The Life Aquatic

James Bailey enjoys maritime law

Published in 2011 Texas Rising Stars Magazine — April 2011

Photo by: Evin Thayer

The world of maritime law can require a bit more legwork than some other areas of practice—literally.

“When I first did [maritime law], I thought it was fascinating because I’m reading cases that were from the 1800s but that were still good law today. I was just interested in the history of it,” says James Bailey, a director at Galloway, Johnson, Tompkins, Burr & Smith in Houston. “I had no idea that getting out into the actual practice meant that I would be climbing around on ships, making transfers from barges to tugboats, and doing things I honestly never thought that the practice of law required.”

Raised in Rhode Island, Bailey liked the idea of going to school thousands of miles from home. “I was like, ‘Man, I’m getting out. I’m going to go see something,’” says Bailey. “I met my wife on the first day of college and so I’ve been in Texas ever since.”

At Trinity University, Bailey earned a degree in English, and minors in business and communications, but it was taking constitutional law and business law courses toward a political science minor that sparked his interest in law. After graduation, Bailey sought to learn more about the profession, joining a small firm as a law clerk in San Antonio that did government contracts. “I did that for two years and I really just kind of fell in love with it,” Bailey says. “I got a lot of responsibility right at the outset, even just as an undergraduate working as a law clerk, and decided that I wanted to go to law school and make it a career. I guess I did not have a lightning bolt moment. … It just sort of evolved.”

As he worked with clients, Bailey sensed their appreciation for his attention to their legal matters. “It sounds clichéd, but, as a law clerk, I was able to see how lawyers can have a profound impact on individuals and businesses that find themselves engaged in the legal process. Whether they were plaintiffs or defendants, they all wanted what they considered to be justice under our legal system,” he says.

Bailey enrolled at South Texas College of Law, joined the moot court team, and was assigned to the admiralty and maritime law team—where he found his calling. “I thought the area of law was so fascinating and just completely different than anything else I had been exposed to in law school,” Bailey says. “It didn’t hurt that we won a national championship in the admiralty moot court either.”

After getting his J.D. in 2001, Bailey joined a small maritime law firm in Houston before he was hired in part by Jim Tompkins, one of GJTBS’s founding partners. “My first impression [of Bailey] was that he was very confident and articulate, that he seemed quite knowledgeable in the area of our law practice,” Tompkins says. “He just was one of those people who immediately inspired confidence on my part that he could fit in and help us by, as we call it, hitting the ground running.”

Bailey primarily handles defense cases, and dedicates most of his practice to litigation involving the Jones Act, the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, maritime collisions and cargo loss. Bailey has been witness to many maritime issues, from terrible on-the-job injuries to disputes over rotten meat, but his first vessel collision case remains his most memorable case. “It was the first time I was really exposed to the hands-on element of the claim, where I realized as a maritime lawyer, look, we need to go out and get on the ships and interview the crews and look at all the documents on the boat,” Bailey says. He learned not only how goods make it into the stores, but also the technical aspects of how the ships operate. “Combining that with just having to litigate, it was just an immersion in all facets of maritime law in one case.”

For many of Bailey’s clients, including captains or boat workers, the legal world is unfamiliar territory. “They know working on boats and that’s what they do,” Bailey says. “They get approached by some city lawyer and it’s something that’s kind of a shock to their system. … It’s just like me going out to a boat. I don’t know every nook and cranny on a boat, so I rely on them to help me get around on a boat while we help them get around if something gets into litigation.”

The personalities Bailey interacts with are unique. “You deal with people of all nationalities, so it’s fascinating from that perspective, too, the type of people you meet. These guys that work at sea, man, they’re a special breed,” Bailey says with a laugh.

“For example, a Greek captain typically was very passionate and could get very angry one second and then very calm and helpful the next,” Bailey says. “I also do a lot of work for the offshore oil industry, so a lot of them are old, crusty folks from Louisiana and they certainly have their own personalities and ways of doing things, so it’s interesting for sure.”

Those relationships are gratifying. “I think when you realize that you’ve kind of helped them through that and you made the process easier for them, I think that is a rewarding thing,” Bailey says.

Recently, Bailey has taken on a question that many maritime lawyers struggle with. “One of the big issues we always have, especially for those of us who work in the offshore oil and gas industry, is the question of: ‘What is a vessel?’” says Bailey. Over the years, as technology advanced, offshore drilling structures used by companies such as BP and Exxon Mobil Corp. have evolved from structures that are unmovable and attached to the sea floor to those that can move slightly around their fixed locations.

That distinction makes all the difference. “If [an employee is] a Jones Act seaman, then he’s entitled to all kinds of remedies and damages that he might not get if the structure is not a vessel,” Bailey says. “It could be the difference between somebody being entitled to just a workers’ compensation benefit or basically having a range of damages, either by statute or under what they call general maritime law, which is common law.”

In one case, Bailey represented an employer that was sued by an employee because he was hurt on an offshore structure. Bailey argued that he couldn’t sue his employer since the structure he was on was not a vessel, which means he was not entitled to more damages than the basic equivalent of workers’ compensation under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act.

“Ultimately, the court issued its rulings and came down on my side, saying that the thing is what they call a ‘work platform,’ meaning it’s basically out there to drill and drill only,” Bailey explains, “and even though it moves a little bit, that doesn’t necessarily make it a vessel.” He’s been told the decision will be appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which would make it more likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will be petitioned to take the case.

Even after practicing for 10 years, Bailey still sometimes finds himself in disbelief about what the practice of maritime law entails. “I had no idea and sometimes I still can’t get over it. I had to make a transfer from a barge to a tug a couple months back and I was like, ‘What the heck am I doing?’”

He’s working with people in unique industries who have jobs most people don’t think about, referring to cases decided hundreds of years ago, and enjoying every minute. “I think [when] you combine all those things—the hands-on aspect of it, just kind of the uniqueness of the industry that we serve, and the legal aspects that we have to deal with—I think overall that’s what I like about it,” Bailey says. “It just makes for a very unique and interesting practice.”

Editor's Note: In the original article we reported Mr. Bailey received his J.D. in 2005. The correct year was 2001. We apologize for the error.

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