Legal Funding Focus: Ayse Yazir of Bench Walk Advisors

Ayse Yazir’s early career in insurance taught her how to spot a good investment. Now, as a litigation funder, she sorts through securities cases, class actions and more that come to her from across the globe, searching for the cases her firm’s funding can make into headline successes.

Yazir is based in London, where she is the Head of Global Origination at leading litigation funding firm Bench Walk Advisors. Originally from Turkey, Yazir’s understanding of legal industries globally is vital to a role where the team frequently sees cases in the U.S., U.K. and across Europe – including in Spain, Holland, Italy and Germany. Before joining Bench Walk in 2018, Yazir worked as a senior technical underwriter with a company acquired by Buford Capital, getting in on the ground floor of the litigation funding industry. “No one knew about funding,” she remembers of those early days in the field. Today, the industry has exploded – and Yazir has kept pace.

Yazir’s background in insurance ensures that the team places its trust in successful cases. Still, she is most passionate about helping lawyers and law firms who otherwise might be unable to finance firm-defining cases. Using funding to finance worthy cases against significant opponents, Yazir explains, opens up worlds of opportunities.

In addition to educating more lawyers about the benefits of working with a funder, Yazir is excited by seeing the new ways litigation funding continues to develop. Last fall, she was a driving force behind Istanbul Arbitration Week, which brought global leaders together in Turkey to discuss matters vital to arbitration, including the now-expanding area of arbitration funding. The event was a success, and  Yazir and her team are already planning to gather those minds in Turkey again this year, October 2 to 6.

Yazir is a member of the Lawdragon 100 Global Leaders in Litigation Finance.

Lawdragon: Tell us a bit about your practice at Bench Walk.

Ayse Yazir: Because Bench Walk is a smaller team, we are different from other funders: We don't have separate departments. We all do a bit of everything.

With some funders, there are the origination, due diligence and drafting teams. Here, I mainly bring the cases to Bench Walk, so I originate cases. But, at the same time, I review if the cases are good enough. I train staff members while I'm also doing my daily job. I also work on closing the documents, dealing with the insurance and monitoring the cases.

LD: What is your team like?

AY: Adrian Chopin and Stuart Grant are co-founders. Adrian is an ex-investment banker. He's very experienced in structuring deals and developing creative financial solutions. Then we have Stuart, a legal brain which adds so much value. Others are ex-lawyers and bankers. We have a bit of everything on the team.

Then there is me, and my background is mainly in insurance. I used to do risk assessment. I would work on 400 cases a year, which gave me an idea about which cases were good.

LD: Bench Walk is a leader in the litigation funding field. Why do you think that is – what makes you different?

AY: We are efficient, keep our promises and are creative.

A small team of bright people makes us quick, and we all own the cases. If a lawyer goes to anyone at Bench Walk, that person will know what's happening with their case.

If you are investing in a person starting a firm, you ask, 'What is their reputation? Are they well-known in the market? Are they going to expand?'

LD: Do you find that you are taking on mostly plaintiffs’-side cases, or is it a mix?

AY: About 99.9 per cent of our work is plaintiffs’-side.

We’re doing many securities, competition and class action matters lately. We are involved in truck cases, groundbreaking competition cases, and commercial and investor-state arbitration cases. These cases are worldwide: We are involved in cases in Holland, Italy and Germany. We are now looking into one in Spain.

LD: Do you ever do any structural funding? For example, if a firm is wanting to expand or move into new offices or markets, can you supply them with funds to get that going?

AY: Absolutely. We work on setting up new law firms and expanding their departments.

LD: What's that process like? Is it different investing in a case versus a firm?

AY: It is the same due diligence – you’re just looking at the person and their background. In a case, you think, "What elements of the case can get my money back?" If you are investing in a person starting a firm, you ask, "What is their reputation? Are they well-known in the market? Are they going to expand?”

You look at how many cases they’ve won and how many cases they’ve lost. You look at what their clients think about them and how many clients they will take with them when they set up their own business.

LD: Do you think you might expand into defense funding at some point?

AY: Defense work is difficult because it’s hard to define success on the defense side. I don't see us expanding there.

The most significant growth area we are seeing is competition and class actions. There's lots of movement happening in U.S. securities actions, and I have seen many really good cases from continental Europe, especially in Holland, Italy and Germany.

LD: How do those cases come in for you? Do you seek them out?

AY: We don't, to be honest. We are very lucky because we have a good reputation, so we usually get cases by word of mouth.

Everyone craves a litigation funder who is fast, efficient and has enough money to fund the cases. When you work on a few cases, those clients introduce you to other offices and their colleagues introduce you to other colleagues in different countries.

LD: Tell me about your transition from insurance into legal funding. What was that like?

AY: The first time I heard about litigation funding was around 2009. Then, I realized that funding cases is no different from reviewing insurance cases. You look at quite similar things. The only difference that I’ve found between insurance and funding is the premium. You don't need to worry about the fund having assets in insurance because the client pays you the premium in insurance.

LD: How did your career expand once you found litigation funding?

People are more aware of funding, and lawyers realize that we are not fighting against them – we support them.

AY: I wanted to get more exposure to case origination, meet the lawyers and learn more about other litigation funders. I joined Gallagher’s for a year and a half as a technical manager, working with funders worldwide. I started with four contacts in law, and I left with 300 contacts, giving me quite an extensive reach. I always create strong bonds with my clients and take ownership of my cases; that is why.

LD: So, you were thrown into this world when it was very new! The industry has changed so much since 2009. Can you talk about that front-row view of this explosion?

AY: It was very weird because Burford Capital came to market and said, "We're going to do funding,” but no one knew about funding. We used to get one case probably every four months for funding when I first joined. The main job we were doing was insurance.

But as more law firms became aware of litigation funding – not just arbitrations, nor UK high courts – we got more cases. And it wasn't just in the UK, but globally.

Then, today, I got three cases in my inbox this morning. It’s getting busier and busier. People are more aware of funding, and lawyers realize that we are not fighting against them – we support them.

LD: How are general counsel and in-house counsel when it comes to legal funding – is that still an area of education?

AY: It is. We mainly get our cases from lawyers, and I still see lots of in-house counsels who don't know funding that well. They usually say, "Oh, why will I get your money? I can get a loan. It's cheaper."

I tell them, "Well, it can look cheaper, but if you lose a case, you must repay the loan.” When you use litigation funding, you only pay that money back if your case is successful and if you recover your money from the defendant.

That's very important because many listed companies don't want to start a claim or a legal action because they don’t want to have debt. But the way to cushion that is litigation funding.

LD: Do you have any tips for lawyers still unfamiliar with litigation finance?

AY: I’d tell them you need to learn about funding because you will get clients with potentially significant cases and need money. If you say, "Sorry, you must pay my fees,” you will miss opportunities.

It's not only that we pay all the fees for legal expenses and asset tracing but also insurance to cover the defendant's costs. We ring-fence the budget and put them in an SPV so their budget for the case is protected from beginning to end.

My advice for lawyers is: Present the case well when applying for funding. The main things we look at are enforcement, damages, merits of the case and the quality of the lawyers involved.

LD: What advice do you have for lawyers or other professionals who are thinking of legal funding as a career?

AY: This career isn’t suitable for every lawyer because you must be decisive and understand the numbers.

You need to have a business mind and some confidence in originating cases. Some lawyers can be shy when discussing new business because they find it embarrassing. But you need the courage to say, "Hey, this is me. Do you have any cases? How can I help you?"

Conversely, if the case is terrible, you must say during the meeting, "This case doesn't work for us." Lawyers respect a quick “no” more than a yes months and months after. The best funders are quick and decisive ones.

LD: Do you have any new products or services that you're launching?

Many listed companies don't want to start a claim or a legal action because they don’t want to have debt. But the way to cushion that is litigation funding.

AY: We have a sovereign state defense product that is relatively new. If a claim is brought against a defendant state, we often look at the amount of damages they may have to pay the other side. If the case is successful, we get paid through sovereign state bonds.

LD: What do you like most about this work?

AY: I like meeting different people. I like not being tied to one area of the law. I need to know all kinds of law, including state arbitration, commercial arbitration, competition class action and cases worldwide. I love that.

I find this work fascinating because the industry is constantly changing, and the trends in the legal industry are changing, too. I like learning different things and using my intuition about cases.

I am meeting many impressive people, some of whom are becoming very good friends.