Earlier this month, I spent a week in the birthplace of D&O insurance, London.  In addition to moderating a panel at Advisen’s European Executive Risks Insights Conference, I met with many energetic and talented D&O insurance professionals, both veterans and rising stars, to discuss U.S. securities litigation and regulatory risks.  Themes emerged on some key issues.  What follows is a collection of my impressions and opinions about three of them—not quotes from any particular company or person.

1.  Greater frequency of securities class actions against smaller public companies gives D&O insurers an opportunity to innovate.

As I’ve observed over the past several years, a significant risk to companies is that ever-increasing securities defense fees no longer match the economics of most cases, and are quickly outpacing D&O policy limits.  In the past, securities class actions were initiated by an oligopoly of larger plaintiffs’ firms with significant resources and mostly institutional clients that tended to bring larger cases against larger companies.  But in recent years, smaller plaintiffs’ firms with retail-investor clients have been initiating more cases, primarily against smaller companies. Indeed, in recent years, approximately half of all securities class actions were filed against companies with $750 million or less in market capitalization.  As a result, securities class actions have shrunken in size to a level last seen in 1997.

Yet at the same time, the litigation costs of the typical defense firms (mainly firms with marquee names) have increased exponentially.  This two-decade mismatch—between 1997 securities-litigation economics and present-day law-firm economics—creates the danger that a company’s D&O policy will be insufficient to cover the fees for a vigorous defense and the price to resolve the case.  Indeed, in my view, inadequate policy proceeds due to skyrocketing defense costs is the biggest risk directors and officers face from securities litigation—by far.

D&O insurers face a double-whammy: They are paying defense costs on smaller claims that are out of proportion to the actual risk because the lion’s share of cases against all companies, both large and small, are defended by the typical defense firms.  At the same time, insurers are unable to charge a sufficient premium for this risk, due to the softness of the market.

I strongly believe the solution lies in a more tailored D&O insurance option for smaller public companies.  Today, every public company buys some form of D&O indemnity insurance, which allows the company to choose their own lawyers and control their defense strategy.  Under this approach, securities litigation defense lawyers effectively control the D&O insurance claims process; even the most veteran in-house lawyers are almost always securities litigation rookies.  Is that in the insureds’ interest?  Is the one-size-fits-all D&O insurance model right for smaller public companies, whose insurance proceeds are being disproportionately being spent on defense costs?  Is there demand for an optional product that gives insurers greater control, up to and including an optional duty to defend D&O product for smaller companies?

London insurers and brokers are working through these issues. I’m extremely hopeful that there will be innovation for smaller public companies and their directors and officers—insureds who most need the guidance and protection of their insurance professionals.

2.  In the wake of Morrison, greater strategic control is needed to deal with the risk of separate actions around the world.

In Morrison v. National Australia Bank, 561 U.S. 247 (2010), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the U.S. securities laws only apply to “transactions in securities listed on domestic exchanges, and domestic transactions in other securities.”  In the aftermath of the decision, it was widely assumed that the frequency of U.S. securities class actions against foreign issuers would decline.  Yet it has not.  For more background, I refer you to Kevin LaCroix’s September 26, 2016 post in his blog, The D&O Diary.

Despite Morrison, foreign issuers whose securities are traded in the U.S. are still subject to a securities class action with respect to those securities.  To add insult to injury, plaintiffs’ lawyers are also bringing separate actions around the world to recover for losses suffered from securities purchased outside of the U.S.  The result is vastly more expensive claim resolution due to multiple actions around the world, with many lawyers madly working in each jurisdiction, and a greater practical settlement value due to the “let’s just get this over with” dynamic—but with uncertainty about the ability to obtain a worldwide release.  So insurers now face a world in which claims are more severe, and in which the anticipated decline in the number of claims has not materialized.

London insurers and brokers are grappling with how to bring some order to this chaos.  I don’t see an easy fix.  As long as U.S. courts can’t accommodate all claims, worldwide litigation can’t be “won”—it can only be managed and settled as efficiently as possible.  This requires strong strategic control of the overall litigation, both to orchestrate settlements in the most efficient fashion and to avoid lawyers in every jurisdiction doing duplicative and unproductive legal work.

Critically, strong strategic control must be imposed by an independent lawyer—someone who would obviously be paid for his or her time, but who otherwise has no financial interest in the worldwide work.  Independence would give the strategic lawyer freedom from law-firm economics when making decisions about which lawyers should be doing what—and which lawyers should be doing nothing—as well as about when to settle.  In other words, if Dewey Cheatham & Howe is worldwide defense counsel, with multiple offices and dozens of lawyers working on the case, the strategic leader should not be a Dewey Cheatham & Howe lawyer.

But who would play such a role?  Although many companies of course have excellent in-house lawyers, very few have in-house lawyers who formerly were prominent securities litigators.  So should the strategic quarterback be a securities litigator from a firm other than the worldwide defense firm?  Should it be the broker?  Should it be a lawyer for the primary or a low excess carrier?  These are all good possibilities.  And how can this arrangement be put in place before the litigation defense is already beyond control?  Having the discussion is an important first step, and London insurers and brokers are working hard to figure this out.

3.  The danger of a wave of D&O claims relating to cyber security remains real.

One of the foremost uncertainties in securities and corporate governance litigation is the extent to which cyber security will become a significant D&O liability issue.  Although many practitioners and D&O insurers and brokers have been bracing for a wave of cyber security D&O matters, to date there has been only a trickle.  Yet among D&O insurers and brokers in London and elsewhere, there remains a concern that a wave is coming.

I share that concern.  To date, plaintiffs generally haven’t filed cyber security securities class actions because stock prices have not significantly dropped when companies have disclosed breaches.  That is bound to change as the market begins to distinguish companies on the basis of cyber security.  There have been a number of shareholder derivative actions asserting that boards failed to properly oversee their companies’ cyber security.  Those actions will continue, and likely increase, whether or not plaintiffs file cyber security securities class actions, but they will increase exponentially if securities class action filings pick up.

I also worry about SEC enforcement actions concerning cyber security.  The SEC has been struggling to refine its guidance to companies on cyber security disclosure, trying to balance the concern of disclosing too much and thus providing hackers with a roadmap, with the need to disclose enough to allow investors to evaluate companies’ cyber security risk.  But directors and officers should not assume that the SEC will announce new guidance or issue new rules before it begins new enforcement activity in this area.  All it takes to trigger an investigation of a particular company is some information that the company’s disclosures were rendered false or misleading by inadequate cyber security.  And all it takes to trigger broader enforcement activity is a perception that companies are not taking cyber security disclosure seriously.  As in all areas of legal compliance, companies need to be concerned about whistleblowers, including overworked and underpaid IT personnel, lured by the SEC’s whistleblower bounty program, and about auditors, who will soon be asking more frequent and difficult questions about cyber security.

In addition to an increase in frequency, I worry about severity because of the notorious statistics concerning a lack of attention by companies and boards to cyber security oversight and disclosure.  Indeed, the shareholder litigation may well be ugly:  The more directors and officers are on notice about the severity of cyber security problems, and the less action they take while on notice, the easier it will be for plaintiffs to prove their claims.

Cyber security has improved, albeit not enough, in part because of the thought leadership and product development by insurers and brokers. So even if there is never a wave of D&O cyber security matters, the excellent work by insurers and brokers in London and around the world will have been worthwhile.

The Roots of D&O Insurance

London insurers and brokers are also focused on finding the right coverages for entities and individuals in the Yates-memo regulatory environment.  This of course can create tension between entities, who would like their investigations costs covered, and individuals, for whom D&O insurance was created.

I am a D&O insurance fundamentalist—director and officer protection should always be our North Star.  But a company can find the right path to protection of both individuals and the company with good communication between and among the company, its directors and officers, broker, and insurers—both at policy inception and when a claim arises.

It was a privilege to discuss this fundamental D&O insurance question, and many others, with thoughtful D&O insurance professionals who work just down the street from Edward Lloyd’s coffee house.

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Doug Greene

 

The history of securities litigation is marked by particular types of cases that come in waves:

  • the IPO laddering cases, which involved more than 300 issuers and their underwriters;
  • the Sarbanes-Oxley era “corporate scandal” cases, which involved massive litigation against Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, Adelphia, HealthSouth, and others;
  • the mutual fund market timing cases;
  • the stock options backdating cases, most of which were actually derivative cases, but many plaintiffs’ firms devoted class action resources to them;
  • the credit crisis cases; and
  • the Chinese reverse-merger cases.

In fact, the out-of-the-ordinary type of securities case has become ordinary; we have been in a series of waves for the past 20 years.

But we are not in one now, and I’m often asked, “What’s next?”

Although I don’t know if we’re about to enter a period of quirky cases, like stock options backdating, I’m confident that we’re going to experience a storm of securities class actions caused by a convergence of factors: an increasing number of SEC whistleblower tips, a drumbeat for more aggressive securities regulation, a stock market poised for a drop, and an expanded group of plaintiffs’ firms that initiate securities class actions.

The SEC’s Whistleblower Program

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act directed the SEC to give bounties to certain whistleblowers.  With awards in the range of 10 percent to 30 percent of monetary sanctions over $1 million, the bounties were designed to attract meaningful tips.

The program caused a stir.  Plaintiffs’ law firms established whistleblower practice groups and hired former SEC enforcement officials.  The SEC created the Office of the Whistleblower, increased staffing, set up a website and hotline system, etc.  Corporate firms published myriad client alerts and held hundreds of seminars—and braced for their own bounties, in the form of new work caused by more internal and SEC investigations, and resulting securities class actions.  I told my family that I’d see them when I retired.

Yet it took a while for the whistleblower program to get rolling.  The number and amount of the early awards were surprisingly low.  But, as featured on the SEC’s website, they have increased steadily, and are now at significant levels.  In total, the SEC has paid out more than $100 million in bounties.  The number of tips has increased from 3,000 in the program’s first fiscal year to 4,000 last year.  SEC Chair Mary Jo White calls the bounty program a “game changer” and Director of Enforcement Andrew Ceresney says it has had a “transformative impact on the agency.”  Indeed, last year, the SEC filed 868 enforcement actions, a single-year high.

Calls for Increased Government Enforcement

Just as the bounty program is hitting its stride, the political environment again seems to be turning against corporations due to the perceived failure of the government’s securities enforcement efforts in the aftermath of the credit crisis and the recent Wells Fargo scandal, among other factors.  And, of course, this election season has been marked by widespread anti-establishment sentiment.

During my nearly 25 years as a securities defense lawyer, I have seen the pendulum swing back and forth, from outrage against corporations, to outrage against the unfairness of SEC enforcement and the ethics of plaintiffs’ lawyers.  Although I don’t think anti-corporate sentiment significantly changes the rate of government enforcement—they do the most they can with their resources, and are constrained by burdens of proof—I do strongly believe that anti-corporate sentiment increases the number and severity of private securities class actions.

We evaluate the state of the securities class action litigation environment primarily by reference to the rate at which cases are dismissed.  Over the history of securities litigation, the biggest driver of the rate of dismissal is not any legal standard, but instead is the overall public attitude toward the value of private securities litigation.  Whether facts are “particularized,” or an inference of scienter is “strong,” are subjective judgments that give judges wide latitude to dismiss a complaint, or not.  Judges are people.  They read the news.  They talk to friends.  They have children who are Millennials.  They have seen people they thought were good do bad things.  When public sentiment is anti-corporation, the judicial environment is inevitably influenced.

When the judicial environment changes, plaintiffs’ lawyers increase their investment in securities litigation—both in the number of cases they file, and how hard they litigate cases.  Two waves of cases provide examples:

  • In the Chinese reverse merger cases, plaintiffs’ firms filed securities class actions against virtually every Chinese company about which there was a report of a problem.  Plaintiffs defeated nearly every motion to dismiss, especially in the Central District of California.  Although the economic recoveries in those cases weren’t substantial due to a lack of company and insurance resources, several smaller plaintiffs’ firms went all in.
  • In the stock option backdating cases, plaintiffs’ firms filed against nearly every company that had a potential backdating problem.  Plaintiffs defeated motions to dismiss at a high rate, and settled cases for relatively large amounts.  The backdating cases greatly raised the level of derivative settlements, established several smaller plaintiffs’ derivative firms as players in shareholder litigation, and were incredibly lucrative for larger plaintiffs’ firms.

Expansion of Plaintiffs’ Securities Class Action Firms

The stock-options backdating cases and the Chinese reverse merger cases have another thing in common: they have fueled an expansion of the plaintiffs’ bar.

The Reform Act’s lead plaintiff process incentivized plaintiffs’ firms to recruit institutional investors to serve as plaintiffs.  For the most part, institutional investors, whether smaller unions or large funds, have retained a handful of prominent plaintiffs’ firms, and smaller plaintiffs’ firms have been left with individual investor clients who usually can’t beat out institutions for the lead-plaintiff role.  At the same time, securities class action economics tightened in all but the largest cases.  Dismissal rates under the Reform Act are pretty high, and defeating a motion to dismiss often requires significant investigative costs and intensive legal work.  And the median settlement amount for cases that survive dismissal motions is fairly low.

These dynamics placed a premium on experience, efficiency, and scale.  Larger firms thus filed the lion’s share of the cases, and smaller plaintiffs’ firms were unable to compete effectively for the lead plaintiff role, or make much money on their litigation investments.

This started to change with the wave of cases against Chinese issuers in 2010.  Smaller plaintiffs’ firms initiated the lion’s share of them, as the larger firms were swamped with credit-crisis cases and likely were deterred by the relatively small damages, potentially high discovery costs, and uncertain insurance and company financial resources.  Moreover, these cases fit smaller firms’ capabilities well; nearly all of the cases had “lawsuit blueprints” such as auditor resignations and/or short-seller reports, thereby reducing the smaller firms’ investigative costs and increasing their likelihood of surviving a motion to dismiss.  The dismissal rate has indeed been low, and limited insurance and company resources have prompted early settlements for amounts that, while on the low side, appear to have yielded good outcomes for the smaller plaintiffs’ firms.

These outcomes built on gains smaller plaintiffs’ firms made during the stock options backdating cases, in which several smaller plaintiffs’ firms did quite well picking up matters in which the larger plaintiffs’ firms didn’t win the lead role, or working with the larger firms as co-counsel. Fueled by their economic and lead-plaintiff successes, these smaller firms have built up a head of steam that has kept them going, even after the wave of China cases subsided.  For the last several years, following almost every “lawsuit blueprint” announcement, a smaller firm has launched an “investigation” of the company, and they have initiated an increasing number of cases.  Like the China cases, these cases tend to be against smaller companies.  Thus, smaller plaintiffs’ firms have discovered a class of cases—cases against smaller companies that have suffered well-publicized problems that reduce the plaintiffs’ firms’ investigative costs—for which they can win the lead plaintiff role and that they can prosecute at a sufficient profit margin.

Although it isn’t possible for me to know for sure, I strongly believe that there is a very large amount of capacity among the larger and smaller plaintiffs’ firms to increase securities class action filings.  Larger plaintiffs’ firms have only recently finished working through the bulge of the credit crisis cases, and employ a large number of securities class action specialists who have time for more cases.  And the smaller firms are aggressively filing cases and pursuing lead-plaintiff roles.

One of my mentors used to say that “nature abhors a vacuum,” when predicting that there would always be a steady supply of securities litigation.  In a twist on this maxim, I like to say that plaintiffs’ securities class action specialists aren’t going to become doctors or dentists—or even derivative litigation lawyers.  Instead, this large group of lawyers will always file as many securities class actions as they can.  And now, with smaller plaintiffs’ firms hitting their stride, the supply of plaintiffs’ securities class action lawyers is very large, and is looking for more work.

Is There a Securities-Litigation Storm on the Horizon?

I believe that the convergence of these factors, as well as the predicted drop in the stock market, will significantly increase the number of securities class actions.  Indeed, the next big wave in securities litigation may well not be a type of case caused by a unique event, such as options backdating, but instead a perfect storm of cases caused by a competitive blitz by plaintiffs’ firms, as companies report bad earnings results as the economy and stock market decline, and as whistleblower bounties and other SEC enforcement tools unearth disclosure problems.  And throw in other lawsuit-drivers, such as short-seller hit-pieces, and we could see an unprecedented storm of securities class actions.

***

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The fifth of my “5 Wishes for Securities Litigation Defense” (April 30, 2016 post) is to move securities class action damages expert reports and discovery ahead of fact discovery.  This simple change would allow the defendants and their D&O insurers to understand the real economics of cases that survive a motion to dismiss, and allow the parties to make more informed litigation and settlement decisions.

Securities class actions are often labeled “bet the company” cases because they assert large theoretical damages and name the company’s senior management and sometimes the board as defendants.  In reality, however, very few securities class actions pose a real threat to the company or its directors and officers.  Most securities class actions follow a predictable course of litigation and resolution.  Nearly all cases settle before trial.  And, with the help of economists, experienced defense lawyers and D&O insurance professionals can predict with reasonable accuracy the settlement “value” of a case based on historical settlement information and their judgment.

Historically, settlement amounts were driven by an accurate understanding of the merits of the litigation and damages exposure.  Cases that weren’t dismissed on a motion to dismiss were often defended through at least the filing of a summary judgment motion and the completion of damages discovery.  This kind of vigorous defense is no longer economically rational in the lion’s share of cases, because of the high billing rates and profit-focused staffing of the typical defense firms—primarily firms with marquee names.  Those firms’ skyrocketing defense costs threaten to exhaust most or all of the D&O insurance towers in cases that are not dismissed on a motion to dismiss.  Rarely can such firms defend cases vigorously through fact and expert discovery and summary judgment anymore.

The reality of these economics is increasingly leading to mediations and settlements very early in the litigation, if a case isn’t dismissed.  But, though rational, this comes at a high price.  Early settlements are, by definition, less informed than later settlements.  Plaintiffs’ lawyers must push for a higher settlement payment to compensate for the risk that they are settling a meritorious case for too little, and to increase the baseline for a smaller percentage fee due to a lower lodestar.  Defendants and their insurers tend to be willing to overpay because they are saving on defense costs by not litigating further, and because there may be some downward pressure on the settlement amount since the plaintiffs’ lawyers will be doing less work too.

Damages considerations also loom large.  At an early mediation, before damages expert discovery, the parties typically come to the mediation only with a preliminary damages estimate that neither side has thoroughly analyzed, much less tested through intensive work with the experts and expert discovery.  Rigorous expert work often significantly reduces realistic damages exposure.  For example, stock drops that lead to a securities class action are often the result of multiple negative news items.  A rigorous damages analysis parses each item from the total stock drop to isolate the portion caused by the revelation of the allegedly hidden truth that made the challenged statements false or misleading.  A defense firm that is motivated to settle the litigation sometimes does not want to do this work, so that it can use the large bet-the-company damages figure to pressure the insurer into settling for an amount that the plaintiffs will take.  A defense lawyer might say, “Our economist says that damages are $1 billion, so the $30 million the plaintiffs are demanding is a reasonable settlement.”  But expert analysis and discovery may well push the $1 billion number down to a much lower number, which in turn would dramatically reduce a reasonable settlement amount.  Worsening this problem is the increasing unwillingness of mediators and plaintiffs’ lawyers to base settlement amounts on historical data—which places the preliminary damages analysis at the center of the negotiations.

This problem leads to my fifth wish: expert damages analysis and discovery should be the first thing we do after a motion to dismiss is denied.  This will help us know if the case is really a big case, or is a small case that just seems big.  Everyone would benefit.  Plaintiffs and defendants would be able to reach a settlement more easily, based on true risk and reward.  Insurers would know that they are funding a settlement that reflects the real risk, in terms of damages exposure.  And courts would feel more comfortable that they are approving (or rejecting) settlements based on a litigated assessment of damages.  Indeed, placing damages expert work first would help serve the core policy of our system of litigation: “to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action and proceeding.”  Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 1.

Although the logic of my wish would lead to full fact discovery before mediation as well, so that settlements can be fully informed, I favor a continued stay of fact discovery during early expert discovery.  Early expert discovery can be accomplished relatively quickly and efficiently, whereas fact discovery can be immediately and wildly expensive—which is primarily what drives very early settlements.  And although plaintiffs and defendants often disagree about the relevance of fact discovery on damages, the absence of fact discovery for consideration in damages analysis is a factor the parties can weigh in evaluating the damages experts’ opinions.  Unless and until the cost of discovery becomes more manageable, continuing the fact-discovery stay while expert damages discovery proceeds would strike the right balance.

Accelerating the timing of damages expert discovery would align it with the work required by damages experts to analyze price-impact issues under the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2398 (2014) (“Halliburton II“).  In Halliburton II, the Supreme Court held that defendants may seek to rebut the fraud-on-the-market presumption of reliance, and thus defeat class certification, through evidence that the alleged false and misleading statements did not impact the market price of the stock.   Unifying these two overlapping economic expert projects would create efficiencies for the lawyers and economists.  Completing both of them before fact discovery starts would avoid unnecessary discovery costs if the Halliburton II opposition defeated or limited class certification, or if the damages analysis facilitated early settlement.

I’m sure it is not lost on readers that I just argued for a fundamental reform in the procedure for securities class action litigation to fix a problem that is primarily caused by the inability of typical defense firms to efficiently and effectively defend a securities class action even through summary judgment.  To say the least, a system of litigation that can’t accommodate actual litigation is broken.  Significant change in securities litigation defense is inevitable.

I hope that this series has provoked thought and discussion about ways to re-focus our system of securities litigation defense on its mission: to help directors and officers through litigation safely and efficiently, without losing their serenity or dignity, and without facing any real risk of paying any personal funds.  Here, again, are my five wishes:

  1. Require an interview process for the selection of defense counsel, to allow the defendants to understand their options; to evaluate conflicts of interest and the advantages and disadvantages of using their corporate firm to defend the litigation; and to achieve cost concessions that only a competitive interview process can yield.  (5 Wishes for Securities Litigation Defense: A Defense-Counsel Interview Process in All Cases)
  2. Increase the involvement of D&O insurers in defense-counsel selection and in other strategic defense decisions, to put those who have the greatest overall experience and economic stake in securities class action defense in a position to provide meaningful input.  (5 Wishes for Securities Litigation Defense: Greater Insurer Involvement in Defense-Counsel Selection and Strategy)
  3. Make the Supreme Court’s Omnicare decision a primary tool in the defense of securities class actions.  Obviously, Omnicare should be used to defend against challenges to all forms of opinions, including statements regarded as “puffery” and forward-looking statements protected by the Reform Act’s Safe Harbor for forward-looking statements.  But defense counsel should also take advantage of the Supreme Court’s direction in Omnicare that courts evaluate challenged statements in their full factual context.  Omnicare supplements the Court’s previous direction in Tellabs that courts evaluate scienter by considering not just the complaint’s allegations, but also documents incorporated by reference and documents subject to judicial notice.  Together, Omnicare and Tellabs allow defense counsel to defend their clients’ honesty with a robust factual record at the motion to dismiss stage.  (5 Wishes for Securities Litigation Defense: Effective Use of the Supreme Court’s Omnicare Decision)
  4. Increase the involvement of boards of directors in decisions concerning D&O insurance and the defense of securities litigation, including counsel selection, to ensure their personal protection and good oversight of the defense of the company and themselves.  (5 Wishes for Securities Litigation Defense: Greater Director Involvement in Securities Litigation Defense and D&O Insurance)
  5. Move damages expert reports and discovery ahead of fact discovery, to allow the defendants and their D&O insurers to understand the real economics of cases that survive a motion to dismiss, and to make more informed litigation and settlement decisions.

In combination with the Delaware Court of Chancery’s decision in In re Trulia, Inc. Stockholder Litigation, 129 A.3d 884 (Del. Ch. 2016), Judge Posner’s blistering opinion In re Walgreen Company Stockholder Litigation, 2016 WL 4207962 (7th Cir. Aug. 10, 2016), may well close the door on disclosure-only settlements in shareholder challenges to mergers.  That certainly feels just.  And it may well go a long way toward discouraging meritless merger litigation.  But, as I’ve cautioned, I am concerned that we will regret it.  Lost in the cheering over Trulia and Walgreen is a simple and practical reality: the availability of disclosure-only settlements is in the interests of merging companies as much as it is in the interests of shareholder plaintiffs’ lawyers, because disclosure-only settlements are often the most timely and efficient way to resolve shareholder challenges to mergers, even legitimate ones.

I am offended by meritless merger litigation, and have long advocated reforms to fix the system that not only allows it, but encourages and incentivizes it.  Certainly, strict scrutiny of disclosure-only settlements will reduce the number of merger claims—it already has.  Let’s say shareholder challenges mergers are permanently reduced from 90% to 60% of transactions.  That would be great.  But how do we then resolve the cases that remain?  Unfortunately, there aren’t efficient and generally agreeable alternatives to disclosure-only settlements to dispose of a merger lawsuit before the closing of the challenged transaction.  Of course, the parties can increase the merger price, though that is a difficult proposition.  The parties can also adjust other deal terms, but few merger partners want to alter the deal unless and until the alteration doesn’t actually matter, and settlements based on meaningless deal-structure changes won’t fare better with courts than meaningless disclosure-only settlements.

If the disclosure-only door to resolving merger cases is shut, then more cases will need to be litigated post-close.  That will make settlement more expensive.  Plaintiffs lawyers are not going to start to settle for less money, especially when they are forced to litigate for longer and invest more in their cases.   And in contrast to adjustments to the merger transaction or disclosures, in which 100% of the cash goes to lawyers for the “benefit” they provided, settlements based on the payment of cash to the class of plaintiffs require a much larger sum to yield the same amount of money to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.  For example, a $500,000 fee payment to plaintiffs’ under a disclosure-only settlement would require around $2 million in a settlement payment to the class to yield the same fee for the plaintiffs’ attorneys, assuming a 25% contingent-fee award.

The increase in the cash outlay required for companies and their insurers to deal with post-close merger litigation will actually be much higher than my example indicates.  Plaintiffs’ lawyers will spend more time on each case, and demand a higher settlement amount to yield a higher plaintiffs’ fee.  Defense costs will skyrocket.  And discovery in post-close cases will inevitably unearth problems that the disclosure-only settlement landscape camouflaged, significantly increasing the severity of many cases.  It is not hard to imagine that merger cases that could have settled for disclosures and a six-figure plaintiffs’ fee will often become an eight-figure mess.  And, beyond these unfortunate economic consequences, the inability to resolve merger litigation quickly and efficiently will increase the burden upon directors and officers by requiring continued service to companies they have sold, as they are forced to produce documents, sit for depositions, and consult with their defense lawyers, while the merger case careens toward trial.

Again, it’s hard to disagree with the logic and sentiment of these decisions, and the result may very well be more just.  But this justice will come with a high practical price tag.

One of my “5 Wishes for Securities Litigation Defense” (April 30, 2016 post) is greater involvement by boards of directors in decisions concerning D&O insurance and the defense of securities litigation, including defense-counsel selection. Far too often, directors cede these critical strategic decisions to management.

For most directors, securities litigation is a mysterious world ruled by sinister plaintiffs’ lawyers, powerful judges, and a unique legal framework that must be navigated by fancy defense lawyers who charge exorbitant fees. Directors react to this litigation with everything from unnecessary panic to an unjustified feeling of invincibility. The right approach is somewhere in the middle: “attentive concern.” Securities litigation can pose personal risk to directors as well as to their companies, but if directors educate themselves and pay attention, this risk is almost always manageable.

Of course, part of what makes the risk manageable is D&O insurance. But in the event of a claim, independent directors share their D&O insurance with the company and its management. Despite this competition for policy proceeds, directors typically leave management to handle D&O insurance decisions. Directors need to protect their own interests by having a greater role in deciding the features of their D&O insurance program and how the company uses the policy proceeds in the event of a claim.

Greater Involvement by Directors in Securities Litigation Defense

Why Should Directors Care?

Although much of the recent discussion about securities litigation has revolved around meritless merger litigation, securities class actions and associated shareholder derivative actions have always posed greater risk than merger actions. A securities class action alleges that a company and its representatives made false or misleading statements that artificially inflated the stock price. Directors are virtually always included in Section 11 cases, which challenge statements in registered offerings, and increasingly are also named in Section 10(b) actions, which can challenge any public corporate statement. Directors are often named in “tag-along” shareholder derivative actions as well, which allege that the directors failed to properly oversee the company’s public disclosures.

Often, it is difficult to know from the initial complaint whether a securities case will pose a personal risk to directors because it is merely a placeholder. Only after the court selects the lead plaintiff and lead counsel will the plaintiffs’ attorneys draft more substantial allegations and add defendants through an amended complaint. But regardless of any personal risk, directors have a duty to oversee the significant potential liability the company faces. For these reasons, directors should treat each one of these cases as if they are personally named.

The Economics of Securities Litigation Matter

One emerging risk to companies is that ever-increasing securities defense fees no longer match the economics of most cases, and are quickly outpacing D&O policy limits. In the past, securities class actions were initiated by an oligopoly of larger plaintiffs’ firms with significant resources and mostly institutional clients that tended to bring larger cases against larger companies. But recently, smaller plaintiffs’ firms with retail-investor clients have been initiating more cases, primarily against smaller companies. Indeed, in recent years, approximately half of all securities class actions were filed against companies with $750 million or less in market capitalization. As a result, securities class actions have shrunk in size to a level last seen in 1997.

Yet at the same time, the litigation costs of most defense firms have increased exponentially. This two-decade mismatch—between 1997 securities-litigation economics and 2016 law-firm economics—creates the danger that a company’s D&O policy will be insufficient to cover the fees for a vigorous defense and the price to resolve the case. Indeed, inadequate policy proceeds due to skyrocketing defense costs is directors’ biggest risk from securities litigation—by far.

Historically, most securities defense firms have marquee names with high billing rates. Especially in cases against small-cap companies—now the lion’s share—it is more difficult for these firms to vigorously defend an action without risking that there will be too little D&O insurance left for settlement. To avoid this result, firms either cut corners or settle early for bloated amounts that make the defendants look like they did something wrong.

Quite obviously, directors should not be subjected to these hazards—which are created not by the securities class action itself, but by law-firm economics. The vast majority of securities class actions—if handled in the right way by the right defense counsel—can be defended and either won or settled, within D&O insurance policy limits, leaving no residual liability for either the company or its directors. With just a little time and effort at the beginning of the litigation, directors can put these cases on the right track.

The Importance of Directors’ Involvement in Defense-Counsel Selection

First and foremost, directors must ensure their company selects the right counsel. Securities litigation is a specialty field, and it can be nearly impossible to differentiate between the claims of expertise and experience made by the herd of lawyers that descends upon a company after a suit is filed. And it is a serious error—especially for mid-size and smaller companies—to use a law firm brand name as a proxy for quality and fit. Fortunately, many pitfalls of counsel selection can be avoided if directors keep in mind a few key principles:

  • Select a securities litigation specialist, and not a multi-discipline commercial litigator, even one who is highly regarded and/or from a marquee firm.
  • Educate yourself about the strategic differences between firms.
  • Avoid defaulting to your regular corporate firm.
  • Conduct an interview process.

An interview process is essential, in all cases. Directors should use the interview process to insist on a better alternative than the rote decision by most companies to simply retain their regular outside counsel, or a firm with a marquee name. To state the obvious, the most effective securities defense lawyers do not all work at marquee firms. Directors should insist that management interview a range of firms, including those that emphasize a combination of superior quality and reasonable cost—in other words, firms that offer good value. And directors should insist that management push for price concessions from all defense firms that management interviews.

The key is for directors to pay attention and to use the leverage of a competitive hiring process to find counsel to help them through the litigation safely, strategically, and economically.

Directors’ Oversight of D&O Insurance

As a refresher, a D&O insurance policy has three categories of coverage.

  • Side A coverage reimburses directors and officers for losses not indemnified by the company.
  • Side B coverage reimburses the company for indemnification of its directors and officers.
  • Side C coverage insures the company for its own liability.

Directors’ exposure to securities litigation has changed. Due in part to the changes in the plaintiffs’ bar noted above, directors are now much more frequent targets in securities class actions and related shareholder derivative claims—and the trend is very likely to continue. Even as directors’ involvement in securities and derivative suits is increasing, their share of the D&O insurance is effectively decreasing, due to more competition for policy proceeds.

For example, companies frequently seek D&O insurance coverage for various types of investigations, which may help the company, but can significantly erode the policy limits. Companies also deplete limits by, among other things, requesting coverage for employees beyond directors and officers, and seeking ways to avoid triggering the fraud exclusion, which can result in large defense-costs payments to rogue officers. These types of decisions might make sense in certain circumstances, but they should be subject to director oversight.

Perhaps the biggest threat to the sufficiency of directors’ D&O insurance policy is from their own lawyers, due to skyrocketing defense costs. Some insurers have a pre-set list of lawyers from which defendants are encouraged or required to choose. This means that some of the counsel-selection process is done before a claim is filed—which is another reason directors should be involved in the D&O insurance purchasing decision.

Some companies try to eliminate the competition between the company and individuals for policy proceeds by purchasing separate Side A policies that cover only individuals, but these policies do not address erosion from other individuals or by attorneys’ fees, and they only apply if the company cannot indemnify the directors. There are Side A products available specifically for outside directors, but those are infrequently purchased, probably because directors are usually not involved in D&O insurance purchasing decisions.

Independent directors don’t need to take over the process of handling the company’s D&O insurance, or spend an inordinate amount of time on these issues, in order to adequately protect themselves. Rather, they need to become more involved and understand their D&O insurance options and the realities of the claim process. They can do this simply by asking for direct access to the D&O broker and insurer, and by spending some time on D&O insurance decisions at board meetings.

Conclusion

At the same time directors’ securities litigation risk is increasing, they share an increasing percentage of their D&O insurance with the company, officers, and even their own lawyers. Directors can mitigate the risks of these trends by simply becoming more involved in purchasing their D&O insurance and overseeing the defense of securities litigation, including defense-counsel selection. In doing so, they will not only protect their own interests, but will also better oversee and manage the company’s risks as well.

In this installment of the D&O Discourse series “5 Wishes for Securities Litigation Defense,” we discuss the third of five changes that would significantly improve securities litigation defense:  to make the Supreme Court’s Omnicare decision a primary tool in the defense of securities class actions.

As a reminder, in Omnicare, Inc. v. Laborers District Council Construction Industry Pension Fund, 135 S. Ct. 1318 (2015), the U.S. Supreme Court held that a statement of opinion is only false under the federal securities laws if the speaker does not genuinely believe it, and is only misleading if it omits information that, in context, would cause the statement to mislead a reasonable investor.  This ruling followed the path we advocated in an amicus brief on behalf of Washington Legal Foundation.

The Court’s ruling in Omnicare was a significant victory for the defense bar for two primary reasons.

First, the Court made clear that an opinion is false only if it was not sincerely believed by the speaker at the time that it was expressed, a concept sometimes referred to as “subjective falsity.”  The Court thus explicitly rejected the possibility that a statement of opinion could be false because “external facts show the opinion to be incorrect,” because a company failed to “disclose[] some fact cutting the other way,” or because the company did not disclose that others disagreed with its opinion.  This ruling resolved two decades’ worth of confusing and conflicting case law regarding what makes a statement of opinion false, which had often permitted meritless securities cases to survive dismissal motions.

Second, Omnicare declared that whether a statement of opinion (and by clear implication, a statement of fact) was misleading “always depends on context.”  The Court emphasized that showing a statement to be misleading is “no small task” for plaintiffs, and that the court must consider not only the full statement being challenged and the context in which it was made, but also other statements made by the company, and other publicly available information, including the customs and practices of the relevant industry.

Omnicare governs the falsity analysis for all types of challenged statements.  Obviously, Omnicare should be used to defend against challenges to all forms of opinions, including statements regarded as “puffery” and forward-looking statements protected by the Reform Act’s Safe Harbor for forward-looking statements.  But defense counsel should also take advantage of the Supreme Court’s direction in Omnicare that courts evaluate challenged statements in their full factual context.  Evaluating challenged statements in their broader context almost always benefits defendants, because it helps the court better understand the challenged statements and makes them seem fairer than they might in isolation. Omnicare now explicitly requires courts to evaluate challenged statements—both statements of fact and statements of opinion—within their broader contexts.

Although Omnicare arose from a claim under Section 11 of the Securities Act, all of its core concepts are equally applicable to Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act and other securities laws with similar falsity elements.  Due to the importance of its holdings and the detailed way in which it explains them, Omnicare is the most significant post-Reform Act Supreme Court case to analyze the falsity element of a securities class-action claim, laying out the core principles of falsity in the same way that the Court did for scienter in Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308 (2007).  If used correctly, Omnicare thus has the potential to be the most helpful securities case for defendants since Tellabs, providing attorneys with a blueprint for how to structure their falsity arguments in order to defeat more complaints on motions to dismiss.

A good motion to dismiss has always analyzed a challenged statement (of fact or opinion) in its broader factual context to explain why it’s not false or misleading.  But many defense lawyers unfortunately leave out the broader context, and courts have sometimes taken a narrower view.  Now, this type of superior, full-context analysis is clearly required by Omnicare.  And combined with the Supreme Court’s directive in Tellabs that courts consider scienter inferences based not only on the complaint’s allegations, but also on documents on which the complaint relies or that are subject to judicial notice, courts clearly must now consider the full array of probative facts in deciding both whether a statement was false or misleading and, if so, whether it was made with scienter.   

Yet Omnicare will fail to achieve its full potential unless defense lawyers understand and use the decision correctly.  Following the Omnicare decision, many defense lawyers commented publicly that Omnicare expanded the basis for defendants’ liability, and was otherwise plaintiff-friendly.  That is simply wrong.  We have published several articles that address these misunderstandings, explain how defense counsel should use the decision, and analyze how lower courts are applying it.  The early returns show that Omnicare is already helping defendants win more motions to dismiss.

Here is a link to our most recent article, Omnicare, Inc. One Year Later: Its Salutary Impact on Securities-Fraud Class Actions in the Lower Federal CourtsCritical Legal Issues Working Paper Series, Washington Legal Foundation (No. 195, June 2016).

Today, we are launching a new blog, D&O Developments (www.DandODevelopments.com), which will report and digest appellate decisions in Private Securities Litigation Reform Act cases, and other key securities litigation decisions.  My partner Claire Davis is the editor-in-chief.  Various members of our Securities Litigation Practice Group will contribute pieces, in addition to contributions from Claire and me.  We are launching D&O Developments with reports of nine recent securities litigation appellate decisions.

We designed D&O Developments to complement D&O Discourse, which provides monthly in-depth opinion on key issues of law and practice in the world of securities and corporate governance litigation.  So we will now have two blogs: D&O Developments, designed to allow practitioners to track and understand important securities litigation decisions, and D&O Discourse, designed to provoke thought and discussion on key issues.

Thank you for your support of D&O Discourse. We hope you enjoy D&O Developments as well.

One of my “5 Wishes for Securities Litigation Defense” (April 30, 2016 post) is greater D&O insurer involvement in securities class action defense.

This simple step would have extensive benefits for public companies and their directors and officers. D&O insurers are repeat players in securities litigation, and they have the greatest economic interest in the outcome – both in particular cases, and overall.  They want the defendants – their insureds – to win.  They employ highly experienced claims professionals, many of whom have been involved in exponentially more securities class actions than even the most experienced defense lawyers.

Given insurers’ stake and expertise, defendants should involve them in key strategic decisions – working with them to help find the right defense counsel for the particular case, to help shape the overall defense strategy at the inception of the case, and to help make good decisions about the use of policy proceeds.  With such an approach, I have no doubt that directors and officers would make it through securities cases more successfully, efficiently, and comfortably.

Yet in most cases, insurers are shut out of meaningful involvement in the defense, with many defense lawyers treating them almost like adverse parties, and other defense lawyers merely humoring them as they would a rich relative.  Although this dysfunction is rooted in a complex set of factors, it could easily be fixed.

Why Are D&O Insurers Alienated?

When the general public thinks about insurance, they usually think of auto insurance or other duty-to-defend insurance, under which the insurer assumes the defense of the claim for the insureds.  In contrast to duty-to-defend insurance, public company D&O insurance is indemnity insurance, under which the insurer is obligated to reimburse the company and its directors and officers for reasonable and necessary defense costs and settlement payments, up to the policy’s limit of liability.

Indemnity insurance gives the defendants control over the litigation, including counsel selection and strategic approach, with the insurer retaining limited rights to participate in key decisions.  Although those rights give insurers a foot in the door, competitive pressures among primary D&O insurers work to minimize insurers’ involvement.  For example, an insurer faced with unreasonably high defense costs must decide whether to pay them in full to avoid conflict, or to pay only the “reasonable and necessary” amounts, as the policy specifies – an approach that  maximizes the policy proceeds for the insureds by not squandering policy limits on excessive legal fees.  But if the insurer pays only reasonable and necessary amounts, it may be criticized in the marketplace by the broker or other insurers as being stingy with claims handling – and the insureds may be left holding the bill for the unreasonable excess fees.

In general, insurers take a relatively hands-off approach to D&O claims because they assume that their customers want them to stay out of the defense of the claim.  But in my experience, this is a misconception.  The priority for most companies and their directors and officers is simply the greatest protection possible, including assurances that they will not be left to pay any uncovered legal fees or settlement payments.  In fact, not only do most insureds not want to be stuck paying their lawyers for short-pays, they don’t even want to write any checks at all after satisfying the deductible – instead preferring the insurer to take charge of the bills and pay the lawyers and vendors directly.

In other words, most public companies actually want their D&O insurance to respond more like duty-to-defend insurance.  And if given a choice between having the freedom to choose any defense counsel and having total control over the defense, and saving on their premium and giving the insurers greater rights to be involved, I’m confident most public companies would choose to save on the premium, as long as they are confident that they will still be well-defended.  This is especially so for smaller public companies, for whom the cost of D&O insurance can be a hardship, and against whom the plaintiffs’ bar is bringing more and more securities class actions.  And few companies, large or small, would knowingly spend more on their premiums just to subsidize skyrocketing biglaw partner compensation – the D&O insurance elephant in the corner of the room.

Why do insurers have this misconception?  To be sure, after a claim is filed, the insurer often gets an earful from the insureds’ lawyers and broker about the insureds’ indemnity-insurance freedoms.  But these aggressive positions are typically not the positions of the insureds themselves.  Instead, these positions are driven by defense counsel, usually for self-interested reasons: to get hired, to justify excessive billing, or to settle a case for a bloated amount because the defense is compromised by mounting defense costs or the defense lawyer’s inability to take the case to trial.

Frequently, defense lawyers will set the stage for their clients to have a strained relationship with their insurers by feeding them a number of stock lines:

  • This is a bet-the-company case that requires all-out effort by us to defend you, so we have to pull out all the stops and do whatever is necessary, no matter what the insurer has to say.
  • The insurer may ask you to interview several defense firms before choosing your lawyers. Don’t do that. They’ll just want to get some inferior, cut-rate firm that will save them money.  But you’ll get what you pay for – we’re expensive for a reason! (And don’t forget that we have stood by you, through thick and thin, since before your IPO, back when you were a partner here.  Plus, we gave you advice on your disclosures and stock sales, so we’re in this together.)
  • The business of any insurance company is to try to avoid paying on claims, so the insurer may try to curtail our level of effort, and may even refuse to pay for some of our work.  But trust us to do what we need to do for you.  You might need to make up the difference between our bills and what the insurer pays, but we can go after the insurer later to try to get them to pay you back for those amounts.
  • The insurer will ask us for information about the case.  They’ll say they want to help us, but they’re really just trying to find a way to deny coverage.
  • We’ll tell you when we think the time is right to settle the case, and for how much.  The insurer will try to avoid paying very much for settlement.  But if we say the settlement is reasonable, they won’t have a leg to stand on.
  • We’ll need you to support us in these insurance disputes.  You don’t need to get involved directly – we can work with the insurer and broker directly if you agree.  Agree?  Good.

In this way, defense lawyers set the insurer up as an adversary.  But these self-serving talking points get myriad things wrong.

First, and most importantly, D&O insurers are not the insured’s adversaries in the defense of a securities class action.  To the contrary, insurers’ economic interests are aligned with those of the insureds.  Insurers want to help minimize the risk of liability, through good strategic decisions.  Although keeping defense costs to a reasonable level certainly benefits the insurer, it also benefits the insureds by preserving policy proceeds for related or additional claims on the policy, so that the insureds will not need to pay any defense or settlement costs out-of-pocket, and will avoid a significant premium increase upon renewal.  And insurers want their insureds to have superior lawyers – inferior lawyers would increase their exposure.  Their interest in counsel selection is to help their insureds choose the defense counsel that is right for the particular case.  The key to defense-counsel selection in securities class actions, for insureds and insurers alike, is to find the right combination of expertise and economics for the particular case – in other words, to find good value.

A D&O insurer’s business is not to avoid paying claims.  D&O insurance is decidedly insured-friendly – which isn’t surprising given its importance to a company’s directors and officers.  D&O insurers pay billions of dollars in claims each year, and there is very little D&O insurance coverage litigation.  Although D&O insurance excludes coverage for fraud, the fraud exclusion requires a final adjudication – it does not even come into play when the claim is settled, and even if the case went to trial and there was a verdict for the plaintiffs, it would only be triggered under limited circumstances.  Indeed, if they are utilized correctly, D&O insurers can be highly valuable colleagues in securities class action defense.  Because they are repeat players in securities class actions, they are able to offer valuable insights in defense-counsel selection, motion-to-dismiss strategy, and overall defense strategy.  They have the most experience with securities class action mediators and plaintiffs’ counsel, and often have key strategic thoughts about how to approach settlement.  The top outside lawyers and senior claims professionals for the major insurers have collectively handled many thousands of securities class actions.  Although their role is different than that of defense counsel, these professionals are more sophisticated about securities litigation practice than the vast majority of defense lawyers.

I have achieved superior results for many clients by working collegially with insurers – from helping shape motion-to-dismiss arguments, to learning insights about particular plaintiffs’ lawyers and their latest tricks, to selecting the right mediator for a particular case, to achieving favorable settlements that don’t leave the impression of guilt.  Treating insurers as adversaries robs defendants of this type of valuable guidance.

How Can We Achieve Greater Insurer Involvement?

D&O insurers should set aside their preconceived notions about what the insureds really care about and want.  Insurers need to appreciate that their insureds often welcome their expertise and experience – especially at smaller public companies that have less familiarity with securities class actions, and a more pressing need to control their costs.  Not only is there an opportunity for greater involvement within the current D&O insurance product, but there is a market for new terms and products that allow greater insurer involvement, with corresponding premium or coverage advantages to the insureds.

Many insurers correctly address their claim-handling capabilities as part of the underwriting process.  As part of this discussion, insurers should set the expectation that the insureds will consult with the insurer about the defense-counsel selection process before the defendants select counsel.  Insurers have a unique perspective on the pros and cons of particular defense counsel, since they know the capabilities and economics of the relatively small bar of securities class action defense counsel very well.  They can help the insureds identify several defense firms that would be a good match for the substantive characteristics of the case.  For example, they might know that a particular firm has helpful experience in cases involving a particular industry or type of allegation, or has a good or bad track record with the assigned judge.  Insurers can also help match the economics of the litigation with particular firms.  They would know whether or not a particular firm is able to effectively defend a case within the limits of the D&O insurance, and conversely, they would know whether a firm has enough resources to effectively handle a large claim.

Although I am not an insurance lawyer, I believe this type of discussion is perfectly appropriate within the terms of existing insurance contracts.  But if there is any doubt, existing policy forms could be tweaked to explicitly include greater insurer involvement.  For example, the insurance contract could require the insureds to consult with the insurer about the defense-counsel process before engaging defense counsel, such as with a provision similar to the explicit requirement in D&O policies that insureds speak with the insurer before engaging in any settlement discussions.

Last, but certainly not least, I strongly believe that a public company duty-to-defend product for a “Securities Claim” would be highly attractive to many public companies, especially smaller companies.  Many companies would gladly pay somewhat less for their D&O insurance in exchange for giving insurers somewhat greater control, as long as they know that they will be defended well.  Such a policy would eliminate the risk that clients will have to make up for insurance short-pays, as they are often asked to do under indemnity insurance, while allowing the insurers to manage defense costs to help ensure that the policy proceeds will adequately cover the cost of defending and settling the litigation, and will not be needlessly expended.  As the cost of securities class action defense continues to skyrocket, even as the size of the typical securities case continues to decline, it is time for the D&O insurance industry to consider introducing a product that will provide excellent coverage at a fair price that is affordable to smaller companies.

One of my “5 Wishes for Securities Litigation Defense” (April 30, 2016 post) is to require an interview process for the selection of defense counsel in all cases.

When a public company purchases a significant good or service, it typically seeks competitive proposals.  From coffee machines to architects, companies invite multiple vendors to bid, evaluate their proposals, and choose one based on a combination of quality and cost.  Yet companies named in a securities class action frequently fail to engage in a competitive interview process for their defense counsel, and instead simply retain litigation lawyers at the firm they use for their corporate work.

To be sure, it is difficult for company management to tell their outside corporate lawyers that they are going to consider hiring another firm to defend a significant litigation matter.  The corporate lawyers are trusted advisors, often former colleagues of the in-house counsel, and have usually made sacrifices for the client that make the corporate lawyers expect to be repaid through engagement to defend whatever litigation might arise.  A big litigation matter is what makes all of the miscellaneous loss-leader work worth it.  “You owe me,” is the unspoken, and sometimes spoken, message.

Corporate lawyers also make the pitch that it will be more efficient for their litigation colleagues to defend the litigation since the corporate lawyers know the facts and can more efficiently work with the firm’s litigators.  Meanwhile, they tell the client that there is no conflict—even if their work on the company’s disclosures is at issue, they assure the company that they will all be on the same side in defending the disclosures, and if they have to be witnesses, the lawyer-as-witness rules will allow them to work around the issue.

All of these assertions are flawed.  It is always—without exception—in the interests of the defendants to take a day to interview several defense firms of different types and perspectives.  And it is never—without exception—in the interests of the defendants to simply hand the case off to the litigators of the company’s corporate firm.  Even if the defendants hire the company’s corporate firm at the end of the interview process, they will have gained highly valuable strategic insights from multiple perspectives; cost concessions that only a competitive interview process will yield; better relationships with their insurers, who will be more comfortable with more thoughtful counsel selection; greater comfort with the corporate firm’s litigators, whom the defendants sometimes have never even met; and better service from the corporate firm.

Problems with Using Corporate Counsel

A Section 10(b) claim involves litigation of whether the defendants:  (1) made a false statement, or failed to disclose a fact that made what they said misleading in context; and (2) made any such false or misleading statements with intent to defraud (i.e. scienter).

Corporate counsel is very often an important fact witness for the defendants on both of these issues.  For example, in a great many cases, corporate counsel has:

  • Drafted the disclosures that plaintiffs challenge, so that the answer to the question “why did you say that?” is “our lawyers wrote it for us.”
  • Advised that omitted information wasn’t required to be disclosed, so that the answer to the question “why didn’t you disclose that” is “our lawyers told us we didn’t have to.”
  • Reviewed disclosures without questioning anything, or not questioning the challenged portion.
  • Drafted the risk factors that are the potential basis of the protection of the Reform Act’s Safe Harbor for forward-looking statements.
  • Not revised the risk factors that are the potential basis of Safe Harbor protection.
  • Advised on the ability of directors and officers to enter into 10b5-1 plans and when to do so, and on the ability of directors and officers to sell stock at certain times, given the presence or absence of material nonpublic information.
  • Advised on individual stock purchases.

The fact that the lawyer has given such advice, or not given such advice, can win the case for the defendants.  For example, for any case turning on a statement of opinion, the lawyer’s advice that the opinion had a reasonable basis virtually guarantees that the defendants won’t be liable.  Likewise, a lawyer’s drafting, revising, or advising on disclosures virtually guarantees that the defendants didn’t make the misrepresentation with scienter, and a lawyer’s advice on the timing of entering into 10b5-1 plans or selling stock makes the sales benign for scienter purposes.

To the defendants, it doesn’t matter if the lawyer was right or wrong.  As long as the advice wasn’t so obviously wrong that the client could not have followed it in good faith, the lawyer’s advice protects the defendants.  But to the lawyer, it matters a great deal for purposes of professional reputation and liability.  Deepening the conflict is the specter of the law firm defending its advice on the basis that the client didn’t tell them everything.  The interests of the lawyer and defendant client thus can diverge significantly.

That this information may be privileged doesn’t change this analysis.  Of course, the privilege belongs to the client, who can decide whether to use the information in his or her defense, or not.  But with corporate counsel’s litigation colleagues guiding the development of the facts, privileged information is rarely analyzed, much less discussed with the client.  The reality is that most privileged information isn’t truly sensitive to the client, but instead reflects a client seeking advice—and seeking the liability protection the lawyer’s advice provides.  But from the lawyer’s perspective, there can be much to protect.  Privileged communications may reflect poor legal advice, and internal files may contain candid discussions about the client and the client’s issues that would result in embarrassment to the firm, and possible termination, if produced.

Perhaps even more importantly, regular corporate counsel’s litigation colleagues may often fail to assess the case objectively, in part because it implicates the work of their corporate colleagues, and in part because of a desire not to ask hard questions that could strain the law firm’s relationship with the client.  Sometimes the problem arises from a deliberate attempt by the lawyers to protect a particular person who may have made an error leading to the litigation, such as the General Counsel (often is a former colleague), the CFO, or the CEO—all of whom are important to the client relationship.  Sometimes, though, the failure to thoughtfully analyze a case is due to a more generalized alliance with the people with whom the law firm works regularly.  It’s hard for a lawyer to scrutinize someone who will be in the firm’s luxury box at the baseball game that night, much less report a serious problem with him or her to the board.

Yet the defendants, including the board of the corporate client, need candid advice about the litigation to protect their interests.  For example, some problematic cases should be settled early, before the insurance limits are significantly eroded by defense costs and documents are produced that that will make the case even more difficult, and could even spawn other litigation or government investigations.  Defendants and corporate boards need to know this.

Corporate firms might counter that their litigation colleagues will give sound and independent advice, because they are a separate department and will face no economic or other pressure from the corporate department.  But that undermines one of the main reasons corporate lawyers urge that their litigation colleagues be hired: that it is more efficient to use the firm’s litigators since they work closely with the corporate lawyers, if not the company itself.  The corporate firm can’t have it both ways: either the litigators are close to the corporate lawyers and the company, and suffer from the problems outlined above, or they are independent, and their involvement yields little or no benefit in efficiency.  Indeed, it is most likely that the corporate firm’s litigators will be hindered by conflict, while nevertheless failing to create greater efficiency.  Just because lawyers are in a same firm doesn’t mean that they can read each other’s minds.  They still have to talk to one another, just as litigators from an outside firm would have to do.

So Why is Corporate Counsel Used So Often?

I doubt many directors or officers would disagree with the analysis above.  So why do so many companies turn to their corporate counsel without conducting an audition process?  Several practical factors impede the proper analysis of counsel selection in the initial days of a securities class action.

The single most important factor is probably that the corporate firm is first on the scene. Many companies reflexively hire their corporate firm immediately after the initial complaint is filed, or even after the stock drop, before a complaint is even filed.  By the time the defendants start to hear from other securities defense practices, they often have retained counsel.  And then it’s very difficult from a personal and practical perspective to walk the decision back.

This decision, moreover, is often made by the legal department, sometimes in consultation with the CEO and CFO.  The board is often not involved.  Instead, the board is merely presented with the decision, which can seem natural because the firm hired is familiar to them.  The directors often aren’t personally named in the initial complaint, so they might not pay as much attention as they would if they understood if they were likely to become defendants later – either in the main securities action, especially if the case involves a potential Section 11 claim, or in a tag-along shareholder derivative action.

Initial complaints can also mislead the company as to the real issues at stake.  Regular corporate counsel and the defendants may review the first complaint and incorrectly conclude that the allegations don’t implicate the lawyer’s work.  But these initial complaints are merely placeholders, because the Reform Act specifies that the lead plaintiff appointed by the court can later file an amended complaint.  Initial filers have little incentive to invest the time or effort into making detailed allegations in the initial complaint, because they may be beaten out for the lead plaintiff role.  The lead plaintiff’s amended complaint thus typically greatly expands the case to include new alleged false and misleading statements, more specific reasons why the challenged statements were false or misleading, and more detailed scienter allegations, including stock-sale and confidential-witness allegations that most initial complaints lack.  If a conflict becomes apparent at that point, however, it can be very difficult and even prejudicial to the defendants for corporate counsel to bow out.

Regular corporate counsel will often advise their clients that there is no issue with them defending the litigation, or even that doing so makes sense because they advised on the underlying disclosures.  But even if the corporate firm is trying to be candid and look out for its client’s interests, it may have blind spots in seeing its potential conflicts—especially when the corporate lawyers are facing pressure from their firm management to “hold the client.”

The pressures that lead a company to hire its corporate firm to defend the securities litigation are very real, and sometimes this decision is ultimately fine.  But I strongly believe that it is never in a client’s interest to take its corporate counsel’s advice on these issues without obtaining analysis from other securities practices as part of a competitive interview process.

The Benefits of a Competitive Process

In addition to obtaining important perspectives about potential problems with corporate counsel’s defense of the securities class action, an interview process involves myriad benefits – including tens of thousands of dollars of free legal advice.  The only cost to the company is a few hours to select the 3-5 firms that it wants to interview, and a day spent hearing presentations from those firms and discussing their analysis and approach with them.

An interview process gives defendants the opportunity to hear from several experienced securities litigators, who will offer a range of analyses and strategies on how best to defend the case.  It also allows defendants to evaluate professional credentials and personal compatibility, which are both important criteria.  It is difficult, if not impossible, for a company to evaluate how their corporate counsel’s litigators stack up against other litigators in this specialized and national practice area, without first hearing from some other firms.  Sometimes, a company will not even meet its corporate firm’s securities litigators in person before engaging them, which obviously makes it impossible for them to make judgments about personal compatibility and trust.

An interview process, if properly structured, is highly substantive.  The firms that fare best in a new-case interview typically prepare thorough discussions of the issues, and come prepared to analyze the case in great detail.  And the best ones look beyond the issues in the initial complaint to the issues that might emerge in the amended complaint, analyzing the full range of the company’s disclosures, to forecast future disclosure and scienter allegations, and evaluating the defenses that will remain even after allegations are added.

An interview process also helps the company to achieve a better deal on billing rates, staffing, and alternative fee arrangements.  Without an interview process, a law firm is much more likely to charge rack rates and do its work in the way it sees fit—which defendants are rarely in a position to challenge without having done some comparison shopping.  Even though securities class action defense costs are covered by D&O insurance, price matters in defense-counsel selection.  It is a mistake to treat D&O insurance proceeds as “free money.”  Without appropriate cost control, defendants run the risk of not having enough insurance proceeds to defend and resolve the case.  Appropriate cost control can help the litigation from resulting in a difficult or expensive D&O insurance renewal, and can allow the company to save money if the fees are less than the deductible.

An interview process also helps get the defendants off to a better start with its D&O insurers.  In addition to appreciating the cost control that an interview process yields, insurers also appreciate the defendants making a thoughtful decision on defense counsel, including vetting the potential problems with use of the company’s corporate firm.  D&O insurers and brokers are “repeat players” in securities litigation, and know the qualifications of defense counsel better than anyone else—a seasoned D&O insurance claims professional has overseen hundreds of securities class actions.  Asking insurers and brokers to help identify defense counsel to interview may therefore not only yield helpful suggestions, but may also make it easier to develop a relationship of strategic trust with the insurers—which will make it easier to obtain consent to settle early if appropriate, and if not, to defend the case through summary judgment or to trial.

Perhaps most importantly, an interview process results in a closer relationship between the defendants and their lawyers, whoever they end up being.  Most securities class action defendants are troubled by being sued, and need lawyers that they can trust to walk them through the process.  An interview process is the best way to find the lawyers who have the right combination of relevant characteristics—including skills, strategy, and bedside manner—that will best fit the needs of the defendants.