Commercial litigation finance is a growing industry. But when it comes to the people who laid its foundations and those who are propelling the business today, it is an exceedingly small and interconnected world. Many key figures trace their roots to elite law firms or Wall Street institutions. (Perhaps reflecting the diversity challenges in those clubby industries, litigation finance’s upper rungs are also overwhelmingly white and male.)
Among the industry’s established leaders, many fell into the business almost by accident, through chance meetings or conversations about clients who couldn’t pay to fight a good case. Newcomers are tweaking the business model with web-based crowdfunding and by using artificial intelligence as an adjunct to traditional case-vetting tools.
Whether you’re a litigator who regularly uses funding, a company GC looking to finance a case, or a curious investor, it helps to know who you’re dealing with. Below is an introduction to 10 people who are leading and changing litigation finance.
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The Navigator: Charles Agee Role: Founder & CEO, Westfleet Advisors Home base: Brentwood, Tennessee
Why you should know him: Agee is one of very few people whose experience in the industry stretches back almost two decades, and he’s earned respect for the unique role he plays within its ecosystem. His company advises parties that are seeking out litigation finance, assisting them in identifying willing funders, and helps negotiate the terms of the funding contract. While it seems like a small universe to navigate, Agee counts connections to almost 40 different capital sources and says the market has become larger and more complex since he got started four years ago, albeit more slowly than he predicted.
Backstory: Though not a lawyer, Agee was one of the first entrants into commercial litigation funding market, starting Augusta Capital in 1998. The son of a civil litigator in Tennessee, he studied economics as an undergraduate and was working as an intern with Bear Stearns when he pitched the idea to a colleague. “Wall Street was packaging up just about every kind of cashflow you could imagine, but no one was packaging up contingency litigation cashflows,” he said. The funder, which is not affiliated with the U.K.-based Augusta Ventures, started to wind down after its main capital source was rocked by the financial crisis and shuttered in 2013.
The Giant: Christopher Bogart Role: CEO, Burford Capital Home base: New York City
Why you should know him: Since Bogart co-founded Burford in 2009, it has rapidly ascended to become one of the largest litigation funders in the world. With its market-changing acquisition of rival Gerchen Keller Capital last December, the publicly traded company now has $2.3 billion either invested in or available for litigation investments. Bogart has led the way for the funder from its beginning as a single-purpose, specialty financier for Latham & Watkins. It now engages in a wide variety of financing deals, from buying and pursuing judgments against overseas companies to the “factoring” of law firm receivables. In an example of his company’s global reach, Bogart successfully lobbied the Singaporean Parliament to allow third-party funding in arbitration.
Backstory: Bogart, a former general counsel at Time Warner Inc., was running a technology and media investment firm when he got together with Latham & Watkins partner Robert Volterra. Over lunch, Volterra complained about the inability to take good cases because of the firm’s rigidity on fee arrangements. Bogart had the idea to help pay Volterra’s fees as part of an investment arrangement. “It was totally a hobby,” said Bogart, who teamed up with longtime Latham partner Selvyn Seidel to launch Burford Capital. Other key people in Burford’s leadership, like Los Angeles-based managing director Ernest Getto, also trace their roots to Latham.
The Upstart: Travis Lenkner Role: Co-founder, Gerchen Keller Capital (now owned by Burford) Home base: Chicago
Why you should know him: A former senior counsel at Boeing Co., Lenkner was the main legal muscle behind Gerchen Keller when it started in 2013. His colleagues Ashley Keller and Adam Gerchen are also lawyers—Gerchen went to Harvard Law School and Keller was a partner at Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott—but had been working at a Chicago hedge fund and had more of their focus on raising funds at the outset. Lenkner was the guy who led the vetting of prospective cases, helping to deploy $800 million over the span of about three years in a wide variety of litigation-related deals, including in the patent and IP space.
Backstory: Long before Lenkner was considering a career in litigation finance, he worked as an associate at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in Washington, D.C., on a case that would drag Burford into the spotlight. Chevron’s epic fight against a $19 billion Ecuadorian court judgment over pollution of the rainforest ultimately revealed that Burford had pledged $15 million in the case through Patton Boggs. It later withdrew its investment amid allegations that the judgment was tainted by fraud. Fast forward to 2013, and Lenkner was helping start what would become Burford’s largest U.S. rival. Burford acquired Gerchen Keller in December 2016 for $160 million.
The Expansionist: Ralph Sutton Role: CIO, Bentham IMF Home base: New York City
Why you should know him: Sutton has overseen the dramatic growth of Bentham, the U.S. arm of Australian litigation funder IMF Bentham, since its launch in 2011 in New York City. It’s since opened offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Houston, partnered with a revered federal judge, and announced a $200 million investment fund deal with Fortress Investment Group. He’s both Bentham’s key finance and legal strategy guy in the United States, with a background both as a commercial litigator and an early dealmaker in the litigation finance world.
Backstory: Sutton was a lawyer at several boutique firms, including Bartko Zankel Bunzel & Miller in San Francisco, before he landed a role as an investment adviser in a little-known unit inside Credit Suisse in New York—the “Litigation Risk Strategies Group.” It was 2006, well before Burford or Gerchen had launched, and the unit started by financing appeals before moving into what is traditionally understood today as litigation funding. Sutton’s boss there was Howard Shams, who later went on to help start smaller Bentham competitor Parabellum Capital.
The Globalist: Susan Dunn Role: Head of litigation funding, Harbour Litigation Funding Home base: London
Why you should know her: The geographic reach of cases that Harbour has invested in since Dunn co-founded Harbour in 2007 is staggering—from the United States to Hong Kong to Australia, and around a dozen other former British Commonwealth jurisdictions. The funder has GBP 410 million (about USD $511 million) in assets under management, and funds everything except personal injury and divorce cases. Dunn is also one of the few women at the top echelons of the litigation funding industry, and her voice weighs heavily in whether Harbour will back a case.
Backstory: Dunn has had a transatlantic career, starting at a British firm that was then called Wragge & Co and making her way to Atlanta through a lawyer exchange program, eventually working at Paul Hastings. She then became a commercial attache for the British consulate before returning to the U.K., where a friend pitched her on the idea of starting a litigation finance business. They had humble beginnings, working out of a converted carpet factory in a small town, managing around GBP 1 million. Now she draws huge investments from U.S. university endowments.
The Connector: Jay Greenberg Role: Co-founder & CEO, LexShares Home base: Boston
Why you should know him: Greenberg runs the only electronic marketplace for commercial litigation funding. Launched in late 2014, LexShares identifies investment-worthy cases through a combination of personal connections, AI-aided filtering, and independent vetting, and then posts them on its platform for investors to browse and fund themselves. So far, 30 cases have been funded through the site, at just under $15 million total, with seven reaching resolution. LexShares is also one of the few companies aimed at the middle of the market. Its smallest case so far was an investment value of $85,000—a sum most funders won’t even consider—while its largest was $3.7 million.
Backstory: When he was underwriting debt and equity deals and IPOs for tech companies at Deutsche Bank, Greenberg was approached by a friend who asked if he would invest in his lawsuit. “I probably looked at him like he had three heads,” he recalled. When he did some research into litigation finance, he was attracted by its lack of correlation to wider economic trends. Greenberg connected with Max Volsky, a lawyer and another early player in the industry who had written a book on the topic. Volsky now leads case evaluation at LexShares as its CIO.
The Wall Streeter: Howard Shams Role: Managing principal, Parabellum Capital Home base: New York City
Why you should know him: Shams oversaw Credit Suisse’s Litigation Risk Strategies Group, an early player in the commercial litigation funding industry that was initially kept hush-hush. After the bank wound the unit down in 2013—in part due to Dodd-Frank rules, in part due to the potential for awkward conflicts with bank clients—he helped launch Parabellum with fellow Credit Suisse alum Aaron Katz. The private equity-based funder is smaller than the major publicly-traded funders, but still has $125 million under management. Shams says its small size allows it to focus on working with law firms that specifically want to grow their contingency litigation practice.
Backstory: After working at law firms focused on distressed asset investment issues, Shams gradually grew more interested in finance and joined Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette. The investment bank was acquired by Credit Suisse in 2000. Katz, a social acquaintance of Shams’, had the idea of a litigation investment boutique using a major bank as a platform, and the unit got started in 2006; about a year later, Juridica Investments went public. The two companies ended up co-investing in some deals to spread their risk. Fun fact: The name “Parabellum” comes from the Latin adage, “If you want peace, prepare for war” (Si vis pacem, para bellum).
The Populist: Julia Salasky Role: Founder & CEO, CrowdJustice Home base: New York City
Why you should know her: CrowdJustice isn’t a commercial litigation funder—it’s not even really a “litigation finance” company in the normal usage of that term. But its “Kickstarter for lawsuits” model is making waves and could have real implications for companies and society more broadly. There is a prospective case against Uber over its tax payments in the U.K., and ongoing litigation against the Trump administration’s travel ban and challenging limits on voting rights in U.S. territories. Salasky oversees a team that serves as a gatekeeper to what gets posted, blocking obviously bogus cases while trying to keep politically neutral. The platform takes 5 percent of funds raised through the platform, once the target amount is actually hit.
Backstory: Salasky, who grew up in Virginia to British and American parents, went to law school in the U.K. and later worked at Linklaters and the United Nations. She launched CrowdJustice in May 2015 amid massive cuts to funding for public legal aid (which have also been threatened in the United States), and expanded to the United States in January. More than just a funnel for money, she sees the platform as changing regular people’s relationship with the judiciary. “It demystifies the law in a way that we’ve found is quite powerful,” she said.
The Valley Dealmaker: Lee Drucker Role: Co-founder, Lake Whillans Litigation Finance Home base: Palo Alto, California/NYC
Why you should know him: Drucker is the more business-focused of Lake Whillans’ co-founding duo and leads the scouting of cases in Silicon Valley. It’s a market that often sees testy, high-dollar litigation between asymmetrically sized opponents—the kind of case that Drucker says is Lake Whillans’ bread and butter. As of last fall, the private equity-backed funder had invested about a third of its $60 million portfolio in litigation by companies located in Silicon Valley or backed by Valley venture capital. It’s also done some particularly Valley-esque deals, putting seed money into companies involved in litigation while investing in their lawsuit.
Backstory: After completing a J.D./MBA program New York University, Drucker went to go work for BlackRobe Capital. It was another one of the early players in the litigation funding industry, started by the co-founder of Juridica, Timothy Scrantom. It was there that he met Boaz Weinstein, a former litigator at Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann. The two left before BlackRobe shut its doors in 2013 to start Lake Whillans.
The Groundbreaker: Richard Fields Role: Co-founder, Juridica Investments (now partner at Fields PLLC) Home base: Washington, D.C.
Why you should know him: Although Augusta Capital and some patent-focused funders predated it in the United States, you might say that the launch of Juridica marked an inflection point for the U.S. litigation finance industry, showing others that there was a market for something called “commercial litigation funding.” Fields had thought a lot about the valuation of cases as an asset prior to co-founding the company with Timothy Scrantom, and briefly ran a company that traded in insurance claims. Now, Fields has returned to being a litigator, and hopes to use his experience calculating risk to become a plaintiffs attorney to be feared.
Backstory: When he was a commercial plaintiffs lawyer, Fields was fascinated in the economic aspects of litigation—especially a concept known as “relative risk tolerance.” The concept being that if someone only had $5 million in cash to pursue a $100 million case against a major corporation like Microsoft, they would probably never succeed. That idea of being able to borrow cash to pursue a valuable case stuck with him until Juridica was launched.