(Credit: Sergey Nivens – Fotolia)

In a new twist on efforts to combat the gender gap in the legal industry, Burford Capital is launching an initiative that will earmark $50 million to fund women-led litigation matters.

The effort, which the New York-based litigation funding giant has dubbed The Equity Project, will use the funds exclusively to back commercial litigation and arbitration matters led by women, the company said Wednesday.

“Whoever holds the purse strings, holds the power at a law firm. That’s how it works.” said Aviva Will, a former senior litigator at Cravath, Swaine & Moore who now serves as senior managing director of Burford’s investment team.

“What this does is it puts the power of capital behind women to generate their own business for the firms, but also to incentivize the firms to put women in charge of big cases,” Will said.

Burford, which earlier this month announced it had raised an additional $250 million, has been collecting data on litigation matters for close to a decade. “One of things that we saw was that woeful number of opportunities to fund litigation matters that came to Burford were with cases that were being run by women,” said Will, a former assistant general counsel at Time Warner Inc.

Despite all of the initiatives and programs intended to bridge the gender gap, the legal industry was still moving at a painfully slow pace to parity, Will said.

So she thought, “what can I do, what can we do at Burford, sitting atop a pile of money [to] change the incentives, to change the economics to accelerate that pace of change?”

Under the new initiative, the $50 million pool will be used to fund litigation matters with women at the helm, she said. That can mean cases where a woman litigator is first chair; a woman chairs the plaintiffs’ steering committee or serves as plaintiffs’ lead counsel; a women-owned law firm is representing a client; a woman litigator earns origination credit; or where a woman partner is the client relationship manager. The funding opportunities are otherwise vetted just as Burford would assess any other litigation matter.

Burford, which was founded in 2009 by former Cravath litigator Christopher Bogart, currently has over $3 billion invested in various matters. Last year, the firm made a commitment of $1.3 billion and in the first half of 2018 has made new funding commitments of $540 million.

With capital from the initiative, female litigators and women-owned law firms can pitch clients and encourage women litigators at law firms to approach their management committees with new business using alternative fee arrangements.

“When we talked to women lawyers in the formation of this and thinking it through, a lot of what we heard was that woman are less likely to put themselves out there to go to a contingency committee and say, ‘I’ve got this great case with this new client but we’ve got to take it on risk,’” Will said. “This kind of initiative allows them to use Burford’s capital to take that risk.”

The Equity Project will also include a post-funding analysis of cases that it backs. And will have several backers in Big Law.

Dubbed “Equity Project Champions,” these corporate and law firm leaders will work to support and spread awareness around the initiative. They include Debevoise & Plimpton’s Wendy Miles; Cravath partner and former U.S. district judge for the Southern District of New York Katherine Forrest; Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan partners Nadine Herrmann, Tara Lee and Sue Prevezer; Latham & Watkins global arbitration practice co-chairwoman Sophie Lamb; and King & Spalding partner Amy Frey.

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