fivehundred magazine > Disputes Yearbook 2024 > Perspectives: Adrian Chopin

Perspectives: Adrian Chopin

‘Never forget you are there to do a deal, not to burn the other side to the ground’ – Bench Walk co-founder Adrian Chopin on top trumps, pompous lawyer language and all-staff email calamities

When I was nine years old, an elderly relative told me I should consider being a lawyer because I was an argumentative brat. On that flimsy basis I studied law with German law. For my first year, I hated the subject – everything had come easily to me at school but this new thing required a lot of effort. I nearly gave up. At some point I had one of those moments that still makes me wince, but that nevertheless shaped my life. I was sitting on the floor of my room alone, pre-loading on vodka and listening to Pink Floyd’s Time when I had a moment of white panic that I was going to achieve nothing with my life. I ended up learning that the surest way to start to enjoy something is to get good at it, which is usually the reward of a tonne of hard work. I ended up loving my law degree.

When I joined Allen & Overy, I discovered that I adored the puzzle of understanding, structuring, and negotiating derivatives transactions. It was a total nerd bonanza, and it was perfect for me. During this time, as a junior associate, I squiffily wrote an email to a girl I was dating telling her how much I liked her and… well you get the idea. I put my BlackBerry into my pocket but forgot to lock the keypad. While it was in my pocket, I somehow pressed the combination of buttons to forward my amorous email to ‘A&O New York (all)’. I checked my BlackBerry the next morning and my blood ran cold. I was certain my career was going to end with an article picking over my lovestruck sweet nothings.

I tried to phone anybody and everybody in the A&O New York IT team, but it was the middle of the night, and nobody answered. After about four stomach-churning hours I finally got hold of a lovely chap who confirmed that the mailbox filter had quarantined my email for review and that he would delete it without reading. I almost wept with relief. I put a picture of that guy up on the wall of my office. Old A&O NY IT guy, if you’re out there reading this and you ever need anything, you just have to call me.

One of my colleagues at A&O once said, ‘we cheer as loudly when a deal dies as when a deal closes’. He was right: when a deal closed or aborted the associates would get a few days’ respite from working long hours and would mostly be paid the same amount either way. By contrast, in my first month as an investment banker, when I showed relief at the death of my first deal, my boss observed ‘you won’t last long here with that attitude’. Things have improved at law firms since those days, but I still think that sense of ownership is something many lawyers don’t really experience until they are much later in their careers. Also, Deutsche Bank involved a lot more swearing.

I loved the combination of law and finance and I observed there were lots of litigators but not enough finance professionals in the industry. I thought I could bring something a bit different and that it would be exciting to be part of building a new market. So I took the plunge in 2015, which now makes me one of the dinosaurs of this young industry.

My biggest achievement is setting up a litigation funding business from scratch in 2015: I had no track record, no employees, no models, no documents and all my legal contacts were at Magic Circle and white-shoe firms, none of whose clients wanted funding. I had to spend nights and weekends drafting template documents, building models, and setting up operational systems, all starting from nothing. And during the day I was running around the City taking meetings to build a new network of contacts. I was hugely grateful to John Young and Gary Wee at Orchard, who took a flier on me when I had just an idea; their support, and the fact that they paid me a salary, made it possible. It was the greatest learning experience of my life.

But in close second place, is the deck of ‘top trumps: funder mentals’ that my wife and I made during lockdown. We made cards for high-profile figures in the funding industry with ratings in categories such as ‘charisma’, ‘nerd number’, ‘spin factor’ and ‘pain infliction’ and we included a fairly robust comment on each person at the bottom of the card. People in the industry now beg to be included in the deck. The only thing worse than being in top trumps is not being in top trumps.

For budding lawyers, my advice would be to learn to write professionally and succinctly but always ensure you remain a normal human being. As a trainee I thrived on sprinkling bombast into my emails, like ‘timeous’ and ‘eleemosynary’. But I mostly sounded pompous and insecure. And never forget you are there to do a deal, not to burn the other side to the ground. This is just as important in litigation and arbitration as in transactional work. So don’t act as if you’re engaged in mortal combat, but try to cultivate a decent, professional relationship. It will make your work fun and fruitful.

For those considering a move from law into funding, you need to learn that you aren’t litigating these cases, and you need to start thinking like an investment professional. That’s multifaceted – you need to learn a bit about maths, a bit about finance, and a bit about deal structuring even if you’re in a pure due diligence role. It will make you a far better funder.

Also, if you think you’re a better litigator than the lawyer you are backing, you shouldn’t be backing them. It’s better to back a great lawyer with a good case than a great case with a good lawyer.

My biggest inspiration in the law is David Benton, my old boss from A&O. He is an extraordinary individual: he wears his planet-sized intelligence as lightly as the ugly camo jacket he used to wear to client meetings. And he allies it to a casual, generous sense of humour. He taught me many things, including that real confidence comes from understanding your subject matter and that the best lawyers are not rule-moaners, they are imaginative, creative, and solution-oriented. He built a team that was bright, hardworking, and happy, which made being at work a pleasure, even when the hours were tough.

I think over the next few years we’ll see some more consolidation in the industry, especially in continental Europe, where the market will continue to grow but some smaller funders will end up being absorbed into larger platforms. Both Europe and the UK will see further development of their class action regimes. We’ll probably see at least one or two absolute ‘gut buster’ wins in a non-US group action and this will lead to another flood of cash trying to come into the market. They’ll struggle to build platforms that replicate the success of the more established funders. But that’s fine; we’ll still be here making it work after the fast money has retreated.

My favourite book is The Book of Ebenezer Le Page. It’s an awkward and engaging canter through the twentieth century history of Guernsey via the life of an oddball. I grew up in Guernsey and I still get dewy-eyed reading some passages. Do yourself a favour and give it a try.

Adrian Chopin is co-founder and managing director at Bench Walk Advisors.