It is time to re-think the one-size-fits-all model of securities litigation defense. Currently, securities cases against all companies – gigantic, tiny, and everything in between – are primarily defended by law firms with marquee names featuring sky-high billing rates and big budgets. That model is ill-fitting for many companies.

There are many reasons why companies hire firms with marquee names – some good, some bad. A bad reason is political cover – the board of directors won’t second-guess the legal department for choosing a well-known firm. A recent article titled, “Why Law Firm Pedigree May Be a Thing of the Past,” on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network (“HBR article”), discusses this phenomenon in colorful terms:

Have you ever heard the saying: “You never get fired for buying IBM”? Every industry loves to co-opt it; for example, in consulting, you’ll hear: “You never get fired for hiring McKinsey.” In law, it’s often: “You never get fired for hiring Cravath”. But one general counsel we spoke with put a twist on the old saying, in a way that reflects the turmoil and change that the legal industry is undergoing. Here’s what he said: “I would absolutely fire anyone on my team who hired Cravath.” While tongue in cheek, and surely subject to exceptions, it reflects the reality that there is a growing body of legal work that simply won’t be sent to the most pedigreed law firms, most typically because general counsel are laser focused on value, namely quality and efficiency.

The HBR article reports that a study of general counsel at 88 major companies found that “GCs are increasingly willing to move high-stakes work away from the most pedigreed law firms (think the Cravaths and Skaddens of the world) … if the value equation is right.  (Firms surveyed included companies like Lenovo, Vanguard, Shell, Google, NIKE, Walgreens, Dell, eBay, RBC, Panasonic, Nestle, Progressive, Starwood, Intel, and Deutsche Bank.)”

The article reports on two survey questions.

The first question asked, “Are you more or less likely to use a good lawyer at a pedigreed firm (e.g. AmLaw  20 or Magic Circle) or a good lawyer at a non-pedigreed firm for high stakes (though not necessarily bet-the-company) work, assuming a 30% difference in overall cost?”

The result: 74% of GCs answered that they are less likely to use a pedigreed firm, and 13% answered the “same.”  Only 13% responded that they are more likely to use a pedigreed firm than other firms.

The second question asked, “On average, and based on your experiences, are lawyers at the most pedigreed, “white shoe” firms more or less responsive than at other firms?”

The result:  57% answered that pedigreed firms are less responsive than other firms, and 33% answered they are the “same.”  Only 11% responded that pedigreed firms are more responsive than other firms.

The survey results ring true, and are reinforced by other recent scholarship and analysis on the issue, including a Wall Street Journal article titled, “Smaller Law Firms Grab Big Slice of Corporate Legal Work” (“WSJ article”), and an article featured on Corporate Counsel blog titled, “In-House Counsel Get Real About Outside Firm Value” (“Corporate Counsel article”).  As all three articles emphasize, skyrocketing legal fees are a notorious problem in general.  And corporate executives are increasingly becoming attuned to this issue.  Indeed, during the in-house counsel panel discussed in the Corporate Counsel article, a general counsel noted that in explaining outside counsel costs to the CEO and CFO of his company, “it’s very, very difficult … to say why someone should [bill] over $1,000 per hour . . . It just doesn’t look good.”  The problem is especially acute in securities class action defense, in which the defense is largely dominated by firms with marquee names – with high billing rates and a highly leveraged structure (i.e. a high associate-to-partner ratio), which tends to result in larger, less-efficient teams.

Now, as the economy has forced companies to be more aware of legal costs, including the fact that using a firm with a marquee name often results in prohibitively high legal fees, it is unsurprising that companies are increasingly turning to midsize firms.  According to the WSJ article, midsize firms have increased their market share from 22% to 41% in the past three years for matters that generate more than $1 million in legal bills.  Indeed, both Xerox’s general counsel and Blockbuster’s general counsel advocated that companies control legal costs by using counsel in cities with lower overhead costs.

Some companies, and many law firms, see securities class actions as a cost-insensitive type of litigation to defend: the theoretical damages can be very large, they assert claims against the company’s directors and officers, and the defense costs are covered by D&O insurance.

But these considerations rarely, if ever, warrant a cost-insensitive defense.  Securities class actions are typically defended and resolved with D&O insurance.  D&O insurance limits of liability are depleted by defense costs, which means that each dollar spent on defense costs decreases the amount of policy proceeds available to resolve the case.  At the end of a securities class action, a board will very rarely ask, “why didn’t we hire a more expensive law firm?”  Instead, the question will be, “why did we have to write a $10 million check to settle the case?”  Few GCs would want to have to answer:  “because we hired a more expensive law firm than we needed to.”

That takes us to the heart of the HBR article: “do we need to hire an expensive law firm?”  After all, in a securities class action, the theoretical damages can be very large, often characterized as “bet the company,” and the fortunes of the company’s directors and officers are theoretically implicated.  Certainly, when directors and officers are individually named in a lawsuit, their initial gut reaction may be to turn to firms with marquee names regardless of price, if they believe that the firm’s brand name will guarantee them a positive result.

Firms with marquee names capitalize on these fears.  But, of course, hiring a brand-name firm does not guarantee a positive result.  The vast majority of securities class actions are very manageable.  They follow a predictable course of litigation, and can be resolved for a fairly predictable amount, regardless how high the theoretical damages.  And it is exceedingly rare for an individual director or officer to write a check to settle the litigation.  Indeed, the biggest practical personal financial risk to an individual director or officer is exhaustion of D&O policy proceeds due to defense costs that are higher than necessary.

Lurking behind these considerations are two central questions: “aren’t lawyers at firms with marquee names better?” and “don’t I need the resources these firms offer?”

“Aren’t lawyers at firms with marquee names better?”  Not necessarily.  That’s the main point of the GC survey discussed in the HBR article.

To be sure, there are excellent securities litigators at many such firms.  But the blanket notion that they are more capable than firms that emphasize value is false.  And it’s not even a probative question when the lawyers at value-based firms came from firms with marquee names. In the WSJ article, Blockbuster’s general counsel, in explaining why his company often seeks out attorneys from more economical areas of the country, pointed out that many of the attorneys in less expensive firms came from more expensive firms.

There obviously is a baseline amount of expertise and experience that is necessary to handle a case well, but law-firm name is a fleeting consideration. Much more important are the individual lawyer’s actual abilities, strategic vision for the litigation, personal attention, and attention to efficiency are key considerations.

Don’t I need the resources of a firm with a marquee name?  There are two primary answers.  First, from both a quality and an efficiency standpoint, securities litigation defense is best handled by a small team through the motion–to-dismiss process.  Prior to a court’s decision on the motion to dismiss, the only key tasks are a focused fact investigation and the briefing on the motion to dismiss.   As to both, fewer lawyers means higher quality.

If a case survives a motion to dismiss, most firms with a strong litigation department will have sufficient resources to handle it capably.  That, of course, is something a company can probe in the hiring process.   There are cases that necessarily will require a larger team than some mid-size firms can provide.  However, such cases are rare, and it is often the case that price-insensitive firms, in an effort to maintain associate hours at a certain level, will heavily staff associates on discovery projects such as document review.  While the exceptional case will require a team of more than around five associates, for the most part, discovery can and should be handled most efficiently by a team of contract attorneys supervised by a small team of associates – or by utilizing new technologies that allow smaller teams to review documents more efficiently and effectively.

Second, as reflected in the HBR article’s discussion of GCs’ answers to the second question, there isn’t a correlation between a firm’s pedigree and its responsiveness – which is a key facet of law firm resources.  Indeed, responsiveness is a function of effort, and it stands to reason that value-based firms will make the necessary effort to give excellent client service.

The bottom line of all this is simply common sense: within the qualified group of lawyers, a company should look for value – the right mix of experience, expertise, efficiency, and cost – as it does with any significant corporate expenditure.