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An interview with Susan Dunn: part 1/4: getting personal

I was delighted to have the chance to put a few questions to Susan Dunn, co-founder of Harbour Litigation Funding, and a founding director of The Association of Litigation Funders in the UK.

Susan has been described by Litigation Funding Magazine as the “Grand Dame” of litigation funding, and has featured in The Lawyer’s Hot 100 for her work in developing the use of litigation funding by lawyers, insolvency practitioners and claimants. She won the Inspirational Woman of the Year award at the 2015 Power Women Awards.

In part 1 of my interview with Susan, she talks about her career and interests. In part 2, she gives some perspectives on litigation funding. In part 3, Susan considers what the future might hold for litigation funding. Finally, in part 4, Susan discusses the key challenges facing civil litigation in England and Wales, and the skills required to be an effective litigator.

Why did you decide to become a lawyer?

Well, I was reflecting on this. Recently, my mum found a school hymn book of mine, in the front of which I had written that I was going to be one of three things: Prime Minister, a social worker or a lawyer.

So I ditched the Prime Minister job, obviously.

I think the social worker idea stayed for quite a long time.

I had in my mind then that being a lawyer was something that you did to help people. I wanted to do something that was both interesting and varied and would help people.

So you still believe that lawyers help people, albeit probably in a slightly different way to social workers?

The job I now do, and the increasing interesting range of cases that we are funding, means we are genuinely helping people who are in very challenging circumstances, as well as helping people who are just saying, “I want to figure out how I lay off my financial risk for a piece of litigation”. I enjoy that combination.

Obviously, you are pretty busy with your work, but what are your interests outside the law?

A couple of things really.

First, I have something of an art habit. I like to think of it as “patronage through purchase”. I have always had just a huge huge love of visual arts, perhaps because I have no artistic skill and am terribly envious of those who do. I feel myself calm whenever I go to an exhibition.

I particularly enjoy finding emerging artists who I can help support. So much so that, having run out of space at home, the office is now decorated with the artwork I have purchased .

I also love to travel. One of the most fabulous things that I have ever done was a motorbike ride across India, from Goa to Cochin: a fundraising adventure. I only got into motorbiking when I was 40 (perhaps a bit of a midlife crisis!). That was phenomenal. My job also gives me the opportunity to travel, given that we fund cases around the world. There are a number of conferences held in interesting locations, that I am asked to speak at.

And, I guess that you can combine those two interests occasionally?

You can. It is lovely to collect artwork which reminds me of my travels to other countries and see how the cultural influences affect artistic styles.

Most people have real horror stories from when they were quite junior…when they think “how do I go back to the office and tell the partner that this has happened?”. Can you remember anything like that?

Yes. The one story that I always recall reminds me of the anxieties of being a junior lawyer.

It is about a friend of mine, who I was at Law School with, who was in a big completion meeting and was asked to do some photocopying.

She went to what she thought was the door of the meeting room but which was, in fact, a cupboard in the meeting room. She was so shy and so terrified that she actually just stayed in the cupboard, waited for 10 minutes, then came out and said that the photocopier was broken. She couldn’t admit that she had just picked the wrong door. The older you get, you think, “You poor thing, to be so terrified”. I still see junior lawyers who do look quite anxious not to do the wrong thing and I am instantly taken back to being 22 again.

You had quite a long period working in private practice. And then you moved into litigation funding – I suppose at a stage when it was still relatively new in this country.

It didn’t exist at all.

It was a “sliding doors” moment (from the film Sliding Doors) which led me to funding. I got on the tube train one day and bumped into a barrister who I had instructed when I was in practice. This was 2002 and he had just lost his seat in the 2002 general election.

We hadn’t seen each other for about five years and I asked him what he was up to. He said that he was about to set up a business in litigation funding. I was doing a project for the Cabinet Office at the time. I thought, “That sounds like insurance (and if I am honest, not very interesting)” and didn’t think anything more of it.

Then he called me up that evening and said, “Why don’t you come and do it with me?”. I was coming to the end of the Cabinet Office project and thought I would give it a go. We first started working out of his house as we had very little money for overheads.

If I had not got on that tube train that day, I don’t think I would be doing this today. It was one of those moments in time where fate decided that I should bump into David. Curious how life can turn out that way.

Life is strange like that…you could be doing something completely different now then…

I know. I often wonder what my parallel existence would have been, and what would I be doing now.

Who has influenced you most over the course of your career?

I’ve thought about this. I think there are three people.

The first is my father, who was always really good at just saying (not in a sort of twee, overindulgent “Oh darling you’re fabulous” kind of way), “You can do anything. Give it a go and see how it works out and, if it doesn’t work, I will support you” – more emotionally than anything else – in figuring out what to do next. He was always really good at doing that. Encouraging what I call that “wilful blindness” of not worrying about whether you can see people who look like you, ahead of you.

He was also a tremendous promoter of women in his environment, which was engineering. He ended his career as Operations Director of PowerGen – a world that was not “pro” women at all. In fact, it was a world where there would still be Pirelli-style calendars on the office wall. Goodness, I can’t believe that still existed! And he was busy trying to get women higher up in the organisation.

And there are two others.

The woman who trained me at Wragge & Co, Helen Mason, who has always been tremendously supportive throughout, and with whom I remain very good friends.

And Nicola Mumford, who sits on my board now, has been a fabulous mentor for me throughout my career, since we first met at Wragge and Co a long, long time ago.

So, I have been very fortunate to have those sorts of key figures throughout my life.

Looking broader, is there anyone you would choose as a legal icon for now?

Yes, that is Clive Stafford-Smith who has represented many people facing death row in the States. I always felt how incredibly admirable it was for him to turn up in the United States and to appear in a legal environment which was alien to him. He has recounted how he would be defending clients where the lawyer for the prosecution would be wearing a tie with a hangman on it, and this is very recent history. I think the world always needs people like him who say, “Right, I can’t have this happen. I have got to go and help”. I have enormous admiration for what he has done, and continually think about what I need to be doing to make a contribution.

…There are such different careers you can have as a lawyer…

I know. We can all get a little bit “on our path” too early on, perhaps, in our working lives. It is great that some people just break out from that.

Harbour Litigation Funding Practical Law Dispute Resolution Beverley Barton Susan Dunn

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