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The Equity Project: Continuing the conversation

January 13, 2020

This year marks numerous important milestones for women in law. 2019 is the 150th anniversary of the first female law students in the US and the first woman lawyer in the US (in 1869, Lemma Barkeloo and Phoebe Couzins entered Washington University in St. Louis and Arabella Mansfield was admitted to the Iowa bar). Across the Atlantic, the UK is celebrating the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919, which paved the way for women to become lawyers.

But even as we celebrate women’s progress in law, challenges persist—and the biggest of them is the significant gender-based pay gap that women lawyers face. For example: Women account for only 22.4 percent of partners in major US firms, according to the 2018 NALP Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms, and 18.5 percent of partners in the top 10 UK law firms, according to PwC’s 2018 Law Firms’ Survey.

To address this challenge, in late 2018 Burford launched The Equity Project—a groundbreaking initiative designed to close the gender gap in law by providing an economic incentive for change through a $50 million capital pool earmarked for financing commercial litigation and arbitration matters led by women. To mark our one-year milestone, we address how The Equity Project—and the individual Champions who have committed to helping us promote it—are facilitating this conversation and inciting meaningful change for women in law.

How The Equity Project helps

The Equity Project helps address a number of cultural and historical factors that contribute to the gender gap in law.

Empowering women lawyers to offer alternative financial solutions

With capital from The Equity Project, women can provide clients an alternative to the hourly billing model—which can be a competitive advantage for lawyers trying to win clients who prefer to work with firms that are willing to share risk or offer different arrangements.

Remunerating lawyers based on the number of hours worked “incentivizes working more rather than working efficiently,” as Equity Project Champion Nicole Galli noted in a 2018 roundtable published by Burford. Given their tendency to take on more domestic, childcare and eldercare responsibilities, it can also penalize women who need to be efficient with their hours.

Providing access to origination credit

Bringing in new business remains key to long-term success at most law firms, but women historically inherit fewer client relationships and opportunities than men. In the worst example of how this can play out, a firm may bestow origination credit on a permanent basis, meaning that even if a female lawyer is a client’s main point of contact, credit for cases brought to the law firm are awarded to the male partner who owns the permanent economic rights to that client relationship.1

The Equity Project provides a lever for change. By providing capital on the proviso that a woman lawyer is receiving origination credit, serving as client relationship manager, or leading the case, law firms and clients are incentivized to ensure that the lawyers working on their matters are being fairly credited and adequately compensated for bringing in new business.

Encouraging self-promotion

Unconscious biases often affect women’s resolve to pursue high-profile opportunities and “self-promote.” As Equity Project Champion Katherine Forrest noted in a 2018 roundtable published by Burford: “This tendency stems from many places, including the ways in which women (and girls) are socialized to fear being labelled as ‘aggressive’.”

Encouraging women to actively seek leadership roles in high-profile litigations and arbitrations is at the core of The Equity Project. It equips women to pitch for new business or approach a law firm fee committee with client-friendly financing in place. As Nicole Galli explained in a 2018 roundtable: “The Equity Project can help more women be rainmakers. It also encourages majority-run firms to funnel opportunities to women when they might not otherwise have done so.”

Moving past a “check-the-box” approach to diversity

Research from Cambridge Judge Business School reveals an unexpected trend among law firms: As female representation at the partner level goes up, recruitment of female junior associates goes down.2 In an interview published on Burford’s blog in 2019, Saadia Bhatty, Counsel at Gide Loyrette Nouel, offered an explanation for this phenomenon: “Law firms were ticking boxes and feeling as though they had hit their quota of female partnerships and therefore not feeling the need to recruit or promote more.”

The Equity Project helps arm firms against complacency by providing a tool that women lawyers can use to win new business and advance their careers.

The impact of The Equity Project

By offering a new tool to help change outcomes for women lawyers, The Equity Project is advancing the conversation around the gender gap in law in a way that resonates.

Since launching a year ago, Burford has been joined by 22 Equity Project Champions—distinguished women and men from leading law firms and corporations in six different countries around the world.3 Thanks to our Champions’ commitment to this initiative, The Equity Project will continue to lead the discussion by featuring our Champions in a series of upcoming workshops and interactive panels aimed at women litigation and arbitration rising stars.

The Equity Project has also been recognized with the inaugural Annual Pledge Award at the 2019 GAR Awards. And our esteemed colleague Aviva Will has been named a Trailblazer and a Distinguished Leader by the New York Law Journal, based in part on her work launching The Equity Project.

Finally, and most importantly, women lawyers and the law firms that are committed to their success have asked for and received funding from Burford through The Equity Project. 

Continuing the conversation

In addition to actively funding women-led matters, one of the immediate impacts of The Equity Project is that it “creates awareness and sends a message,” as Equity Project Champion Sophie Nappert commented in an interview published on the Burford blog.

It’s undeniable that discourse around the gender disparity in law has progressed dramatically in recent years: Initiatives led by Equity Project Champions like The Equal Representation in Arbitration Pledge (of which Burford is a signatory) and organizations like the Diversity Lab are helping promote gender parity. Meanwhile, law firm clients are increasingly using economic incentives to promote equality: In January of 2019, 170 GCs penned an open letter to law firms demanding that they actively improve diversity or risk losing their business.

But because progress remains slow, continuing the conversation around the gender gap in law is crucial—and can only help shed light on both the challenges and the potential solutions. Burford will strive to continue to be at the forefront of driving change.

1 Kibkabe Araya, “Origination Credit Is Hindering In-House Counsel's Diversity Push,” Delaware Law Weekly, September 4, 2019.

2 Q&A: Sophie Nappert and Saadia Bhatty, Burford Capital blog (October 23, 2019). 

3 Numbers current as of 31 October 2019.