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.