Like many of those not born into shipowning families, lawyer Alison Weal had never dreamed of a career in shipping.

But over the last 20 years she has carved out a profitable niche in the London shipping finance scene as a partner at Winston & Strawn.

And she has plenty of advice for those hoping to make a success of a legal career in the sector.

Weal's practice now includes finance, sale and purchase and ship leasing.

She joined Winston & Strawn two years ago from White & Case, having started her career at Watson Farley & Williams (WFW) in 2002.

Weal told TradeWinds that US-headquartered Winston & Strawn had no ship finance capability in London for English law matters.

She said this provided a very good opportunity for her to continue aviation work and seek to "build out" the shipping side of things.

Winston & Strawn was a "good fit and a good challenge," she added.

The company has a shipping team over in the US, specialising in domestic regulatory matters.

Weal sees the operation as a "boutique maritime firm" within a larger law company.

The US team includes partner Charlie Papavizas, described by Weal as a "guru of the Jones Act".

She now liaises regularly with the US team in Washington, DC.

No shipping plan

So how did she enter shipping law in the first place?

"I very much stumbled into it," she told TradeWinds. "After university you apply for training contracts. I interviewed for a few firms, but I liked WFW and they liked me.

"I had no plans to be a shipping finance lawyer; I probably didn't even really know that shipping asset finance was a thing," she admitted.

Charlie Papavizas is a partner at Winston & Strawn. He is based in the US. Photo: Scott Dalton/TradeWinds Events

"But lo and behold my first seat as a trainee was in the ship finance team in London."

Weal thought she wanted to be a litigator when she started her legal career, but having tried that out she found that she preferred the transactional aspects of the profession.

Her time at WFW included a secondment to the Piraeus office, where she got to see "a bit of the Greek shipping side of things".

Weal's aviation experience has also been helpful during her career.

Keep options open

She advised budding lawyers to keep a broad practice.

"What I have found is that most law firms tend to create their asset finance teams along sector lines: rail, shipping, aviation," Weal said.

"The way my career path has gone it has spanned all three. There is the danger that people could look at you as a jack of all trades, master of none, but I actually would wholly disagree with that," she added.

The lawyer believes there is a lot of useful knowledge that can be taken from working across sectors: "Try to get as much experience as you can."

Weal explained that structures taken from one sector can be used in another.

The best example was her work on a $162m deal to finance a couple of boxships for United Arab Shipping Co (UASC).

This was set up as a product she called an enhanced maritime trust certificate, based on an aviation structure known as enhanced equipment trust certificates, Weal explained.

She was able to use knowledge from aviation, bring that into shipping and create a new product, Weal told TradeWinds.

Another compelling argument for having a broad base is the fact that in cyclical industries, one sector will almost always be up while another one is struggling.

Hedging a legal career

"As a lawyer you're almost hedging your own career as well. Perhaps if you're busy in one sector you might be quieter in the other and vice versa," Weal said.

Shipping and aviation are not that much different, the lawyer argues.

Chapter 11 bankruptcy work is similar for both, she said.

"By spanning the two, I've seen a wider selection of financing structures than I would have otherwise," Weal added.

Her two decades in law have seen many changes, not least Chinese players stepping up to effectively provide 50% of new capital in shipping pre-Covid-19.

And although the pandemic period has seen more restructuring-type work, rather than refinancings, she believes deal levels are now cranking up again.