Securities litigation headlines are dominated by mega-cases. But the majority of securities class actions are brought against smaller companies. And it appears that plaintiffs’ lawyers are filing an increasingly large number of cases against smaller companies: in Cornerstone Research’s “Securities Class Action Filings: 2014 Year in Review,” the firm concludes, among other things, that (1) aggregate market capitalization loss of sued companies was at its lowest level since 1997, and (2) the percentage of S&P 500 companies sued in securities class actions “was the lowest on record.”

While the majority of securities class actions are against smaller companies, the predominate type of defense firm in all types of cases, big and small, is biglaw firms. Fees at such firms have skyrocketed since 1997. Billing rates have increased dramatically, with first-year associates now charging more per hour than senior partners did in 1997. Profits per partner at the most prominent securities litigation defense firms have at least tripled since 1997, with the “smallest” profits per partner at such firms now exceeding $1.5 million, and the largest totaling $3 million or more.

Biglaw firms are uniquely equipped to handle many types of matters. But they are not the only firms that can defend securities class actions effectively. And they aren’t well-equipped to defend smaller securities class actions efficiently; their fees have catapulted beyond what makes sense for a typical smaller securities class action. As I’ve written previously, catawampus economics can also cause problems with the effectiveness of the defense.

To illustrate the economic problem, consider hypothetical securities class actions against two smaller companies: 1997 Co., which carries $15 million in D&O insurance limits, and 2015 Co., which carries limits of $25 million. (Smaller company D&O insurance limits have increased some since 1997, but not markedly.) Assume settlements of $7.5 million in 1997, and $12.5 million in 2015.  Assume that defense costs through summary judgment were $5 million in 1997 (cases against smaller companies are nevertheless often as labor-intensive as cases against larger companies), and today are $15 million, or triple the 1997 figure, corresponding to the tripling (or more) of biglaw economics.

– Biglaw defense of 1997 Co. makes some economic sense: $5 million in defense costs, plus $7.5 million to settle, equals $12.5 million – or $2.5 million less than the D&O insurance limits.

– Biglaw defense of 2015 Co. does not make economic sense: $15 million in defense costs, plus $12.5 million to settle, equals $27.5 million – or $2.5 million more than the D&O insurance limits.

This is a problem without a good near-term global solution. Few firms outside of biglaw have the experience and expertise to defend cases effectively or efficiently, much less both effectively and efficiently. Perhaps what the securities defense bar needs is a new set of defense firms that have a combination of experience and economics similar to the 1997 versions of the technology and life sciences firms that historically have dominated securities class action defense. Such a development likely would require other biglaw lawyers to follow my lead and join excellent non-biglaw firms.  Until then, a company that is sued should engage in an especially thorough counsel-selection process, comprising three important steps:

  1. Ask its D&O broker and insurers to help sort through the possible candidates. Insurers and brokers are “repeat players” in securities litigation and usually have good insights on defense counsel.
  2. Choose several firms to interview, including firms of different types and with different strategies. The interview list should include firms other than regular outside counsel, which can be the wrong firm to defend the litigation. Conducting an interview process will not only ensure that the defendants end up with the right defense counsel, but also give them the advantages that come from engaging in a competitive hiring process.
  3. Involve the board in the hiring process.