A maritime lawyer works as part of a legal system known as admiralty law, which deals with the vehicles, people, companies, and business transactions that take place in territorial and international waters. In this capacity, maritime lawyers represent the interests of ocean-related commerce. This involves professions such as seamen, longshoremen, yacht brokers, marine suppliers, and any other operator whose work takes place in the ocean. In addition, maritime or admiralty law applies to offshore oil rigs and/or platforms, as well as any incident that occurs on the water. As such, a maritime lawyer's education must include knowledge of laws pertaining to collisions at sea, recreational boating, and even salvage claims.
Admiralty law has been around since ancient times, when the early Egyptians and Greeks used the Mediterranean Sea has a frequent commerce route. During this time, special tribunals were established in port towns along the Mediterranean specifically to judge seafarer disputes. Over time, legal sea codes were written and were utilized in ports across Europe.
By the 14th century, English admiralty courts handled piracy and naval disciplinary matters. Eventually, commercial matters were also handled by maritime lawyers. By the 1600s, maritime law had spread to the American colonies, and in 1789 the newly formed United States government gave the federal court system exclusive jurisdiction over admiralty law.
Maritime attorneys of today practice a law that mixes the old with the new in with a scope that is both national and international. Traditional principles regarding the welfare of seamen remain to this day because the hazards facing them have not gone away. The same cannot be said, however, for laws pertaining to naval architecture and cargo handling; the types of vessels used in sea travel have evolved over time, as have the types of cargo that are transported. In addition, maritime law has had to consider liability issues around pollution and marine ecology damage as a result of some current seafaring practices. As an example, today's ocean vessels may carry natural gas, which can be hazardous if handled improperly.
International voyages are still commonplace, so a maritime lawyer must work within agreements established between countries with regards to shipping and customs. These agreements have become the main basis for modern maritime law. In addition, a maritime lawyer must be familiar with the unique boating laws governing water-related casualties or loss, which can vary greatly from laws that apply to land vehicles or accidents.