Litigation Funding Focus: Jessica Woodhouse and The Equity Project at Burford Capital

Here at Lawdragon, we talk a lot about gender parity in the law. It’s a fascinating, if frustrating, subject. We’re all too familiar with the facts: While law school graduates are half women, and have been for some time, female lawyers still make less than their male counterparts, are less likely to make partner, and are sorely underrepresented in firm leadership roles.

Certain firms work to close the gap through mentorship programs, childcare options, and an honest appraisal of their methods of assigning compensation, recognition, and advancement. Dedicated diversity programs can help, but too often pay lip service without affecting real change.

Good news in the efforts toward parity is emerging from a somewhat unlikely source: Burford Capital, a leader in the world of legal finance.

Burford, which recently listed on the New York Stock Exchange – the first legal finance firm to do so – manages a $4B portfolio, and has worked with the vast majority of leading law firms and corporates in the U.S. and globally to fund litigation and arbitration matters.

By providing capital and sharing financial risk, Burford can accelerate law firm growth, help corporates manage assets, and take the financial weight off pursuing litigation and arbitration matters. So perhaps it’s fitting that they are also making dedicated efforts towards gender parity in the law with their ground-breaking Equity Project.

We caught up with Jessica Woodhouse, a Vice President at Burford handling strategic partnerships and business development, about The Equity Project’s goals, approach, successes and challenges since it was launched in 2018.

Lawdragon: I’d love to hear more about your background, Jessica. How did you come to the world of litigation finance?

Jessica Woodhouse: I practiced law at Latham & Watkins as a litigator back in the early aughts, transitioned to an in-house job at MetLife and eventually made a switch to a career in business development.

The most recent company I worked for prior to Burford does corporate compliance outsourcing. My role there was business development, and specifically strategic partnerships.

In 2018, Burford had started to develop a bigger business development operation and were looking to add a position and a function specifically focused on strategic partnerships or relationships with third parties. They found me.

Despite being a litigator once upon a time, I was not familiar with litigation finance. After all, it hardly existed back when I was practicing.

I wasn't looking to make a career change, but Burford is a very compelling place. What they're doing in terms of bringing capital to bear in the legal sector is just fascinating and really innovative. I was so impressed with every single person I met here that it became a relatively easy decision. I will have been here two years come January.

LD: So The Equity Project was launching right around the time you joined the firm?

JW: Exactly. It launched in the fall of 2018, a few months before my arrival, but I've come to know its origin story well.

Our leadership had noticed the very low proportion of inquiries that were coming to Burford that were cases led by women, whether they were arbitrations or litigations. Like most of us in the industry, our management team is well aware that approximately half of law school graduates are women, and plenty of women make it to the mid-level, even senior associate level at law firms. But they're far from being represented equally in the equity or even non-equity partnership level.

Burford began to think about what we could do, calling on our specific strengths to move the needle. [Co-Chief Operating Officer] Aviva Will really spearheaded the effort, and she worked closely with a number of different individuals at Burford to develop the concept of a pool of capital specifically set aside and dedicated to back commercial matters led by women.

The idea was to bring attention to the lack of gender diversity and specifically to the pay gap. What litigation finance can do and what The Equity Project specifically can do for women is help them to originate matters. Women are less likely to inherit client relationships and therefore receive origination credit for the work they do. By originating a matter in the law firm context, a woman's career is enhanced and she has a better chance at achieving pay equity. That’s the essence of the Project’s genesis and mission.

It has developed over time. One of the really pivotal elements that Burford put in place in the beginning was to recruit champions in the legal industry. These are senior women at major law firms and in-house, who bring their experience to bear, their networks to bear, their ideas. That has been phenomenal, and really made it possible for us to turn this from a good idea into an effective platform.

LD: That’s a brilliant approach. And you earmarked $50M for this project, correct? Is that a separate fund?

JW: It's not a separate fund, no. It is more of an earmarked pool of our existing capital. When we invest in any matter, typically it's a combination of capital from our own balance sheet, as well as from various funds that we manage.

LD: Can you talk a bit about Burford’s process to determine whether or not to fund a matter? And whether the criteria is the same when The Equity Project is involved?

JW: Absolutely. The only factor that really separates Equity Project matters from the other matters that we finance are, in order to be eligible for Equity Project capital, the matter must have a woman lawyer as first chair; be woman-led; be chaired by a woman; give the origination credit to a woman; have a woman as the client relationship partner; or the firm must be woman-owned.

The process is the same whether or not The Equity Project is involved. Burford has its own team of lawyers and financial analysts who evaluate each matter that comes to us. First of all, we fund only commercial matters. We don't do any sort of personal, individual or matrimonial type cases. It's all commercial disputes between businesses.

The type of claim matters. We do a lot in the patent space, and in antitrust. International arbitrations are common, whether they are investor-state arbitration, also called treaty claims, or whether they're commercial arbitrations between two entities.

Another factor is the size – we fund matters with damages in the mid-eight figures and up. The merits are also hugely important. That's why we have such a robust team to assess matters, with deep experience practicing law. We have former patent litigators, former international arbitration attorneys, former commercial litigators, and antitrust lawyers. With that expertise and experience, they're able to evaluate the merits, which is a huge part of determining what we'll invest in.

We also look at the counsel associated with the matter, and their track record in terms of successful litigation of the type of matter that we're evaluating.

LD: So then, when an attorney who happens to be female brings a matter to Burford for consideration, do they need to mention The Equity Project to access that pool of capital? Or do cases sometimes come in and internally you notice a woman is leading it, so then you loop in the Project funds?

JW: It happens both ways. One of the big things The Equity Project is doing is raising awareness, creating more conversations. It is directly causing matters to enter our pipeline, matters where the attorney is saying, "I heard about The Equity Project. Here's a matter for your consideration."

That's happening more and more. What we're looking to do is increase the number of matters in general that are coming to us that are led by women and to move the needle in terms of pay equity for women.

Whether or not a matter was specifically motivated by The Equity Project, that doesn't affect whether it qualifies as an Equity Project matter. We believe by furthering these conversations within the legal ecosystem, there will be more matters coming to us led by women.

LD: What other ways are you raising awareness here? Does it involve working with that braintrust of female leadership you mentioned earlier?

JW: Absolutely. We’ve undertaken a number of different initiatives. First of all, we put out a fair amount of content, in the form of articles in our own publications, blog posts, and we commissioned a significant research study that was published in May 2020. Since Covid, we have done several webcasts, and whenever possible, we involve attorneys from law firms, in-house attorneys and other experts in the field of diversity and inclusion in our webcasts.

We've also had several in-person events, including a breakfast panel in London that touched on the challenge of building your own book of business as a woman.

In New York, we put on a half-day workshop that took that concept and really fleshed it out into a substantive program on how to effectively become a business development professional as a law firm attorney. It's not something that attorneys, men or women, receive much training in, and we want to change that.

That program involved about 35 or so rising legal stars. Not the most senior partners, but those who are still in the process of building their books of business at law firms.

They came in and we had a fantastic consultant named Silvia Coulter present a 90-minute program on business development for lawyers. We also had a panel of our champions speaking about their career experience in terms of becoming rainmakers. There was a lot of Q&A from the group. It was really effective, a great event.

LD: Have you been going any digital events in the age of Covid?

JW: Yes we have. The half-day event in New York took place in January 2020. It feels like a lifetime ago. The plan was to roll it out, and then to do more of those in-person, business development, bootcamp-style events.

With Covid, we've pivoted to webcasts for the time being. We had a great one back in late May on the research that we put out in the spring of 2020 on what in-house legal departments are doing in terms of enforcing diversity within the law firms they hire.

We've done a couple of other really interesting webcasts, including one with McKinsey, who had some really interesting data and research on women in senior positions in business, generally, not just the law.

LD: There’s no beating in-person events, but it seems to me that one upside of going virtual is that some groups are getting larger audiences than they otherwise would have. Are you finding that?

JW: I think that's definitely true. In some ways, at least in this context, it can level a playing field, particularly in terms of geography. In the past, we might have assumed the optimal way of putting on a given event would be in person, but that means it's going to be limited to people within a certain distance.

Since nothing has been happening in person, we've been channeling all of our engagements to digital, which means that every event has the ability to pull people from everywhere. I do think that has led to greater engagement and participation in the events that we've had.

LD: The Equity Project has been in play for two years now. Obviously litigation and arbitrations can take a long time to conclude, but can you point to any success stories here? In terms of whether you're seeing more women leading the projects that are coming in, and also whether any of the funded matters have reached successful conclusion?

JW: I don't believe any of the matters backed by the Equity Project have concluded yet. So, from an investment perspective, I can't speak to that. We released an update in our 2019 year-end results and as of that time, we had committed about half of the $50M pool. Since the beginning of 2020, that has gone up.

We'll be releasing new numbers shortly, as of the half-year mark. In terms of data as to inquiries, we don't have data yet showing a change. But I'm pleased with how far we've gotten in terms of what we've committed and in the variety of the matters that we're funding.

None of them are public in the sense that I can speak about them with any specificity, but there are commercial arbitrations, patent matters, and general commercial litigation. To your earlier question, many of them specifically and explicitly have come through Equity Project outreach.

LD: What happens when the $50M is all accounted for?

JW: We hope that's soon. We will certainly increase it, once that $50M is committed. It's a relatively small number by Burford standards, given Burford's size and the amount of capital that we commit in a given year, which last year was more than $1.5 billion.

It's modest, which tells you something about just how far there is to go, in terms of achieving any kind of equity. We will certainly look to increase it once it's fully committed.

LD: I love that. This is such a big, bold project with incredible potential. What has the response been from the legal community?

JW: There's a couple of things I could point to that are very heartening, anecdotally. From a commercial perspective, we've had Equity Project events that have led directly to new inquiries in our pipeline, led by women, some of which we funded. That's been fantastic.

We've had both men and women at law firms seek us out to speak about the Equity Project, because most law firms realize that they have a problem with a lack of diversity in leadership and in the equity partner ranks, and most want to do better. This provides a tangible way to make progress.

We've gotten a lot of really great feedback from leadership within law firms, in terms of using this as a way to inspire women. To encourage them to go for that career-making large case, knowing Burford may be able to have your back in taking the risk. I’ve received a lot of great feedback in that respect.

LD: I hope the answer to this is no, but – have you gotten any pushback?

JW: I haven’t gotten what I would call pushback exactly, but we do have our hurdles. The Equity Project and the message of taking concrete action to finally close the gender pay and leadership gaps, naturally it's a conversation to have with women. But what’s less appreciated is it's also a very important conversation to have with men, too. With everyone.

There have been instances, sort of in a knee jerk way, that men think it's not relevant for them and therefore they don’t give it as much attention as I personally think they should.

In those instances, I began making an effort to explicitly engage men in the conversation. I’m delighted to report that it's been really well received. These men initially had felt a little uncomfortable, thinking that they weren't supposed to be part of it. Once they understood they were welcome, and in fact their participation is crucial to making the whole thing work, they started to get engaged in a really productive way.

Overall this effort has been really well-received by firms and in-house teams. It’s an innovative approach to a particularly sticky problem, and we’re thrilled to be helping nudge the needle in the right direction.