Meet the officer: Ingolf Kaiser, Co-Vice Chair

Monday 26 April 2021

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How did you get into the law / your area of practice? Why did you become a lawyer?

Let’s be honest – not many teenagers choosing a subject to study at university are driven by high ideals such as justice or wanting to help people solve problems, and I was no different. For me, law was an interesting and new area, which offered the possibility of a range of careers. It was not a subject that we learnt at school – when I was asked at my university interview whether someone who had died of lung cancer should be able to sue the tobacco company, my answer was that this was impossible since they had died. Not a great start. But it drew a smile from the interviewers, and I later learnt that questioning what you are given to work with can also be a useful skill. Once at university, I quickly found that I enjoyed the challenges of learning about different areas of the law. Choosing maritime law as my area of practice happened much later, and by the time I was looking at which law firms to apply to, I had discovered that maritime law existed(!) and my passion for sailing led me to look for ways to combine the two.

If you were not a lawyer, what would you do?

As a university graduate? I have no idea. Joining a law firm was, by the end of my time at university, my ambition and there wasn’t really a second choice. But as my career in shipping law developed, one of the things I have enjoyed the most is being able to learn about the client’s business, and help clients to reach decisions that make a difference to the outcome of whatever problem has come up. We are fortunate that the issues on which we advise clients do often make a difference, because this is an area of the law where you can be involved while the problem is still happening and help shape the outcome. Equally, investigating and understanding at a later stage why a casualty or other incident occurred can also help a client make decisions to avoid similar problems occurring in future. In shipping, the ‘legal’ issues are often driven by commercial realities and changes in the market, and if I were not a lawyer, I would want to become involved in the commercial side of a shipping business.

What advice would you give to someone new to your area of practice?

There are few short cuts – work hard, build relationships, understand what clients expect from you (your boss will also be driven by this), and do your best to deliver. Does the client want to dig in and win a famous battle, or find a solution that is quick (but perhaps imperfect) and move on? If you are looking for a practice area where work comes to you from the firm’s long-established institutional clients, you are unlikely to find it in shipping. But there are many rewards, if what happens on ships and the business behind shipping is of interest to you. Be prepared to travel a lot – to clients, to ships and to court rooms where you will have the opportunity to see how other legal systems approach similar issues to the ones you deal with on a day-to-day basis. And look forward to some lasting friendships, with clients and other lawyers – shipping is a smaller community than many others, and there will be opportunities to get to know people over the long term.

What area of your work do you enjoy the most? What has been the biggest challenge of your career and how did you overcome it?

A good result in a case is great – but when the client comes back the next time, that feels even better. Being able to build long term relationships with clients, to understand their business and what they expect from their lawyer, is particularly rewarding. And of course, the work itself: not just the law, but the facts of just about any shipping case are interesting, and getting to the heart of the factual and technical issues is an important part of many disputes. There are also plenty of new technologies and developing areas which affect how shipping documents are used, and how ships are operated, that will need input from lawyers over the next few years.

Looking at my own team, seeing junior lawyers progress and build on their strengths is always satisfying. It takes time, but there are so many ways to pass on experience and skills, and helping younger lawyers develop – in their own way – is definitely one of the highlights of my work.

Of course, there are many challenges too. Learning to become resilient when things don’t go to plan, and sometimes having just to accept an unwelcome result, are things that we all have to face. I have never found them easy. I don’t think there is a single way to ‘overcome’ them, except to stay focussed on what is best for the client and do my best to achieve that.

What are the current challenges facing your area of practice?

In the short term, technology is clearly having an effect on claims handling. Other areas of the law (eg, car insurance) are ahead of shipping, but the gap is narrowing. However, at present these have more impact on lower value claims, where lawyers are not so deeply involved, and for a while at least the new systems may themselves lead to disputes which need lawyers’ input to help them get resolved.

Looking further ahead, there is increasingly talk of the more sophisticated use of artificial intelligence. This goes beyond analysing documents and applying relatively straightforward rules to accept or reject claims. We are now told that computers are being taught to reason and choose between rival arguments, to determine the intention of the parties to a contract and to apply legal precedents to legal issues that are similar, but not identical. Deciding whether to accept the evidence of a factual witness, or choosing between rival theories of experts, will have to be part of the process and it will take years, perhaps decades to refine. But the value to clients of a more predictable and quicker outcome may well prove attractive, at least for smaller cases.

So, it seems to me that a key challenge is, in the meantime, to continue to find ways to make dispute resolution by ‘real’ lawyers more predictable and cost effective.

What do you do in your free time? How do you relax?

Ships’ problems are not confined to office hours, so it goes without saying that for all maritime lawyers it is not unusual to be working during ‘free time’. But of course, there is still time to relax, and I enjoy sailing with my family. Having spent a lot of time on boats earlier in my life has meant that introducing my wife and children to sailing was (for me at least!) relaxing and enjoyable, and I am looking forward to many more years of exploring new destinations.

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