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The Equity Project: Providing economic incentives to help close the gender gap in law

October 11, 2019
Aviva Will

Both personally and professionally, the opportunity to offer pragmatic solutions to big strategic problems has been among the core satisfactions of being part of the legal finance industry. I relish the simple good sense of addressing the financial constraints inherent in ever more costly complex commercial litigations with new economic solutions, versus less effective alternatives or settling for the status quo.

Pragmatism and new economic solutions can also help resolve a different but very significant problem—and that is the persistent gender gap in law.

Over the course of my 23-year career as a woman lawyer, first at a leading law firm and then in-house at the then largest media company in the world, the gender gap has been impossible to ignore.  And while I am heartened that law firms, clients and policy makers have all become increasingly and publicly concerned with changing the disparities in pay and access to leadership roles for women in law, the pace of change has been painfully slow.

In 2018, women partners in the UK earn 24% less than their male counterparts. Women are less than a third (27%) of all partners and fewer than one in five (19%) equity partners at the 200 largest firms in the US.  And on a year-on-year basis those rates rose, respectively, zero percent and 4%. At that rate, the legal leadership gender gap won’t close for yet another generation—if we’re lucky. To cite another example, of the many thousands of matters brought to Burford over our almost ten-year history, under ten percent have been led by women lawyers. We do see the numbers getting better, but the pace is frustratingly slowly.

No one would argue that the situation for women in law needs to change—the question is how to bring about change more quickly.

The same mix of pragmatism and economic solutions we’re known for at Burford can help close the gender gap in law. In addition to the diversity initiatives and mentorship programs that are slowly altering the culture and conditions in which women lawyers operate, a change in economic incentives can generate decisive and immediate change in women’s access to leadership opportunities. These economic incentives will promote different outcomes—now.

It’s this thinking that led to The Equity Project, a new Burford initiative launched in October 2018. The Equity Project is designed to help close that gender gap by providing economic incentives for change. At its core is a $50 million pool of capital earmarked for financing commercial litigation and arbitration matters led by women.

The Equity Project’s $50 million will be reserved for financing matters in which:

  • a woman litigator is first chair;
  • a woman serves as plaintiffs’ lead counsel or chairs the plaintiffs’ steering committee;
  • a women-owned law firm is representing the client; a woman litigator earns origination credit;
  • or a woman partner is the client relationship manager.

With capital from The Equity Project, women litigators and women-owned firms can pitch clients knowing that they can offer attractive alternative fee arrangements. A woman lawyer can show a client it’s possible to fund their litigation without adding pressure to their balance sheet. She can use litigation financing to convince her firm’s contingency fee committee to move forward with a case she might otherwise not bring to the committee. Litigation financing can help a litigator demonstrate that she’s an innovative thinker, and that she’s aggressive and ambitious about landing new clients and serving them well. An in-house lawyer can use litigation finance to transform her team from a cost center to a profit center, showcasing her financial shrewdness and leadership ability. Law firms committed to gender diversity can share risk with Burford and encourage women litigators to pitch client-friendly alternative billing arrangements to their management committees for new business. Women can pursue leadership positions in significant matters and ease pathways towards origination and client relationship credit with a competitive edge for them and their firms.

In all these ways, The Equity Project is designed to create immediate incentives to promote women into leadership positions in law. We’ll track our impact through the percentage of matters that are brought to us with women in leadership roles, and we will also study Equity Project investments to understand differences in outcomes and efficiencies in matters led by women. We’re confident this data will reinforce the business case for equity—demonstrating that the question is not simply one of fairness but also one of better results.  As McKinsey and others have shown, companies with more gender diversity on their executive teams outperform on profitability and value creation. Data generated by The Equity Project will shed light on how closing the gender gap in law impacts commercial litigation and arbitration outcomes.

I’m extremely proud that Burford is taking a leadership role in leveraging legal finance to help close the gender gap in law, and I’m honored that we’re joined in this effort by an extraordinary group of Equity Project Champions, drawn from leading law firms and corporations, who share our commitment to changing outcomes for women in law. Our Equity Project Champions will help us bring attention to the problem and help ensure that women lawyers are aware of the capital available.

The team at Burford look forward to working with our clients—the law firms and corporate legal and finance teams that use our capital—to leverage The Equity Project to promote women and help close the gender gap in law. We’re confident that the combination of our capital and our shared commitment can lead to real and immediate change, and we welcome your collaboration.

Equity Project Champions*

Wendy J. Miles QC, Partner, Debevoise & Plimpton

The Honorable Katherine B. Forrest, Partner, Cravath, Swaine & Moore; Former U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of New York

Tara Lee, Chair, Transnational Litigation Group, Quinn Emanuel

Sue Prevezer QC, Chair, International Trial Practice, Quinn Emanuel

Sophie Nappert, International arbitrator, Moderator, OGEMID

Sophie J. Lamb QC, Global Co-Chair, International Arbitration Practice, Latham & Watkins

Roberta D. Liebenberg, Senior Partner, Fine, Kaplan and Black; Co-Chair, ABA Presidential Initiative on Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law

Nicole D. Galli, Managing Partner, Law Offices of N.D. Galli; Founder and President, Women Owned Law

Dr. Nadine Herrmann, Managing Partner and Chair, EU and German Competition Law Practice, Quinn Emanuel

Megan E. Jones, Partner, Hausfeld; Founder, Women Antitrust Plaintiffs’ Attorneys

Carolyn Lamm, Partner, White & Case; Member, ICCA Governing Board

Caren Ulrich Stacy, Founder & CEO, Diversity Lab & OnRamp Fellowship

Amy Frey, Partner, Trial and Global Disputes, King & Spalding

Alan Bryan, Senior Associate General Counsel, Walmart; Founder, National Association of Women Lawyers Challenge Club, and In-House Advisory Board Member, National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms

*list in formation