Greg McPolin is a Managing Director with responsibility for Burford’s North American origination and business development efforts.
You began your career as an antitrust lawyer before transitioning to business development roles in the legal tech and innovation spaces. What prompted you to make the switch?
The reason for the switch was very personal, but one that I probably shared with millions of other people. In 2001, I realized I was not passionate about practicing law, and it was not fulfilling some of my natural abilities. After September 11th, I gained a lot of perspective, and eventually I said to myself, “I don’t love what I’m doing, so I’m going to change it.” I had built up some expertise in technology around legal—and I still wanted to harness that—so, in early 2002, I took a job with a legal technology company.
Having spent time in both legal tech and legal finance, where do you see the greatest need for innovation in the business of law in the years to come?
I think the greatest need is on the corporate legal department side or what I think of as the “buy side”. Even though it sounds trite, lawyers still don’t do nearly enough with technology, and that’s everything from e-discovery to contract management. Technology will continue to be really important, particularly tools that rely on advanced machine learning and AI. I also think there will be a greater focus on legal finance. The notion that corporations are not asserting their legal rights in the form of bringing a litigation or arbitration claim is a profound missed opportunity. One of the reasons that this job is so exciting to me is the ability to educate companies on ways that they can assert their rights and recover capital using our financing.
You've been with Burford since 2018. Have your conversations with clients about legal finance changed in that time, and if so how?
Absolutely. And awareness has been the big difference. In two years, there has been so much written about the industry, and so much education has happened. Many more people understand or have heard about legal finance. I have seen this especially in corporate legal departments. But even though there’s been a massive increase in awareness, we’ve not reached mainstream adoption.
Covid-19 has upended many conventional business practices, particularly in the legal industry. What changes do you think will stick around in the years ahead?
I think one of the things that will stick around is the virtual work environment. I’ve had dozens of conversations with lawyers that have said that this is working, that they and their teams are productive working virtually. There’s a sense that lawyers are not going to be back in the office five days a week even when things return to “normal.” More generally, though, I’m hopeful that the legal industry will continue to appreciate that macroeconomic conditions can change in the blink of an eye—but also that these black swan events needn’t be impossible to prepare for. For instance, I’m hopeful that corporate legal departments will begin to wholesale understand that legal finance is just another form of corporate finance, and that they can tap into pools of capital to recession proof their businesses.
What have you been hearing from law firms and companies regarding how they're dealing with the downturn? What advice do you have?
In corporate legal departments, there’s a huge focus on preserving capital. When I speak to in-house lawyers, I often pose a question: If you’re willing to finance the building of a new office or headquarters with the underlying property value, why wouldn’t you do the same thing with your affirmative litigation matters? With law firms, there’s a lot of talk—and there was a lot of talk pre-Covid—about hourly fee firms taking plaintiff-side matters on contingency, which can be a scary thing for firms that haven’t historically done that. We can help firms inch into those types of arrangements by sharing risk with them. For instance, instead of a firm being on a 100% contingency, perhaps they can be on a 50% contingency because Burford is sharing half the risk.
Bonus: 5 underappreciated facts about Staten Island
- Staten Island has the best New York pizza (Denino’s and Joe and Pat’s)
- Cornelius Vanderbilt is buried on Staten Island
- It is home to the only swimmable lake in New York City
- The Staten Island Ferry wasn’t always free
- SNL royalty Colin Jost and Pete Davidson are Staten Island natives