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5 minutes with... Emily Tillett

April 16, 2021
Emily Tillett

Emily Tillett is a Vice President at Burford with responsibility for leading its investment activity and operations in Hong Kong.

Following over a decade of practicing law, what interested you in pivoting to the legal finance industry and joining Burford?

While I really enjoyed my time in private practice, I was ready for a new challenge. Burford provided a unique opportunity to draw on my experience in cross-border litigation and contentious insolvency and my knowledge of the Hong Kong market. I have always enjoyed the strategic aspect of litigation, which is a key aspect of Burford’s work. Leading Burford’s expansion here allows me to incorporate more than just traditional legal skills as I can utilize my strengths in developing relationships with lawyers, corporates and shareholders and becoming immersed in the economics of litigation and arbitration.

Hong Kong is still a developing market for legal finance, and I am excited to be at the forefront of creating this awareness about the industry and Burford’s offering—the flexibility and creativity of which are impressive.  

From your perspective as a lawyer qualified to practice in Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand, can you comment on what distinguishes commercial disputes and international arbitration in Hong Kong from other jurisdictions?

Hong Kong’s well established common law system, open economy, strong market discipline and international standards and practices have made it a global hub for trade and finance, which has a bearing on the nature of commercial disputes and international arbitration here. 

The legal system here is unique: The principle of “one country, two systems” is enshrined in basic law. Hong Kong is the only Chinese city with a common law jurisdiction. This provides international parties with the familiarity of a common law legal system and reassurance of how Hong Kong’s judiciary operates. 

With significant amount of trade coming through Hong Kong, it is an ideal hub for resolving international disputes. It is an arbitration friendly jurisdiction and acts as a bridge for cross-border disputes involving mainland Chinese parties given its geographic and economic proximity. This inevitably has an impact on the practical aspects of practicing law in Hong Kong. For example, parties can request to have a bilingual judge presiding over proceedings and witnesses can choose to give evidence in Chinese.  

Has the economic impact of Covid-19 changed the way lawyers and practitioners in Hong Kong think about legal finance in the insolvency and arbitration contexts?

Law firms are under pressure to deliver the same quality of legal service for lower costs as clients look to reduce legal spend in the aftermath of the pandemic. Burford’s creativity and flexibility make it a great resource to both corporates and law firms as it provides not only capital for legal fees and expenses but also assistance in monetizing existing legal assets—like claims, judgments or awards.

With the economic impact of the pandemic, I expect to see an increased demand for award and claim monetization in Asia. In the restructuring and insolvency context, there will be more opportunities to assist distressed or cash poor claimants to maximize returns from litigation assets, allowing stakeholders to pursue claims that may have otherwise been settled or abandoned and increasing recoveries for creditors.

Hong Kong is currently considering changing the rules around lawyer success fees. What would new regulations mean for companies and law firms considering legal finance?

In 2020, the Outcome Related Fee Structures for Arbitration Sub-committee of the Law Reform Commission published a consultation paper proposing that the law in Hong Kong should be amended to permit lawyers to use outcome related fee structures for arbitration taking place in and outside Hong Kong. 

This should further opportunities to work with law firms to manage the significant costs and risks from running arbitration based on conditional fee agreements (CFAs). Law firms are generally cash-in, cash-out partnership models and do not have access to outside equity or debt, which means that they cannot take on too much risk. Third-party financiers can share that risk and the costs associated with CFAs.

An amendment to the law will also promote access to justice and bring Hong Kong in line with major international dispute resolution hubs like London and New York.

What do you see as your biggest obstacle in promoting Burford in a region where third-party funding may still be underutilized?

The legal finance industry has previously not had the same profile in Hong Kong that it does in other jurisdictions mainly because its development has been impeded by the common law doctrines of champerty and maintenance, and it has been permitted only for insolvency cases and only relatively recently in arbitration.

Another obstacle is educating lawyers and corporates about legal finance and how it can benefit them. Most lawyers in Hong Kong have heard of legal finance but often don’t know much about it or have misconceptions about how it works. But there is excellent opportunity for growth here and part of this is demonstrating the flexibility and creativity Burford offers.

Top five things…. to do in Hong Kong?

  1. Walk or take the historic Peak Tram up Victoria Peak–Hong Kong Island’s highest peak–for amazing views of the city and beyond.
  2. Try delicious dim sum from laden, steaming carts at one of the traditional dim sum restaurants, best enjoyed with many cups of jasmine tea.
  3. Hop on the iconic Star Ferry between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon and explore the TST promenade. Treat yourself to a traditional high tea at the famous Peninsula hotel.
  4. Hike on one of Hong Kong’s stunning hiking trails–Lantau Peak, Sunset Peak and “The Twins” are my favorites. Finish at a beach, enjoy watching the sunset whilst rewarding yourself with a drink and, depending on where you’ve ended up, catch a sampan or ferry boat home.
  5. Visit one of the many markets–Temple Street Night Market, the Flower Market, the Pearl and Jade Market–for delicious street food and fun browsing.