Some maritime law firms are betting on diversification as the key to survival in tough economic times.
As clients get fewer, many firms are looking for outside business to supplement their maritime work. And as their clients get bigger and develop more complex needs, the firms are seeking to retain those clients by offering them a wider range of services."We had to shift our practice slightly," said John D. Kimball, a partner at Healy & Baillie, medium-sized firm. "We had to be adaptable," he continued.
Although about 30 percent of the 43-year old New York-based firm's revenue now comes from outside work, Mr. Kimball said Healy & Baillie has no intention of abandoning its maritime focus.
Because hourly rates are generally lower for maritime work, the firm's lawyers actually spend more time on marine cases than the revenue figure would indicate, he said.
As with many other firms, New York-based Chalos, English & Brown found both opportunity and motivation for diversification from the public's heightened concerns about pollution and pollution liability.
The firm represented Exxon Valdez captain Joseph Hazelwood in Alaska and now considers criminal maritime law to be an important part of its practice.
Shipowners' liability fears have mushroomed and their legal needs have changed greatly since the passage The 1990 Oil Pollution Act. "When you're dealing with liabilities that are so potentially expensive as the ones that may occur under (the act), it isn't merely a matter of maritime law anymore," said one Washington lawyer.
"It embraces many other disciplines that weren't traditionally offered by the maritime law firms," the lawyer continued.
"Firms have to diversify to survive because the (maritime) business has become so complex and so dangerous, today," said another lawyer at a major New York firm.
However, not every lawyer thinks diversification is the only or even the best path to survival.
"People who are good and want to specialize can survive," said Henry F. White Jr., a veteran maritime lawyer and former New York City deputy commissioner of transportation. "People perceive that larger is better," he said. "But that brings demand for a larger volume of work," he added.
Some blame diversification as a root cause of breakups that have shaken some of the larger maritime firms over the last few years. Profitable ship finance departments defected from both Hill, Betts & Nash and from Burlingham Underwood & Lord.
"Diversification can be a problem," said one lawyer. Some specialties bring in more revenue than others, leading to demands from some partners for a bigger slice of the cake.