Canada: A Fireside Chat With P. Jeremy Bolger

P. Jeremy Bolger is Senior Counsel in BLG's Montréal office and one of the leading Canadian practitioners in maritime law. He represents clients in significant commercial and litigation matters, and has watched the industry evolve since his start in law in 1979. Yves Faguy, an independent journalist, sat down with Jeremy to discuss how the practice of maritime law has changed, where the industry is headed, and the skills that practitioners in the field will need to succeed in the years ahead.

YF: What attracted you at first to a maritime law practice?

PJB: After law school in Ottawa, I came to Montréal, took the bar courses and went to work at McMaster Meighen. I worked in financial services for the patriarch of the firm at the time, Ross McMaster. But occasionally, I was asked to assist in the maritime department which I thoroughly enjoyed. For one, it got me out of the office. It seemed that there were all kinds of investigations being conducted – onboard investigations, ship fires, loss of life, collisions. There was a fair amount of travel involved, which I always enjoyed. Also, I found it significantly more interesting than financial work. Fortunately I had had exposure to and knew the shipping industry. Among other jobs which I held, I had also worked for a ship repair company, J. & R. Weir Ltd., in the summer time during my university studies. My father was a sea captain who came to this country at the end of the Second World War from Ireland. I had grown up with the lingo so to speak. As children, we didn't refer to a wall as a wall but rather it was a bulkhead. The ceiling was the deckhead. When my father was driving the car we'd say, "Watch the guy who's off to starboard there!" – that type of thing. So I could go aboard a ship and although I was inexperienced, somehow there was greater acceptance of me because I appeared to know what I was talking about.

YF: What were some of the early cases that stood out for you?

PJB: There were some extremely interesting cases. I never finished Christmas dinner one year because Sean Harrington – now a judge at the Federal Court – rang me with an urgent matter. We both jumped on a private jet and flew to Matane because of a very tragic incident. Halco Inc. was the name of the ship owning company. One of its vessels, the Hudson Transport, was on fire – and several lives were tragically lost. Sean and I also worked on the Mekhanik Tarasov casualty. This Soviet ship sank the day after the Ocean Ranger incident. The incident occurred off the coast of Newfoundland. A huge North Atlantic storm, the kind you only get every 100 years or so, had taken place. We were able to prove that in court when the case ultimately went to trial. Similarly, when the Ocean Ranger (a drill rig platform) sank, there was also significant loss of life. It too resulted from the same storm that led to the loss of the Mekhanik Tarasov. There were other vessels in the area that were available to rescue crew from the ship but given the state of affairs and politics with the Soviets in those days, the crew refused help. They insisted upon being assisted only by another Soviet vessel.

YF: How has the practice changed over the years?

PJB: When I was a neophyte, young practitioners starting in this business cut their teeth on cargo claim work. In 1979, it was still relatively early days for the container trade. A lot of ships traded internationally moving break bulk cargo. They were discharging cargo with nets and slings and that often resulted in extensive damage. Today, we open a file for a single claim but back then we would open up a file for a whole voyage and there might be anywhere between 40 or 50 claims on each voyage. Technology has changed all that. For example, anti-collision radar was rare when I first started and the number of collisions was high - one or more a month. Today, that number has been reduced significantly and collisions average perhaps two or three a year.

YF: What does your practice look like today? What types of cases are you currently involved in?

PJB: My work continues to grow – and you know, it continues to interest me – gives me something to look forward to all the time. I work on a wide variety of both corporate commercial matters and dispute resolution/litigation ones. To give you an idea of the breadth of these, I have, for example, a ship financing transaction that is expected to close early in 2018. I'm also working on a multi-ship purchase, and long-term charter transaction for a Singapore-based client. On the litigation side, together with one of my partners, Robin Squires, I'm representing the Mediterranean Shipping Company with respect to a claim related to damages arising from a train derailment in 2015. Other examples of the work I'm currently involved in include: defending the owners of a vessel with respect to a collision with a tug that occurred in January 2017; a substantial claim concerning the arrest of cargo in relation to an international sales dispute; and I am also working again with Robin Squires in defending a claim asserted by the Elgin Maritime Museum for alleged breach of contract in connection with the transport by sea of a submarine from Halifax to Port Burrell, where it has been installed as a museum. So, as you can see, the claims are increasingly complex, but thankfully do not involve huge losses of life anymore.

YF: How do you see maritime trade evolving in the years to come?

PJB: I sometimes predict tongue-in-cheek that the day will come when there will only be one shipping company, one insurer and one bank! I expect that there will be more consolidation in the market place going forward. Today there are probably fewer than ten shipping lines left of the 50 or so that were trading to, from and within Canada when I started practicing law. Autonomous shipping has had, and will continue to have a huge impact. When I started, there were anywhere between 35 to 45 crew members on a ship. Today, it is typical to have 12 or fewer. It's really quite fascinating.

YF: Is there a downside to that?

PJB: It certainly has its advantages but an immense problem and risk has presented itself, and that is cybersecurity. I often wonder what might happen should any of the electronics and the aids to navigation fail. Will today's seafarers be able to pull a sextant out of its box and take a sight of the sun to ascertain where they are located on the face of the earth? Many of today's crew members are used to just pushing a button to fix a position. They depend on GPS that can specify their location – with accuracy to within three metres. There are bound to be failures at some point. I ask myself "how will they be prepared to deal with these?"

YF: How is this all going to impact practice of law?

PJB: I expect that there will be fewer lawyers strictly practicing maritime law. Commercial lawyers may end up doing the shipping work on the solicitor side. The pure shipping or admiralty lawyers will be few and far between. But they'll have that specialized expertise that nobody else will have. From a client's perspective, it will become a race of the swiftest. The company which gets to the lawyer with the best experience and knowledge first, will be the one to prevail. An expert in the maritime practice will have true specialized knowledge and that's going to make all the difference in the world – whether that's in the conduct of negotiations, settlement of claims, or going to trial.

YF: What advice would you have for a young lawyer starting out in maritime law today?

PJB: In the long term, they're going to make a pretty good living because there will be so few people doing this work But, at first, there are going to be some lean years. They will make some terrific relationships with people all around the world and they'll get to see a lot of it as well. What's really important though is that in order to ensure success, in order to become a really good lawyer, they must learn the business. They've got to ask to be exposed to the daily operational end of the business; ask to go on a ship; ask to go into an engine room; ask to go down to a container terminal. Read up on advocacy. Learn the law of England because it's the predominant law internationally for the shipping industry. Ask clients to work onsite in their offices for one day a week or for the next three or four weeks. In a nutsell: observe and learn what's developing in the industry, learn the terminology, understand the business and become extremely proficient in the field.

YF: The maritime industry is obviously a global one. What is your take on the current climate – this pushback we're seeing against globalization?

PJB: I don't think the pushback is going to last. Globalization is the future, there's no stopping it. Many young people today speak two, three, and even four languages. Even my own daughters speak English, French and Spanish. Globalization may slow occasionally, but it'll ramp up again. It's about communications, cultural exchanges. Transportation is part of it. I mean if you want to look really far into the future, at some point, 50, 60, 100 years from now, who knows how different it will be? There may not be a future for shipping because it may all be done by reasonably priced suborbital transport. Maybe Sir Richard Branson and Elon Musk are not so far off the mark. You'll probably see great huge flying machines of some kind crossing the Atlantic in three hours and bringing 20,000 tonnes of cargo with them. That's the promise of technology. Fascinating stuff!

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