Meet the Officer - Maritime and Transport Law Committee newsletter article, July 2020
María Belén Espiñeira
IT&L Legal Consultants (MB Espiñeira & Asoc), Argentina
How did you get into the law/your area of practice? Why did you become a lawyer?
When I decided to enrol in the law school more than 20 years ago, I had no lawyers among my relatives or close persons who could have inspired my decision.
However, my desire to help others was absolutely clear in my mind, so I believed that being a lawyer could give me that opportunity.
After my graduation, I had just been admitted as a trainee in one of the leading law firms in Argentina, when a friend of mine – who was at the time an inhouse lawyer in one of the most important shipping companies – told me that she was leaving Buenos Aires and her employers were looking for someone to take her place.
I attended the interview and they took me on for that vacant post.
With those options ahead, I decided to get into the wonderful and passionate shipping world.
It was through that experience that I found that Maritime Law was different, dynamic, profitable, unique and challenging.
In Argentina there are not many maritime lawyers. Hence, I immediately knew that I wanted to specialise in that field.
If you asked me, ‘Could you help people?’ I’d say I try to do it every day, during my practice, through it and thanks to it.
I am convinced that, since God gifted us with the opportunity of studying, working on what we like and making a living from it, we are committed to return, at least minimally, something to the community.
If you were not a lawyer, what would you do?
If I were not a lawyer, I would be a doctor. Actually, I always wanted to be a doctor, because as I said I wanted to help others, but at the very last minute, I changed my mind to pursue a legal career.
I changed my mind because my mother always reminded me of how demanding doctors’ working hours are, and their challenge to achieve a fair balance between their work and personal lives.
Today, I must confess that I cope with those difficulties anyway, but I love what I do and I feel happy and blessed!
What advice would you give to someone new to your area of practice/your jurisdiction/being a lawyer?
My advice to young shipping lawyers would be: study constantly, work hard, be perseverant, network and attach life to moral and ethical principles.
I always advise my students to study and try to do their best in whatever they do, in all the stages and aspects of their lives.
For example, get the highest marks, because they may be necessary to get a scholarship for post-graduate studies, or the best job opportunity.
If you give your best, you will receive the best from everything and everybody. Bear in mind that time goes by, as well as opportunity, and you may not have the same chance, twice.
Get specialised in an area of law, or study in specialised universities abroad, if possible.
On the other side, wise networking and building solid and trustworthy relationships internationally are also central pillars in the international shipping and globalised world we live, move and work in.
In short, I would say, that as long as you behave and develop your career in accordance with the highest moral values and ethical standards, working hard, networking, building solid and trustworthy team for work, and being perseverant, will eventually result in a successful professional development in maritime and transport law.
What area of your work do you enjoy the most/the least?
This is a very difficult question, because I like many areas of my practise, but I really enjoy dealing with maritime incidents of all kinds: groundings, collisions, allisions, etc.
Though it is quite stressful, I love the adrenaline of the initial factual investigations, the interaction with crew and experts of the different fields and the identification of the best legal strategies for our clients, preserving their interests from all perspectives, ie commercial, operational and legal.
The support you provide to clients under those circumstances, especially when there are personal injuries or casualties involved, is also very rewarding,
Besides, the unparalleled sense of community that prevails on-board is extremely inspiring. No matter the risks presented along the maritime adventure, seafarers are unique professionals, ready to face all challenges and risks they may encounter, with the only and final objective of connecting people and delivering us the goods we need for living.
The more contact I have with them, the more I love being a shipping lawyer.
On the other side, when analysing the legal aspects of a particular case, I enjoy trying to find novel solutions or legal perspectives, which are not obvious at first sight.
Nevertheless, I think it can be really frustrating when you cannot count on the cooperation of your client to collect specific evidence, or when you have made a huge effort to come up with the best strategy for your clients, and after you hand over a detailed explanation about it, they end up doing something different.
What are the current challenges facing your area of practice?
One of the biggest challenges being faced in the Shipping and Transport law practice in Argentina — and I think worldwide — will be related to the consequences that will arise after the global economic stoppage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Locally, Argentina has been going through very difficult economic times, and the consequences of the pandemic are worsening the situation.
The contraction in economic activity in the China, Europe and the United States has a direct impact on emerging economies like Argentina.
All of this will definitely have an impact on international trade and the shipping industry in its different sectors.
The amount of vessels that are currently calling at Argentine ports has decreased, by at least 50 per cent, compared with the same period last year, and the economic growth (GDP) of the region has fallen about seven per cent.
In the near future, we will all be forced to restructure the way we live and work, however, we are fortunate, because there is always room for legal practice.
The transitional process necessary to go through the current crisis opens the door to new work opportunities, since the current uncertainties need to be responded to from a legal perspective.
Besides, these crises bring along new opportunities to innovate, improve and develop creative working tools, which we are all experiencing, I think, as a very positive outcome.
What has been the biggest challenge of your career? How did you overcome it?
I face different challenges every day. Life itself is a challenge.
One of the biggest challenges I faced during my career was at the beginning. After working for a few years for the shipping company I mentioned before, I knew that if I wanted to get an upgrade in my practice, I had to study Maritime Law in the UK.
So, I decided to attend the LLM in Maritime Law in Swansea University. For Argentine citizens, having the chance to study abroad is not that easy, and my parents did not have the means to afford my master’s studies. So I sold my car, got some savings and travelled abroad, with the intention of working or getting a loan from a European Bank, as in Argentina there were no financial opportunities for those purposes.
And that was what I did. I started to work for a famous sandwich shop, got a loan, studied hard, graduated with distinction, made good friends and contacts and got back home, with value added!
I owe all that I did and achieved to the unconditional support, encouragement and pieces of advice I received from my mother and my father, to whom I will be always thankful. Likewise, going to Swansea University was the best decision I could ever have made.
After my studies, I started to work as a senior lawyer for one of the leading maritime law firms in Argentina, and after a few years I decided to quit to set up my current own law firm, IT&L Legal Consultants, in 2011.
At that time, the challenge was that I feared being unable to continue working on pure maritime and admiralty law cases, my passion.
Fortunately, at the outset, I was appointed to handle a vessel arrest, and a very big collision case in Argentina, involving the loss of the vessel and the unfortunate and sad loss of seven crew members’ lives.
I am very thankful to God, because it all ended up with a very positive outcome. I have never run out of work. I have always handled super interesting cases, had the chance to give work to others and my firm was listed as P&I correspondents and keeps growing.
If you don´t open your wings, you will never know how far you can fly. I like the famous Walt Disney quote which says: ‘All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them’.
I also remember that in 2015, I had been working very hard, networking and spreading seeds to be nominated by one the P&I Clubs of the International Group, and three days after delivering my baby daughter, I was contacted during the night to handle a big collision and allision between two vessels and a wharf.
Of course, as this was a dream case for me, I couldn’t say no. Thus, I attended surveys, and appeared before the Maritime Authority with my parents and my baby girl. I could also not have done it without the unconditional and great support of my husband.
Another challenging time was when, together with very talented women, we set up WISTA (Women’s International Shipping & Trading Association) in Argentina in 2012. I was the Founding President for 6 years, and at the beginning, it was very hard to explain what WISTA was, in a very traditionally male-orientated industry. We worked hard, and little by little, we managed to position the association, and bring tools and opportunities for women empowerment in the shipping industry!
I must say that I still encounter challenges when I meet colleagues, who are not used to facing young women in practice. Although this situation was worse at the beginning of my career, it still happens to me from time to time, when I need to defeat strong voices with smart arguments. It cannot be denied. Fortunately, this is changing.
I am very glad to have been appointed as Diversity and Inclusion Officer of the Maritime and Transport Law Committee. I hope we can bring support and open doors to those who may need it.
If you could put together a wish list of changes you would bring about in the profession, or to your area of practice, what would you include?
I would like the area of practice to be more open. It is still concentrated in very few hands, and I consider that having alternatives and fairness in competition is crucial for efficiency and to promote best legal practices.
What do you do in your free time? How do you relax?
In my free time, my priority is my family, my parents, my husband, my friends and of course – first and foremost – my lovely daughter, Federica.
I very much enjoy observing the beauty and taking care of my plant, being in the open air at the club and swimming. Especially, in this difficult time of Covid-19.
I must nevertheless confess that, at least for the moment — maybe because my daughter is just four years old— it is very hard for me to assign part of my free time to those activities that are good exclusively for me.
I am working on that! And though that is really in my wish list, I am pleased to say that I am absolutely blessed and happy!