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A long way from gender equity

  • Jessica Woodhouse
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Jessica Woodhouse

Jessica Woodhouse

Vice President

Former Vice President, LicenseLogix

The Equity Project was launched in late 2018 to address the gender diversity problem in law through a $50 million capital pool earmarked for women-led litigation and arbitration matters.

Since the early days of the initiative we have received feedback from male and female law firm partners that The Equity Project gives them a tangible tool to help increase diversity and kick start the gender conversation at their firms. Anecdotally, women lawyers have even told us that the mere existence of the capital helped them as they pursued leadership of complex matters.

We are gratified to be having this positive impact and have so far committed $24 million of the $50 million original capital pool. We know we can do more, and we are eager to see a more significant increase in matters brought to us with women in leadership positions, as that will signal an enduring change. As all of us in the business of law know too well, there is no lack of desire for change, just a frustratingly slow pace of change.

The gender gap in law is a persistent problem

Despite making up half of law school graduates, women still account for barely 20 percent of law firm equity partners in the US, according to a 2019 American Bar Association and American Lawyer Media Intelligence study. The American Lawyer predicted that at this pace gender parity in terms of equity partners will not be reached until 2181. This is unacceptable.

When we launched The Equity Project, we acknowledged at the outset that sourcing and financing women-led litigation and arbitration matters would be a difficult undertaking considering the well-publicized gender gap in disputes. The continued paucity of women-led disputes we are seeing reflects the scale of the gender diversity problem in law.

The business case for the Equity Project is more relevant that ever

Given the economic turmoil triggered by COVID-19, law firms may be inclined to shift focus away from diversity efforts and toward other business priorities. However, this is a false choice—continuing to support and prioritize diversity initiatives is one important way to address those exigent business priorities that have come to the forefront. Indeed, in times of economic strife it is even more important for law firms and organizations to have a diversity of perspective.

Studies have shown that greater levels of gender diversity at the highest echelons of any organization lead to better business outcomes. A report by the IMF suggested that the Lehman Brothers collapse in the last financial crisis could have been avoided if the bank had more women at the top. It argued that more women in positions of authority could have minimized reckless decision-making and the eventual demise of the business.

Gender diversity is patently good for business and The Equity Project adds a further economic incentive to law firms to showcase their gender diversity.  With capital from The Equity Project, women litigators and women-owned firms can pitch clients knowing that they can offer attractive alternative fee arrangements. A woman lawyer can show a client it’s possible to fund their litigation without adding pressure to their balance sheet and she can use legal finance to win approval for a case from her firm’s contingency fee committee that they may have otherwise rejected.

Law firms committed to gender diversity can share risk with Burford and encourage women litigators to pitch client-friendly alternative billing arrangements to their management committees for new business.

The Equity Project is an ongoing effort

We are proud to have committed what we have to women-led litigations and arbitrations. Alongside the capital pool we are actively working with legal teams and law firms to inspire faster change.

Among these efforts, we regularly offer business development training and networking opportunities for women lawyers through workshops and discussion panels. With support from our 22 global Equity Project Champions we equip women lawyers with skills and inspiration for career advancement.

Since the new normal—with the majority of the world’s taskforce working from home—we have begun a new webcast series aimed at tackling the gender diversity problem in law. The first of these featured Equity Project Champion Tara Lee, National Trial Practice Co-Chair at Quinn Emanuel, on how law firms can promote gender equity and inclusion in a world of social distancing.

Later in May, we will release research based on interviews with 75 GCs and heads of litigation at major companies to understand how they use economic levers to promote women and ensure the firms they work with do so, too.

Gender diversity is good for business—and Burford is committed to continuing to support women in law through The Equity Project. We invite law firms and legal teams to join us in this effort.