By John K. Fulweiler, Esq.
This time of year, opposing counsel like to start rumors about me. They see my paint-spackled hands, nails hemmed in caulking, hollow eyes and facial spray of blue and red tones and figure I’ve gotten myself into something hinky. Finally, they mumble in hushed tones during a deposition break: “Dude’s gone and run himself off the rails this time.”
Let ‘em talk. They don’t know what it’s like getting a small fleet in the water each spring. They’re the fiberglass fixes, waterlines to tape, lower unit oil changes, bulbs and wiring to coax into bright life, zincs to swap, sails to find, and a trail’s worth of similar toils. It’s honest work. It reminds me of the joys of doing things with your hands. There’s a satisfaction in completing these endeavors, but I don’t fool myself. My waterlines are wavy and by August my brightwork bubbles and flees. Maybe I keep at it because of the ritual, or maybe because it invigorates neurons worn out from the roiling legal seas of a maritime practice. Whatever it is, I’m a heck of a lot better at lawyering than I am at being handy around boats.
I have the personality and experience to know I could strike out tomorrow aboard my thirty-five footer and assuming fortune’s even handed, pull into Bermuda unscathed save maybe for a renewed interest in nicotine. Voyages across the arc of a big lens of water take planning and grit and luck. These are things I’ve gotten good at doing because a singlehanded passage is very much like prosecuting a maritime lawsuit. There is an uncanny similarity of traits and qualities to both endeavors.
In my experience, a maritime personal injury lawyer is largely ignored until they’re not. That is, like the tow truck or the fire engine, a maritime lawyer’s services have no value until those services are needed. And then, we’re the knights in shining armor!
If your fortune stumbled and you want to talk to a maritime lawyer about a possible injury or death claim, “don’t delay,” is my general comment. Referrals from friends and poking around online are both decent approaches to identifying a maritime lawyer. My suggestion is to cull your possible list down to three or so attorneys and start calling. I have a rule. I may be busy, but if you’re calling my office with a new matter, absent all hell having broken loose, I’m taking that call. That sort of response should be important to you as a prospective client. As I’m oft heard to say, lawsuits aren’t generally quick and it’ll be you and this admiralty lawyer you’re hiring for the next year or so. You’ll likely be working closely together. If the personalities don’t work or the quick response isn’t there (the customer service), then you should ask yourself whether this potential attorney is the right fit for setting out on this grande legal voyage.
Lawyers, I’ve noticed, have different approaches to client engagement. Some maritime lawyers take on a professorial role, educating the client with tones of condescension which the client tolerates, ignores or fails to appreciate. Other lawyers limit their client engagement to the bare minimum. I’ve seen some admiralty counsel berate and yell at their client in front of other attorneys and, yeah, that’s crazy time. For me, I expect and pursue a professional friendship with a new client. I want the client to know that we’re both on this boat together and I encourage client participation. I want to know what the client is thinking, and I make myself available anytime to answer questions or talk about the client’s case. Yes, that’s a strain on personal life but lawyering isn’t a 9-5 gig. The maritime lawyering I sell is a 24-7/365 gig and the benefit is that at the end of the case, whether it’s by trial or settlement, the client is always right there with me. What I mean is that the communication has been so good and clear and continuous that the client never fails to know and agree with the big decisions being made in his or her case. It’s a nice way to sail a maritime law office, and to steal loosely from Matthew and Luke, it’s how I’d want to be treated if I were the client with a maritime injury lawsuit.
I’ve rambled over wave and across wake in this month’s column, leaving you with some general comments on things to think about when hiring maritime legal counsel. I know I owe y’all an article on carrying guns aboard and I’m working on that piece, but it’s complicated and fraught with pitfalls making it the kind of writing you need to keep revisiting. In the meantime, wear off that bottom paint and go bonk a rock or two because those are the only sure signs you’re beating the stuffing out of these summer months!
Underway and making way.
This article is provided for your general information, is not legal opinion and should not be relied upon. Always seek legal counsel to understand your rights and remedies.
John K. Fulweiler, Esq. is a Proctor-in-Admiralty representing individuals and small businesses in maritime matters including personal injury claims throughout the East and Gulf Coasts and with his office in Newport, Rhode Island. He can be reached at 1-800-383-MAYDAY (6293) or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his website at saltwaterlaw.com.