The Boy on the Bay

It didn’t take a message in a bottle for M. Hamilton “Tony” Whitman Jr. to grow up to be a maritime lawyer. Instead, it was sailing on the Chesapeake Bay as a boy and, later, serving time in the Navy

Published in 2014 Maryland Super Lawyers magazine

By Amy White on December 11, 2013


Q: Maritime law—that’s a pretty small bar, right?

A: We do have a small bar. You really get to know each other. It’s a shared interest in the subject and a shared interest in making sure that fellow lawyers continue to act in the best traditions of professionalism and courtesy. I’ve done lots of other things over the years: construction law, general commercial litigation, bankruptcies and all sorts of things, but it’s always useful when I am involved in one of those other cases and lawyers begin to act out a little bit, and I realize how lucky I am to spend most of my time in the maritime practice, where that doesn’t really happen.

Q: Why choose maritime law?

A: I grew up sailing on the [Chesapeake] Bay with an uncle who was a maritime lawyer, and I spent four years in the Navy between college and law school. When I got to law school, after the first semester, I realized that I was not going to be a great scholar of the law for the law’s own sake—just to pick a name at random from midcentury, I was not going to be a Felix Frankfurter, one of the highly regarded intellectual Supreme Court justices of the ‘40s and ‘50s—so I figured I’d better work in an area that I knew and that I enjoyed.

Q: What did you enjoy most about the Navy?

A: My father and my uncle had both been in the Navy in World War II, so I had heard stories from them. It just seemed a natural thing to me. I ended up in diesel submarines—and allow me to take a detour. We have in the harbor the Torsk, the diesel submarine from World War II that sank the last Japanese ships of [the war]. I’m very much involved with the organization that supports and operates the tours, Historic Ships in Baltimore.

Anyway, after my first year of college I was on a destroyer based in Norfolk, Virginia, and after my second year of college, I did the typical routine that all sophomores did in those days, which was three weeks of Marine Corps indoctrination and three weeks of flight indoctrination to help the midshipmen decide what they might be interested in. Then just by coincidence, between my junior and senior year of college, I was put on a diesel submarine at a time when the Navy was shifting to nuclear power, but we still had a large number of diesel boats that were mostly left over from World War II.

I was put on one of those based in Charleston, South Carolina, and I really liked the way that setting operated because, instead of having to keep your eye on what the admiral was looking at and whether your shoes were shined spiffily, we went out and did our job and we were very proud of what we did, because every man on board had a job that could, if it was not done right, result in sinking the boat. There was a degree of respect up and down so much that even the most junior man was highly regarded.

Q: Any interesting boat lore?

A: Have I got a story for you. The USS Catfish was a U.S. Navy submarine. It was my first assignment out of submarine school, and my favorite. I served aboard that boat for a year and a half and made trips to Okinawa, Japan; Hong Kong; Taiwan, the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii. We went to British Columbia, California, up and down. The U.S. government sold and decommissioned the Catfish because diesel subs were being retired in favor of nuclear powered submarines. I was sad to see her go. We sold the Catfish to the Argentines; she became the Santa Fe of the Armada of the Republic of Argentina. Time goes on, and if you recall, there was the Falkland Islands war between Britain and Argentina. The Argentines decided that this remote set of islands in the Atlantic Ocean should belong to them, so they invaded; the British decided they weren’t going to accept that, so the Royal Navy sailed off and attacked. There were battles between ships and submarine attacks. It was a small-scale but serious wartime experience.

The ARA Santa Fe, my boat, was involved in that war. She was sunk by the British. I have a little black armband, which I put around the Catfish plaque on my wall here to signify that she had been sunk. But the story goes on. About 10 years ago, I got a call from one of my law partners, who said, “I want you to come down to my office.” He was meeting with an Argentine businessman who was in Baltimore for whatever reason, and that Argentine businessman was a former naval officer who had been on the deck of the Santa Fe when she was attacked and sunk.

Q: I just got goosebumps.

A: We did, too, when we were introduced. Such a tremendous connection to be involved with that boat, and to have the boat meet the fate she did.

Q: Tell me about the practice.

A: The practice has been, generally speaking, representing owners and operators of vessels, mostly ocean-going, but a significant number also of brown water. We call it blue water and brown water. Oceangoing is blue; a tub and barge that operate in the inland waters, on the bay, up to Philly through the C&D Canal, or offshore a little but not going from here to Europe, is called brown water. My practice is mostly based on what’s happening in Maryland and on the Chesapeake Bay. Every now and then I’ve been involved with a situation where I’ve represented an individual, but most of my practice is representing the companies that own the vessels in everything from collision and sinkings and other major casualties, to personal injury cases that involve people who’ve gotten hurt on either the barge or on the tug or on the ship, to a commercial aspect like shipbuilding or marine financing. Also in the maritime world, there’s the possibility to go to court and foreclose a mortgage, just like foreclosing on a house. There are also issues like customs busts, oil pollution incidents when the ship spills oil, cargo claims … but the major headline stories are the maritime casualties.

We [Ober Kaler] also occupy a unique niche. The way it works is that if a ship comes in to port, and there is a problem, or there has been a problem, the captain—in the old days, he would open up a big book, but these days, he probably flips the computer screen—he looks through his listing to find his [protection and indemnity] correspondent. There are reps in every port in the world, basically. So when a ship comes into Baltimore [with a problem], the captain finds his correspondent of the P&I Club, which is short for protection and indemnity. It’s an ancient British practice. We represent nearly all the P&I Clubs in the port, so we get the phone call. I got one this past Sunday morning at 8 a.m. saying there’d been a little issue: A tug and barge had collided with a sailing vessel. We go onboard and investigate and talk to the men and look at what happened. We had one ship that got caught in a storm off of Cape Hatteras that came into port and looked like it had literally been shaken violently. There were 40-foot containers peeled open like sardine cans, with things strewn all around the deck. Piles of bicycles, piles of tires, piles of cans of cat food, piles of pineapple. …  When things like that happen, it involves our getting down to port right away.

Q: It sounds like you’re about 20 lawyers wrapped in one.

A: [Laughs] That’s partly because maritime law is like that. When I talk to young people who are in law school, I have always urged them to take the admiralty law course, even if they’re not interested, because it pulls together so many different aspects: contract law, construction law, tort law, administrative law, constitutional law, environmental law. It’s all there.

Q: So what makes a good maritime lawyer?

A: You have to be a good lawyer, period. I think one of the most important things is listening. You have to not only be able to know the law, but you have to understand what it is that happened and what it is that people have to say in trying to understand the consequence of a particular case. You also have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and dig into the facts and dig into the case law, particularly applicable to a maritime lawyer, because those sorts of casualties are fact-intensive. We spend a lot of time going out investigating. Going on board the vessels, going down to the docks, talking to the people involved. There’s a lot of hands-on work.

Q: You have a very commanding speaking manner. That’s got to help.

A: That’s funny to hear. You know, in the submarine force, one of the things we did was communicate with essentially underwater walkie-talkies, but instead of radio waves, it was sound waves. Sonar. That’s how you could communicate from one submerged boat to a surface vessel or one submerged to another. For some reason the system back then was called Gertrude—to this day I have no idea why. To be able to be understood on Gertrude, you had to enunciate and pronounce clearly. I think I may have made a habit of doing it that way.

Q: How do you see the practice evolving?

A: That’s an interesting question because my practice is very much tied to both the legal world and the maritime world. And so when things change in the maritime industry, the practice changes. For instance, around the ’60s or ’70s I guess, containerization became a big thing, and the deregulation of the transportation industry under the Carter administration meant that the Port of Baltimore no longer had some of the advantages that it used to. It used to be that ships would want to call in Baltimore because it’s closer to the Midwest than New York and Philadelphia. Baltimore was cheaper. But with deregulation, people were able to negotiate their own deals and Baltimore sort of fell behind for a while, which has an effect on your practice. So I would say that I see my practice continuing to involve mostly the representation of vessels owners and operators, and I see that the port is going to continue on the upswing.

Q: All of this boat talk—have you seen Captain Phillips yet? It seems right in your wheelhouse.

A: You know what, that has been on my must-see list for some time now. It looks so interesting. But you know, there isn’t much piracy on the Chesapeake Bay these days.

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