Hannah van Roessel has had her heart in law since back when she started law school. As a junior lawyer, she loved spending a full day in a library, getting down to the nuts and bolts of a matter. She found pleasure in refining details and finding “the smoking gun legal argument.”
The Dutch native was a practicing lawyer for eight years before she found her niche in legal funding – an area that boils down to the ability to understand and quantify legal risks.
At Omni Bridgeway, Van Roessel acts as Chief Investment Officer where she oversees investments, due diligence and operations throughout Europe, The Middle East and Africa (EMEA). The team works with individual clients, corporations, law firms, sovereigns and multilateral institutions.
When Van Roessel joined Omni Bridgeway 10 years ago, it was a much smaller operation than what it has grown into today. The focus back then was mainly on judgment enforcement funding. “We would fund cases where the client had already obtained a judgment or an award and was not getting paid,” Van Roessel explains. Today, Omni Bridgeway is not only the leading provider of enforcement funding globally, but also the largest provider of all types of commercial disputes funding in the world.
The company is made up of accomplished lawyers, like Van Roessel herself, as well as comprehensive analytical research teams, specialists and financial partners. “That multidisciplinary composition of the team adds a lot of value for clients,” says Van Roessel. “Plus, that’s what makes it fun.”
Van Roessel is driven by the satisfaction she gets when she and her team are able to make an impact for a client who otherwise couldn’t afford legal recourse. “We really do provide access to justice,” Van Roessel says, “which is rewarding and exciting.”
Lawdragon: Could you describe the work you do as CIO at Omni Bridgeway?
Hannah van Roessel: My main role is to create an environment that allows our Investment Managers (IMs) to succeed. The people we hire are highly educated and experienced, so they are very capable individuals. At Omni Bridgeway, every IM is responsible for the full life-cycle of the investment: origination (sourcing new matters), reviewing and assessing whether they meet our investment criteria, and if and when they are approved by our Investment Committee, managing them to completion. I bear overall responsibility for our pipeline and the investments we make in the EMEA region. I’m in more of a supportive position and get to see a wide range of investment opportunities – and that variety makes my role a lot of fun.
LD: Did you start out there as an investment manager?
HVR: Yes, though we did not use that title at the time. When I started in 2013 as a Senior Legal Counsel, claimants would come to us both for funding and our proven track record of understanding how to collect against unwilling debtors. Claimants were often companies investing in emerging markets. I brought to the business my experience as an arbitration lawyer and working with international counsel when awards had to be recognized across different jurisdictions. At the time, Omni Bridgeway had decades of enforcement experience and I added my enforcement arbitration crossover background to the mix.
LD: You’ve worked in so many markets. Do you notice any differences, geographically, with people understanding how to work with legal funders?
In most jurisdictions today, there is an understanding of what funding entails and how it works. There is a difference in markets mostly because legal cultures are different.
HVR: In most jurisdictions today, there is an understanding of what funding entails and how it works. There is a difference mostly because legal cultures are different. I relocated to New York for a while to launch the company’s enforcement team in the U.S. and I really enjoyed being in the U.S., learning about the way legal funding is received and done there. Generally, there's a larger market in the U.S. and most dispute lawyers are very familiar with funding and have experience negotiating a funding agreement so that keeps you on your toes in a good way.
At the end of the day however, the basics are the same. Somebody's trying to get access to a litigation or arbitration process that they either cannot afford – where we really provide access to justice, which I think is pretty interesting and exciting – or they could afford it, but they can equally spend that money on something else that will benefit their company in a different way. These claimants want our financial support, but also the benefit of working with a company that has done this successfully many times and can realistically and objectively assess the risks alongside them.
LD: On the enforcement side, can you give us an idea of the life cycle of your involvement?
HVR: It starts with who comes to us and when. It’s often a law firm but it can also be the claimant who comes to us directly. We’ve built a particularly strong reputation, so word of mouth delivers many interesting investment opportunities directly from clients, but lawyers are equally as important a source.
They could come to us early on for normal merits funding and they might struggle to get funding because there is a likely enforcement problem down the road. For those opportunities, what we call merits plus enforcement, we offer a solution from start to finish. If no enforcement is required, great, but if payment doesn’t happen voluntarily the client knows we have a plan.
But let's say we are approached when there is already a judgment or an award and it’s not being paid. The life cycle in many ways is similar to normal funding. We will look at the case, we will do a very high-level assessment of whether we think we can invest and that boils down to – do we think the other side is capable of paying? Is there a realistic path towards recovery? If so, we will issue a term sheet and if the client accepts, we will due diligence the matter further and present it to our investment committee.
If and when we do invest in an enforcement matter, there is often increased involvement on our end, actively seeking to help secure a resolution – but it depends entirely on what the clients and the lawyers want. If they don't need our help so much in terms of strategy, they just need the money and there's no need for us to get involved in strategy, that’s completely fine. If they are interested in the additional strategic advice that we offer, then we have at our disposal an in-house research team, including asset tracers. It's not set in stone. It depends on the needs of the claimant and we're able to offer whatever they require.
LD: Sounds like a fully rounded team.
HVR: Yes. We have really accomplished lawyers. Our in-house research team is comprised of people from a wide variety of backgrounds, including a physicist and some real polyglots. They're very analytical people who bring their varying expertise to the table with a view to coming up with a winning strategy. This cross-functional teamwork is both very effective and extremely rewarding.
If no enforcement is required, great, but if payment doesn’t happen voluntarily the client knows we have a plan.
LD: You were practicing law before, so I’m curious – why did you make the move over to legal funding?
HVR: I was a lawyer for eight years, and it really was the best training I could have had for my current role. Omni Bridgeway was a client of mine, and I found the variety, innovation and possibilities just too enticing to resist. I could see the cases they were working on and loved the crossover between the law and deal making. It was cross-border, which for a Dutch lawyer, was particularly compelling as you're usually confined to your local jurisdiction, so the international component was exciting. All of it together was just very attractive so I made the jump. When I called them, their answer boiled down to, "What took you so long?" And I am happy I called.
LD: Did you have a mentor when you first came to Omni Bridgeway?
HVR: I'm smiling because there's too many to mention. I don't want to single out one person. But I think the reason I joined was that I had seen this team before and saw how much fun they had together, how smart they were. Let's just say they haven't disappointed me. Most of those people are still here 10 years later. I'm happy they took me along on their ride.
LD: Is there anything you miss about practicing law?
HVR: This is going to be a bit of a nerdy answer, but I do miss spending a whole day in a library and really getting to the absolute detail of something and then finding the smoking gun legal argument. I don't get to do that anymore. I know it's not glamorous, but I used to really enjoy that part.
LD: What do you wish law firms understood more about working with a legal funder?
HVR: Lawyers have a relationship with their clients, which is the most important. But they’re starting to see that we're part of this legal landscape and can bolster the services that they can offer to their clients, which is part of their task. If a matter does get funded, I hope they see us as a resource and a partner which is what we like to be. We don't determine what they do. We can't have the level of understanding of a case that they have. But we see so many cases that we can point out trends and developments and be a sounding board or a discussion partner, if they want that. Increasingly, I think that's how we're perceived, which is great.
If I could do one pitch just generally for lawyers, for clients, for general counsel, for CFOs, for anyone, it would be if the thought crosses your mind that perhaps funding could work for a particular issue, whatever it is, don't make it more difficult than it needs to be – pick up the phone. We are so happy to have a 10-minute conversation. And look, the answer might be "no," but that's 10 minutes. I think oftentimes that lawyers feel they need to draft a 10-page memo and get all the citations correct and this just feels like so much work. And why would you do that if the outcome is so uncertain? Where instead if they would pick up the phone, we could have a quick brainstorm.
LD: What trends are you seeing in legal funding these days?
HVR: For us, absolutely, it's the merits plus enforcement matters. We are seeing several cases a week fitting that profile. Increasingly people understand they can pursue a claim and might win, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll get paid. Our unique capabilities allow claimants to confidently pursue justice – we’ll help them win their case and get their hands on what they are rightly entitled to.
The reason I joined was that I had seen this team before and saw how much fun they had together, how smart they were. Let's just say they haven't disappointed me.
LD: How would you describe your leadership style?
HVR: Well, I’m new in the job so let’s see. But if I can end up seeing the team succeed, that's amazing. And if I can play a role in that, supporting individual IMs and the broader team to be successful, then that makes me successful. I need to create the circumstances in which they can be successful.
LD: And what are the skill sets that you look for in an investment manager?
HVR: They often have a legal background and some financial acumen is of course required to understand the difference between a strong legal case and a good investment opportunity. But apart from that I think curiosity is important. And not just about this specific matter, it's about any conversation you have with a lawyer or a client trying to listen more than you are talking. The way our business works is hopefully we provide a need that a client has. But for that we need to listen really carefully. Is it just the money that they need? Is it a certain expertise that they need? Do they need a referral to a good lawyer?
Understanding that and becoming a trusted partner to the client and the lawyers is what makes an outstanding IM.
LD: What's the hardest part of your job?
HVR: The hardest part is losing. It hurts and I don't like it. I want to be very clear, it's obviously harder on the claimant and we will never pretend otherwise. But I think maybe we're a close second when it comes to being hit by any losses. It happens, it's part of our business but it still hurts to see our clients lose a case when we think they really had a strong claim. It hurts to see them lose and it hurts for us financially, of course.
LD: Did you grow up in the Netherlands?
HVR: I lived abroad a couple of times as a kid and as a student, but I am very much born and raised Dutch.
LD: How did you come to the law?
HVR: My family is all in healthcare. I had no idea what I wanted to do, and law seemed like a good general education. I loved it from day one. I had no idea what I was getting into, but once I was there and I had my first classes, I immediately realized that this was the right direction for me.