,” she says. “Many graduates have ideas of how to use degree in the private sector, but not so many in public—so I want to see the relevance of maritime law there, especially in issues like maritime crimes, terrorism at sea, and piracy.”

“I want to see how to make the laws better.”

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