This spring marks the beginning of a new era in exploration for WHOI. In April it welcomed the R/V Neil Armstrong, the first of the new Armstrong-class of research vessels owned by the Navy and provided to WHOI by the government under a no-cost lease after a competitive, merit-based process.
The Neil Armstrong replaces the R/V Knorr, which had been in service to WHOI for 44 years and was best known for supporting the researchers who discovered the wreck of the RMS Titanic in 1985.
NEIH spoke to Christopher C. Land, WHOI’s Vice President for Legal Affairs and first general counsel, about the responsibilities of representing not only an oceanographic institution but a New England institution.
Q. Marine-research organizations are not exactly a dime a dozen. Was there an aspect of your background that contributed to your landing at WHOI?
A. WHOI was a client when I was at Goodwin Procter, so they knew me. We were involved with Oceana’s [a major nonprofit that protect oceans] fundraising — more on the advocacy side, but also research. All of my litigation work was science-based: environmental, water-quality issues, etc. I had a couple of maritime clients — a shipyard, shipbuilders; I studied marine biology as an undergrad and I grew up offshore racing and sailing, so I always had leanings in that direction.
Q. What are some of the functions of a GC at an oceanographic institution that a “land-based” in-house lawyer might not deal with day to day?
A. I was laughing with one of our engineers as we were talking about revisions on a contract, because I realized I’d said “submarine” four times in about a minute. Probably not a lot of contract attorneys do that. But there’s really a trifecta of things we do. There’s education: We award PhDs in conjunction with M.I.T., so in that way we’re like a specialized graduate school and I play the role of general counsel of a university. Then there’s [the] research end: risk mitigation and liability can be very difficult to establish working in extreme environments in foreign waters — it could be navigating the Amazon or diving to depths of 11,000 meters in the Arctic. Finally there’s the legal work that comes with any marine operations: Jones Act and longshoremen issues, and the complications that arise from constantly moving from domestic to foreign jurisdictions.
Q. Your first big project with WHOI involved the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. What was your role in that affair?
A. Well that was remarkable, as we were one of the few capable of doing immediate science as it was happening because we’d just been there. We’d been doing research on deep sea coral and flow rate in the area, so when we got the call from the Coast Guard, we had people there within days, with in situ data from the site beforehand. We didn’t have to assume anything about conditions prior to the spill — we had data in place. When we were subpoenaed as third parties, my role in the litigation was to take our work on flow rate and apply it to the spilled oil. By the Clean Water Act, the number of barrels that escape in a spill is directly related to damages, so that application became the central issue.
Q. One might say that a good lawyer is a good lawyer anywhere. Do you think an attorney could do your job without an affinity for science and the natural world?
A. Well I’m biased, of course, but I think it’s a matter of comfort level on the part of the team. I think any great lawyer could probably be great in this position, but knowing the ocean and how it works makes me better, I think. An example is that on my very first day, I was speaking to one of our scientists and I knew as we were speaking the questions that were going to arise. The scientist was astounded because there was an immediate comfort level with how we could speak to each other on scientific matters. That makes it much easier for everyone involved, as I share their passion and I understand what they are trying to do, and I can more easily translate WHOI’s needs into legal arguments.
Q. The R/V Neil Armstrong is replacing the Knorr after 44 years. What are the legal challenges that correspond with putting a new $77 million+ vessel to work?
A. Surprisingly, it’s been easier than one might imagine. The coordination between the Navy, the shipyards and our research team was the tricky part, as we had to figure out what the shipbuilders were used to doing and what they were capable of doing. I went on the maiden cruise to San Francisco and saw the preparations as they were being made. The marine ops team from the Knorr was on the ship as it was being built, so they had a head start coordinating the onboard operations.
Q. How often do you get a chance to get wet?
A. As often as I can. Working for an operational research group, it’s important for me to see and know what they’re doing. I try to get out for a major ship cruise once a year, whether to the South Pacific or another distant port. I also SCUBA dive with the marine ops team a few times a year — taking a look at coral, sample tagging, etc. I was laughing with our insurer over the fact that I’m pretty sure I’m the only general counsel who has dived under his own risk management regulations. Even so, most of the time, like any GC these days, I’m sitting at my desk in front of a computer.