Portland Report|Legal

Verrill Dana law group to focus on high-seas issues

Matt Dodge |
Photo/Tim Greenway
Photo/Tim Greenway
Gretchen Johnson, a Verrill Dan administrator, says the firm's new maritime law group will handle wind power and intellectual property issues

Portland law firm Verrill Dana has formed a new practice group focused on maritime law and technology as the firm attempts to capitalize on some emerging legal issues specific to the high seas. While the maritime and marine technology practice group is really just a formalization of work already being done by many in the firm, attorneys with Verrill Dana hope that the consolidated, team-based effort will help the law firm cement a reputation for expertise in maritime law.

"We've had a number of clients come to us with issues that relate to maritime technology and, while these legal issues are not unique, they certainly require an understanding of various legal aspects," says Gretchen Johnson, a firm administrator with Verrill Dana. "We had the assembly of services, but hadn't put them together in one group."

Offshore wind power projects and legal issues surrounding intellectual property rights for new maritime technology are two recent areas of growth that the 150-year-old law firm with offices across the Northeast might now better address under the team-driven structure, according to Johnson.

"There are a myriad of different issues complicated by the intersection of state and federal law, so an understanding of scope can be a good help to our clients," she says. "We have attorneys who have been providing services to various aspects of the industry, from intellectual property for marine technology to liability issues and contracts relating to boat ownership."

Professional expertise is one thing, but in selecting attorneys for the new practice group, the firm tapped a saltier set whose interest in maritime issues extends beyond the work week.

Attorneys assigned to the group include the president of the Marine & Oceanographic Technology Network and a current member of the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary, a trained engineer with experience the submarine industry, a former special agent with the Office of Naval Intelligence, a former yacht delivery captain and two sailing coaches.

"We have lawyers in the group who are living the life and are passionate about it. This is not just an add-on to their practice, it's something they are immersed in inside and outside of the office. They speak the language and understand the subtleties of the marine lifestyle," says Johnson.

Echoes Ben Ford, an associate with Verrill Dana: "It's very important for lawyers to have knowledge of the industry outside of the legal context because it helps them to identify issues and solutions that may not come presently to mind."

The new structure, with its emphasis on resident maritime experts, could help Verrill Dana address legal issues more quickly and with less cost to their clients, says Ford.

"If you know something about how boats are built, it will help intellectual property attorneys better help protect design of that boat," says Ford, a former employee of boating supply chain West Marine. "If you know how engines are built, it will help the litigator handle a negligence claim against a mechanic."

Ford says the maritime group is a "natural extension to our alternative energy practice, especially when you look at the amount of offshore wind [projects] in the Northeast.

"It's one of key areas that we've seen a lot of growth potential in," he adds, because a unique feature of U.S. maritime law muddies the legal waters when it comes to alternative energy projects.

The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, commonly known as the Jones Act, was designed to support the U.S. maritime industry and requires that all goods transported by water between U.S. ports be carried in U.S.-flag ships, constructed in the United States, owned by U.S. citizens, and crewed by U.S. citizens and U.S. permanent residents.

With so many wind turbine parts being sourced from Europe, the Jones Act has been coming up a lot lately, according to Ford.

For example, a current project out of New Bedford, Mass., has the law firm working with the city to overhaul zoning restrictions to allow for a large development in the city's port that will act as a staging area where wind turbine parts can be transferred from overseas vessels to U.S. owned-and-operated ships.

European companies interested in building or supplying service vessels that ferry crews and equipment to offshore sites also face complex legal issues, according to Harlan Doliner, chairman of the new maritime group.

"It forces those European companies to be involved in negotiations with American builders, shippers, boatyards and design firms. That's where us lawyers come in in terms of helping guide those companies to put together transactions so they might outfit those vessels or make investments here with companies in Maine," Doliner says.

Other potential growth areas in maritime law for the firm include intellectual property issues surrounding technology being developed to help ships navigate the Northwest Passage, a sea route through the Arctic Ocean along the northern coast of North America connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Previously Arctic ice had prevented regular marine shipping through the route, but since 2009, the pack ice has been reduced due to climate change, making the Northwest Passage navigable year-round.

"A lot of the solutions to the challenges of operating in the Arctic will involve new technology, which brings in issues of intellectual property," says Doliner. "We want to take advantage of these advancement in this technology and be better positioned to work with and help those companies."

The homegrown efforts of Verrill Dana are important in the eyes of Maine International Trade Center President Janine Bisaillon-Cary. "If there are legal issues that are going to come up, we would rather have a Maine law firm in that capacity rather than having to sub it out to New York, D.C. or Boston," she says.

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