Jessica Woodhouse is a Vice President with responsibility for strategic business development initiatives as well as for expanding Burford’s relationships with third parties and alliance partners.
Your role in strategic alliances is a first for Burford. How do your expertise and insights benefit clients?
Companies benefit from diversifying their sources of new business; I have specific experience creating channel partnerships and strategic alliances to achieve that kind of diversification. In the context of Burford, it’s helpful to consider how the business has evolved over the years. Early in our history, much of our business flowed through law firms even if the deals ultimately were made with the law firms’ corporate clients. In recent years, we have increased our direct engagement with corporates without a law firm intermediary which is an important direct channel of new opportunities. Still, awareness of legal finance among corporates lags relative to that of law firm lawyers, and this necessitates innovate outreach methods.
Strategic alliances represent a new way to widen our funnel of opportunities and educate the marketplace regarding legal finance. This involves identifying influencers, stakeholders and other parties in the legal disputes ecosystem and working with them to add value to existing and prospective clients—theirs and ours. I’m necessarily one layer removed from the prospective user of the product in the strategic alliance context, so there’s an indirectness to the work that takes a bit of nuance and creativity. As a mentor once put it to me, successfully managing strategic partnerships means acting as a sales manager to another organization—a complex and delicate undertaking.
You began your career as a management consultant at PwC. How does your consulting experience inform your approach to business problems, particularly in the context of legal finance?
Broadly, one of the things I took away from my work was how important each step and person is in a larger process or project. Even a very junior person can be, and often is, a key part of something much bigger. One memorable project involved developing and executing quality testing procedures for a mail processing facility to measure the accuracy of parcel sorting. Even though the daily measuring work seemed rote, it was critical; the counts determined whether certain incentives were paid, and millions of dollars were on the line. It became clear that to do their best work, the individuals we hired had to understand the critical role their function played in the bigger picture. That’s something I’ve taken with me: Everyone on the team has a role to play and is important to the success of the endeavor.
More specific to legal finance, though, my consulting experience taught me that while you can recommend a valuable solution to a client, there are often factors outside the scope of your work or your field of vision that cause the client to go in a different direction. This might not seem objectively rational based on what you know, but clients have their own pressures and constraints. There may be forces at play that rightfully did not factor into your analysis but that ultimately drive the client’s decision making. You see this in legal finance: Outside capital may solve a particular corporate problem and be the most economically rational option available, but there may be non-economic reasons—factors you’re not privy to—that make it unworkable for that particular client at that particular time. That doesn’t mean there isn’t opportunity to work together in the future.
Clients often rely on law firms to learn about legal finance and diligence providers. How do law firms benefit from developing close relationships with Burford?
It’s been interesting to see these relationships in action, because they’re essentially one model for a strategic partnership. As is the case in any successful strategic alliance, law firms benefit because finance providers create additional value for the law firm’s client. This added value may be a competitive differentiator; it may demonstrate to the client that the law firm is sensitive to budget or financial constraints. Perhaps most importantly, Burford’s professionalism and knowledge help make law firms look good to their clients.
In the last decade, legal finance has gone from niche to commonplace. How should this shift influence in-house and law firm lawyers' approach to working with legal finance providers?
This question reminds me of a shift I’ve seen in other sectors of the legal services industry. Something that starts out as a competitive differentiator—perhaps the addition of a new product or service fulfilled by a strategic alliance partner—becomes a must-have for all players in the market as it is more and more widely adopted. That is fast becoming the case for legal finance. Law firms can no longer claim to be unique for leveraging legal finance and having strong relationships with legal finance providers. It is thus incumbent on all firms to develop knowledge and relationships in this area in order to keep up.
In terms of corporates, as more in-house attorneys become aware of legal finance, they’ll be able to chip away at the traditional mindset regarding litigation and corporate legal departments as cost centers. They will increasingly come to view their legal claims as assets that they can monetize or extract value from without adding cost to the balance sheet, thereby shifting the legal department towards becoming a profit center.
You've worked both inside and outside the legal industry as it's evolved in the wake of the last great recession. How do you foresee it continuing to change in the years ahead, particularly as the market deals with what is clearly now a recession?
Law firms are very sensitive to market corrections and recessions, and we saw this in a big way in 2008 and 2009. Part of the challenge for law firms in these situations is that they simply don’t have access to capital in the same way most businesses do. As the current downturn puts pressure on firms, from client cost-cutting to shifts in the legal services clients really need, there must be more innovation from law firms in how they use legal finance. Legal finance gives law firms new ways to serve clients regardless of their ability to pay, and it gives them access to capital they can use to invest in highly relevant and profitable practice areas like litigation and bankruptcy. It should enable them to bypass some of the constraints and challenges they faced in the last recession.
BONUS: Name five things you miss about Southern New England (Massachusetts/Rhode Island)
- Cranberry bogs
- True direct democracy (town meetings)
- Those hilarious accents
- Stuffed quahogs and clam cakes
- The smell of pine needles mixed with the smell of the ocean