The problem with boating is the sea bends, passengers slip, depths change, boats collide, winds gust, things sink, tides ebb and, well, this wobbly world is generally unforgiving. While all these variables might give boating its charm, there may be occasions where an admiralty lawyer’s guidance is the well-needed salve to your most recent liquid adventure. The challenge is in finding and hiring a lawyer who knows this hoary patch of legal precedent at a rate that won’t break the sea chest.

Start your quest by asking around. An admiralty lawyer may have a “salty” background or may simply have gravitated to the practice out of an academic interest. Boatyards and marine vendors from salvors to rigging companies as well as other yachties are a good source for finding a waterfront maritime lawyer. That is, a maritime lawyer with some salt spray on his suit jacket who knows what’s meant by tabbing delamination and how to get a marine insurer to start paying attention to your claim.

A “real” admiralty practitioner will likely be a member of The Maritime Law Association of the United States and may (like your author) have achieved the title of “Proctor-In-Admiralty.” Lawyers rarely say no to new work and so you’re bound to encounter some suits claiming to practice admiralty law, but who have little experience. In this way, like a surveyor tapping the hull for voids, take the time to make good inquiries.

First, your admiralty lawyer should always take the time to speak with you. A rushed discussion or a harried response to your inquiries is as good a sign as a lighted day marker that trouble may lie ahead. Second, ask what maritime memberships the attorney subscribes to and whether the attorney is a boater. To be sure, there are many good admiralty lawyers who are not boaters, but on the recreational and light commercial side, it’s a plus if an admiralty attorney knows the topsides from the keel. Third, don’t hesitate to ask how much of the lawyer’s practice is devoted to maritime law. It’s not unusual for admiralty lawyers to engage in other related areas, such as transportation law, to supplement the maritime practice, but if you’re told that less than half of the practice is admiralty law, sail on.

Finally, ask for a citation to a published legal decision or arbitration award in which the attorney represented a party. A “real” admiralty lawyer should have no problem rattling off a citation you can find on the Internet. Take a look at the decision and confirm that it dealt with a “salty” issue. If you’re arecreational boater, you might ask for a citation pertaining to a yacht, which would help you discern an admiralty lawyer who practices mainly on the commercial side from one who is more accustomed to recreational boating issues.

When you’ve narrowed your search, call back or arrange a meeting to talk about your issue. The key is to lay out all the facts; don’t skimp on the bad ones. In addition, take the time to explain the remedy you’re seeking. Good lawyers know success is about obtaining a desired remedy (or as close an approximation as possible) for the client. If the remedy you seek is unrealistic or contrary to the law, any admiralty lawyer worth their salt will say so before you spend money launching your case.

The admiralty lawyers in our offices don’t charge for an initial consultation, but expect to pay for their services once retained. Depending on the circumstance, lawyers will charge on an hourly or contingency fee basis. The hourly fee is based on a host of factors, including geography, law firm size, and the particular issue. If you’re seeking the most economical approach, the lowest hourly rate may not ultimately result in the lowest attorneys’ fees, nor should you consider the proposed hourly rate as fixed in stone. Lawyers are accustomed to bargaining, and you should not tack away from proposing a lower hourly fee. Further, if you’re in tight straits, say so and propose a lower hourly fee for a set period of time or even a flat fee. In the alternative, a contingency fee retention is where the lawyer’s fee is based on a portion of what’s recovered, if anything. Typically, a contingency fee is used where a lawyer is retained to pursue recovery for personal injuries or property damage.

Once you’ve retained a maritime lawyer, you should work together to develop a plan of action. A well-developed plan will allow you to measure your attorney’s progress and, perhaps more importantly, will provide a highly effective way of corralling attorney fees and costs. The only commodity a lawyer has to sell is time, so the longer a file drifts along without resolution, the more attorney time is incurred, all of which means higher fees. No doubt, the vagaries of the courts may result in some deadlines being adjusted, but a good plan will allow you to make course adjustments while ensuring that your file proceeds toward resolution.

Whether it’s studying a tide table or a navigation primer, cruising into new waters requires a fair amount of preparation. Similarly, it’s fair to say that when you retain an admiralty lawyer, your success and economic efficiencies depend on good planning and a tight grasp of the helm. Underway and making way. ■

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, or visit his website at