First published in the Litigation Finance Journal, 6th April 2020.
The Legal Services industry, like many others, is today racing to come to terms with the implications of coronavirus. A range of impacts have been felt to date, including cases being put on hold, staffing concerns and critically, cash flow issues. With clients under pressure, bills aren’t being paid and pipeline looks increasingly uncertain. Alongside this, law firms have high fixed costs, particularly staff, so income is urgently needed.
Whilst well-managed firms will have a limited cash buffer, leaders now need to look at all sources of finance. There are three challenges: Firstly, they will want to identify the best way to keep firms afloat in the short term of the lock-down without taking on crippling long-term debts. Secondly, they will want to ensure whatever action they take does not damage client relationships. And thirdly, they will want to position for growth for when the crisis eventually subsides. Litigation funding could be the solution that many law firms seek to all three challenges.
In all likelihood, the greatest fall in law firm revenues will be in their corporate and commercial practices. These businesses are usually the mainstay of a firm – offering steady, regular income. In normal times, this reliable revenue streams helps to subsidise more volatile practices including disputes. One option for corporate teams is to seek payment of outstanding invoices. The challenge here is that clients are themselves under pressure. Partners will, therefore, be reluctant to squeeze long time clients in such difficult circumstances, when it has taken many years to cultivate these relationships. Another source of funds may naturally be preferable.
Today, the signs are that disputes work is increasing in importance for many firms as a source of income for partnerships as a whole. The challenge however is the lumpy, often delayed nature of revenue from litigation work. Third-party funding offers a solution to this challenge. Law firms may consider introducing a funder to their key clients to seek funding of the corporate’s portfolio of cases. This would allow the client to move forward with cases that might otherwise be on hold for cash flow reasons. It could also allow the firm to pick up work that wouldn’t normally come their way. And it would ensure that the law firm gets paid today, rather than many months down the line, thereby avoiding taking on external debt or damaging precious relationships.
A key difference between such third-party funding and traditional bank finance is the impact on the client’s balance sheet. Bank loans are liabilities requiring repayment by the client in any eventuality. Litigation finance on the other hand is non-recourse. Whatever the outcome of a case, the lawyers’ fees are paid by the funder and can include both costs incurred to date, and time yet to be recorded. Should a case be lost, the client does not bear any liability for the law firm’s fees. And when a case is won (70%+ of funded cases usually are), the client receives a substantial return. In this way, lawsuits can be converted by clients from an onerous liability, into a potentially valuable asset. And the client is likely to thank the law firm for introducing this solution, providing the choice of funder is appropriate.
Established litigation funders have effective case management processes in place. Often combining analytical and legal skill, they assess cases on a variety of bases including not only the legal merits, but also the financial dynamics of the claim and the defendant’s ability to pay. And well-managed funders participate in the self-regulatory body ALF – the Association of Litigation Funders. Here they undertake to act transparently, fairly and to ensure appropriate returns for claimants. ALF membership demonstrates a commitment to good governance and fair businesses practices akin to established insurers. Law firms will want to protect their reputations and client relationships in selecting funders to introduce.
The time for law firm leaders to act is now. As businesses of all types seek to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus, many investments and activities will be put on hold. Such decisions around legal cases may however be reversed if corporate leaders were able to obtain third-party funding that would not strain their balance sheets. Lawyers who are able to introduce such an option now, would not only win valuable guaranteed fees today, but cement or even develop new client relationships for the long term. When the turmoil of COVID-19 subsides, hopefully sooner rather than later, the law firms best positioned for growth will be those who provided value to their clients through the lock-down.