投资于诉讼案件的基金逐步增多。过去18个月里成立了约30只这样的基金，融资超过20亿美元。去年，业界“大腕”伯福德资本（Burford Capital）为资助诉讼案件投入了13亿美元，是2016年投入金额的三倍多。诉讼资助公司Lake Whillans的李·德鲁克（Lee Drucker）说他每周都会接到机构投资者的电话，他们想寻觅一种与市场其余部分不相关的资产——诉讼赔偿金与利率上涨或股市起伏没有任何关联。
这样的外部资金不仅能让原告方发起有可能会带来大笔赔偿金的诉讼，还能让律师事务所对冲风险。一些委托人担心律师事务所按小时收取的天价费用会造成不当激励，因而坚持部分或全部采用风险代理付费方案。有了外部资金，律师事务所就算没能赢得诉讼也能挽回部分收入。“输了官司，律所还是会亏一大笔钱，”Stevens & Lee律师事务所的尼古拉斯·卡永（Nicholas Kajon）说，“但会少亏一些。”
随着诉讼融资公司争相抢夺高质量的投资项目，在新市场中也出现了机会。总部设在纽约的诉讼融资公司Bentham IMF与高博金律师事务所（Kobre & Kim）共同设立了一个规模达3000万美元的基金，专门支持以色列的创业公司向跨国公司索赔——例如在侵害商业机密方面。一个新兴的二级市场看来会进一步发展，让投资者得以先一步套现离场，而不用等待一宗旷日持久的诉讼案尘埃落定。伯福德近期出售了自己在一个涉及两家阿根廷航空公司的仲裁案中的股份，回报率达736%。如此令人垂涎的利润水平应该会吸引资本源源不断地流向法庭。
CONTINGENT fees, in which clients pay lawyers only if a case is won, have long been a feature of America’s legal system. Many other countries used to bar them, wary of importing America’s ambulance-chasing culture. But a belated acceptance of their benefits means they are now widely allowed. “No-win, no-fee” arrangements help shift risks from parties to a suit to their lawyers, and make it less likely that a would-be plaintiff decides not to press a strong case for fear of a big financial loss.
Around a decade ago, some lawyers took the principle of risk-shifting further. They accepted money from third parties to fund cases in exchange for some of the winnings. Litigation finance has since taken off. Fortune 500 companies and New York’s elite law firms increasingly tap outside capital when pursuing multi-million-dollar suits.
Funds that invest in litigation are on the rise. In the past 18 months some 30 have launched; over $2bn has been raised. Last year Burford Capital, an industry heavyweight, put $1.3bn into cases—more than triple the amount it deployed in 2016. Lee Drucker of Lake Whillans, a firm that funds lawsuits, says he gets calls weekly from institutional investors seeking an asset uncorrelated with the rest of the market—payouts from lawsuits bear no relation to interest-rate rises or stockmarket swings.
Such outside funding does not just enable plaintiffs to pursue potentially lucrative cases. It also allows law firms to hedge risk. Some clients, worried about the misaligned incentives caused by law firms’ sky-high hourly rates, insist on partial or full contingency-payment schemes. Outside funding lets firms recoup some revenue even if they do not win a case. “Firms that lose are still going to take a bath,” says Nicholas Kajon of Stevens & Lee. “But the write-off won’t be quite as bad.”
Returns are usually a multiple of the investment or a percentage of the settlement, or some combination of the two. Funders of a winning suit can expect to double, triple or quadruple their money. Cases that are up for appeal, where the timespan is short—usually 18-24 months—and the chance of a loss slimmer, offer lower returns. New cases that are expected to take years offer higher potential payouts.
A maturing market means more sophisticated offerings. To spread risk, funders are bundling cases into portfolios and taking a share of the proceeds. Last year Burford ploughed $726m into portfolio deals, compared with $72m into stand-alone suits.
As funders compete for high-quality investments, opportunities in new markets arise. Bentham IMF, a litigation funder based in New York, has joined Kobre & Kim, a law firm, to set up a $30m fund for Israeli startups to pursue claims against multinationals—for example, over trade-secret violations. A burgeoning secondary market is likely to develop further, allowing investors to cash out before long-running suits are closed. Burford recently sold its stake in an arbitration case concerning two Argentine airlines for a return of 736%. Such mouth-watering profits should keep luring capital into the courtroom.