Funder commits millions to female-led litigation

Middleton: Business fundamentals remained strong

Litigation funder Burford Capital has so far committed half of the $50m (£38m) fund established to finance cases led by women lawyers as part of an initiative designed to help close the gender gap in law.

The news came as the funder announced its 2019 results, with profits falling alongside a record year of commitments.

Burford launched the Equity Project in October 2018 in recognition of the under-representation and under-compensation of women partners at leading firms in the UK and US.

To be eligible for the funding, the litigation or arbitration must have a woman as lead partner or client relationship manager, or be responsible for bringing the work in, or be run by a women-owned firm.

According to Burford’s 2019 annual report, published this week, it received 55 qualifying requests for funding and committed $24m, including two matters with all women teams.

The matters span the globe and cover a range of practice areas, including competition, investor treaty claims and general commercial claims.

“While the volume of women-led matters still lags what Burford would like to see, many women lawyers have told us that the mere existence of capital available through the Equity Project has served to provide a lever that changes the conversation inside firms and with clients,” it said.

It has 22 Equity Project champions, including QCs Sue Prevezer of Brick Court Chambers, Wendy Miles of Debevoise & Plimpton and Sophie Lamb of Latham & Watkins – and has held events in the UK, US, France and Australia to discuss the issues involved.

“We’re challenging law firms to elevate women not only because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s a smart way to grow the bottom line,” Burford said.

The results showed that, in 2019, Burford made $955m in new commitments, 29% up on the previous year, with total commitments now at an all-time high of $1.6bn.

Burford generated more than $1bn in cash in 2019, with $518m on its balance sheet – more than four times operating expenses and finance costs, leaving $397m available for distribution or deployment into new assets.

Total Burford-only income was down 15% at $357m, with adjusted operating profit down 21% to $279m, and profit after tax down 31% to $226m.

Chairman Sir Peter Middleton said 2019 was marked by “the continued expansion of our business yet also by the disruption of a meritless short attack. Though our business fundamentals remained strong, investor confidence was dented”.

The company has since announced various changes to its governance and Sir Peter predicted that it would “emerge stronger than ever, with a significantly increased capability to sustain its leadership of the global legal finance industry into the firm’s second decade”.

Chief executive Chris Bogart added: “Against the measure of success of growing Burford’s business and generating substantial free cash, Burford had a spectacular year, and 2020 is off to a terrific start.

“We are the market leader in a rapidly growing industry with high and uncorrelated returns, and we expect meaningful demand for our services in light of the current economic disruption. We have significant cash on hand in addition to our proven cash generating capacity and access to hundreds of millions of dollars of fund capital to boot.

“And much as we share the world’s distress at our current health crisis, the reality is that we expect its aftermath to be a time of significant demand for our services and a moment when uncorrelated cash flows are especially attractive.”

Having been 121p at the end of 2014, Burford’s shares hit a high of 2040p during 2018 but 2019 ended with the price at 708.5p, having slumped to 605p immediately following the short-selling attack.

The shares continued to suffer during this year, reaching 280p in mid-March as the market collapsed at the start of the coronavirus crisis, but they have rallied in the past week in particular and closed yesterday at 480p.

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