“Should you be allowed to invest in a lawsuit?” asks the NYT

A excerpt from the article appearing in Sunday’s NYT Magazine:

Hedge funds, banks and insurance companies have long been quietly funding the occasional lawsuit, but no major United States investment outfit in the commercial arena specialized in the practice until Juridica was founded in 2007. The industry’s early growth was driven in part by the recession, which made lawyers at big companies eager to hand off risk and also increased the demand among investors for opportunities that could pay off no matter what was happening in the world’s markets. Today the industry seems to have become a permanent part of the financial landscape, with shares of prominent funders trading every day on stock exchanges in London and Sydney.

Anthony Sebok, a professor at Cardozo Law who advises Burford, says he sees the practice as part of a broader trend toward the financialization of the law. ‘‘Why can’t I promise a stranger some piece of the game?’’ he asked me, paraphrasing Bentham’s writings. ‘‘Is there something icky about it, like I’m commodifying my rights? Bentham says these legal rights are our property. Why shouldn’t we be able to sell them?’’ Jonathan Molot, a professor at Georgetown Law who serves as Burford’s chief investment officer, has written that stock offerings by law firms could improve morale, lower rates and help lawyers focus on maximizing long-term profits. Like lawsuits, the firm itself should evolve into an asset. ‘‘It’s a mistake for lawyers to hunker down and say we’re different, we’re excluded, we’re not part of the economy,’’ he said.

But the interests of financiers and plaintiffs are not always so well aligned. Depending on the structure of the deal and the ultimate payout, plaintiffs sometimes walk away with a few crumbs after the funders and lawyers take their share. One such outcome happened in 2007, when Altitude Capital, a funder, invested $8 million in an intellectual-property suit filed by DeepNines, a small network security company, against McAfee, a much larger competitor. The case was settled for $25 million, but after expenses ($2.1 million), lawyers’ fees (roughly $11 million) and Altitude’s cut ($10 million), DeepNines took home $800,000, a little over 3 percent of its settlement. Then, Altitude questioned DeepNines’ math, arguing that the company shouldn’t have deducted its own expenses before calculating contingency fees. It sued its former partner for $5 million more, eventually dropping the suit in 2011.

This kind of falling out is unusual, but it shows the fundamental conflict that can occur.

Full article here.

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