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.

I am committed to helping shape a system for securities litigation defense that helps directors and officers get through securities litigation safely and efficiently, without losing their serenity or dignity, and without facing any real risk of paying any personal funds.

But we are actually moving in the opposite direction of this goal, and unless some changes are made, securities litigation will pose greater and greater risk to individual directors and officers.  It is time for the “repeat players” in securities litigation defense – D&O insurers and brokers, defense lawyers, and economists – to make some fundamental changes to how we do things.  Although most cases still seem to turn out fine for the individual defendants, resolved by a dismissal or a settlement that is fully funded by D&O insurance, the bigger picture is not pretty.  The law firms that have defended the lion’s share of cases since securities class actions gained footing through Basic v. Levinson – primarily “biglaw” firms based in the country’s several largest cities – are no longer suitable for many, or even most, securities class actions.  Fueled by high billing rates and profit-focused staffing, 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 summary judgment and toward trial anymore.

Worse, these high prices too often do not yield strategic benefits.  A strong motion to dismiss focuses on the truth of what the defendants said, with support from the context of the statements, as directed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Tellabs and Omnicare.  Yet far too often, the motion-to-dismiss briefs that come out of these large firms are little more than cookie-cutter arguments based on the structure of the Reform Act.  And if a motion is lost, settlements are higher than necessary because the defendants often have no option but to settle in order to avoid an avalanche of defense costs that would exhaust their D&O insurance limits.  On the other hand, if settlement occurs later, it can be difficult to keep settlement within D&O insurance limits – and defense counsel’s analysis of a “reasonable” settlement can be influenced by a desire to justify the amount they have billed.

At the same time that defense costs are continuing to rise exponentially, securities class actions are becoming smaller and smaller, with two-thirds of cases brought against companies with market caps less than $2 billion, and almost half under $750 million.  Although catawampus securities litigation economics is a systemic problem, impacting cases of all sizes, the problem is especially acute in the smallest half of cases.  Some of those cases simply cannot be defended both well and economically by typical defense firms.  Either defense costs become ridiculously large for the size of the case and the amount of the D&O insurance limits, or firms try to reduce costs by cutting corners on staffing and projects – or both.  We see large law firms routinely chase smaller and smaller cases.  From a market perspective, it makes no sense at all.

So how do we achieve a better securities litigation system?  Five changes would have a profound impact:

  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.
  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.
  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.
  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. 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.

These five changes are among the top wishes I have to improve securities litigation defense, and to preserve the protections of directors and officers who face securities litigation.  Over the next several months, I will post about each one.  Here are links to the posts in the series so far:

Wish #1:  5 Wishes for Securities Litigation Defense: A Defense-Counsel Interview Process in All Cases

Wish #2:  5 Wishes for Securities Litigation Defense: Greater Insurer Involvement in Defense-Counsel Selection and Strategy

Wish #3:  5 Wishes for Securities Litigation Defense: Effective Use of the Supreme Court’s Omnicare Decision

Wish #4:  5 Wishes for Securities Litigation Defense: Greater Director Involvement in Securities Litigation Defense and D&O Insurance

Wish #5:  5 Wishes for Securities Litigation Defense: Early Damages Analysis and Discovery

On March 24, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in Omnicare, Inc. v. Laborers Dist. Council Const. Industry Pension Fund, 135 S. Ct. 1318 (2015).  My partner Claire Davis and I are publishing a forthcoming one-year anniversary article on Omnicare.  In addition to discussing the lower courts’ application of the decision, we take apart the fallacy that Omnicare is “plaintiff-friendly” – a proposition that led to my June 2015 rant “Hey There Fellow Securities Defense Lawyers: Omnicare is GOOD for Us!”  We will post a link to the anniversary article when it’s out.  For now, I want to further explain why I care so much about Omnicare.

As a reminder, Omnicare holds that a statement of opinion is only false if the speaker does not genuinely believe it, and that it is only misleading if – as with any other statement – it omits facts that make it misleading when viewed in its full context.  The Court’s ruling on what is necessary for an opinion to be false establishes a uniform standard that resolves two decades of confusing and conflicting case law.  And the Court’s ruling regarding how an opinion may be misleading emphasizes that courts must evaluate the fairness of challenged statements (both opinions and other statements) within a broad factual context, eliminating the short-shrift that many courts have given the misleading-statement analysis.

In my tax law class in law school, my professor said that he could teach all of tax law through the U.S. Supreme Court case Old Colony Trust Co. v. Commissioner, 279 U.S. 716 (1929).  Similarly, Omnicare provides the foundation for multiple legal and strategic elements of a strong defense of a securities class action.  It is truly a case study in how to defend a securities case.  Below, I address three of those components. 

1. Omnicare’s directive that courts consider context better allows defense lawyers to show the defendants said nothing false.

Our North Star in defending any securities class action is to explain that the defendants said nothing false.  At the core of every securities class action is a person who is alleged to have lied.  Clients generally feel strongly that they did their best and told the truth.  The reasons for their belief are always the right place to start constructing the defense, and usually remain the gist of the defense after categorizing the facts under the relevant legal standards.

Sticking up for the truth of what our clients said also gives them a voice during the long initial stages of the motion-to-dismiss process.  Although the Reform Act’s prolonged introductory stages were designed to help defendants, they don’t allow defendants to tell their side of the story – which is frustrating and often harmful to the reputations of real people.

But the Reform Act, and now Omnicare’s context standard, leave securities defense lawyers with broad latitude to support the truth of what their clients said, and to attack allegations of falsity, as to both statements of fact and statements of opinion.  A proper falsity analysis always starts by examining each challenged statement individually, and matching it up with the facts that plaintiffs allege illustrate its falsity.  From there, the truth of what the defendants said can be supported in numerous ways that are still within the proper scope of the motion-to-dismiss standard:  showing that the facts alleged do not actually undermine the challenged statements, because of mismatch of timing or substance; pointing out gaps, inconsistencies, and contradictions in plaintiffs’ allegations; demonstrating that the facts that plaintiffs assert are insufficiently detailed under the Reform Act; attacking allegations that plaintiffs claim to be facts, but which are really opinions, speculation, and unsupported conclusions; putting defendants’ allegedly false or misleading statements in their full context to show that they were not misleading; and pointing to judicially noticeable facts that contradict plaintiffs’ theory.

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, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308 (2007), 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.  Plaintiffs can’t cherry-pick what the court considers anymore. 

2. Omnicares subjective falsity holding allows us to stick up for the truth of all of our clients’ statements.  

Opinions are ubiquitous in corporate communications.  Corporations and their officers routinely share subjective judgments on issues as diverse as asset valuations, strength of current performance, risk assessments, product quality, loss reserves, earnings forecasts, and progress toward corporate goals.  Indeed, I would guess that more than 75% of all securities class actions involve one or more statements of opinion as a core allegation.

Yet for decades before Omnicare, it was difficult to defend the truth of an opinion.  The law was hopelessly muddled.  For a full discussion, I invite you to review pages 13-19 of our Omnicare amicus brief on behalf of Washington Legal Foundation.  To argue the truth of statements of opinion, we would provide the best possible statement of the legal standard under the law of the circuit we were in, try to convince the court that the real standard should be the standard that is now the Omnicare standard, and then argue that the opinion was true and not misleading under the standard we advanced.  Now, under Omnicare, we can stick up for the truth of all of our clients’ statements, both fact and opinion, without having to first engage in a mini-argument of the law governing opinions.

3. Omnicare allows judges wider latitude to rule in defendants’ favor.

Judges want to figure out if the defendants tried to tell the truth.  The law provides wide latitude for judges to dismiss claims, and we want to give them every reason to do so.  If the judge accepts that the defendants did their best to be fair and candid in their public statements, he or she will be more inclined to accept other arguments.

So the argument against falsity, utilizing the tools Omnicare has provided, is the right place to start, even if there are stronger alternative arguments.  For example, in an earnings forecast case, the best approach is to first defend the truth of the forecast – a statement of opinion – and then use the Reform Act’s Safe Harbor as a fallback argument.  Likewise, a strong argument against scienter is best set up by a strong argument against falsity.  The element of scienter requires plaintiffs to demonstrate that the defendants said something knowingly or recklessly false – in order to do this, plaintiffs must tie their scienter allegations to each particular challenged statement.  A scienter argument that doesn’t build on a strong falsity argument is a strategic mistake.

I hope that this short guide to how to use the powerful tool the Court gave us in Omnicare is helpful.  If we in the defense bar use the decision correctly, companies and their directors and officers will have greater freedom to speak without undue fear of liability, and we will win more cases in which their opinions are challenged.

In 2015, the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act* turned twenty years old.

Over my career as a securities litigator, I’ve seen both sides of the securities-litigation divide that the Reform Act created.  In the first part of my career, I witnessed the figurative skid marks in front of courthouses, as lawyers raced to the courthouse to file claims before knowing if there really was a claim to be filed – the emblem of the problems Congress sought to correct.  And in the 20 years since, I’ve seen the Reform Act both succeed and fail to achieve the results Congress intended.

In this blog post, I assign grades to each of the Reform Act’s key provisions, and an overall grade.  The Reform Act’s successes and failures derive from an amalgam of factors, ranging from Congressional insight and oversight, to good and bad lawyering by plaintiffs’ and defense lawyers alike, to good and bad judging.  The grades I assign are necessarily based on a defense perspective, and mine at that – but I do try to be fair.

Grading the Reform Act’s Key Provisions

The Reform Act was passed by the Contract-with-America Congress to address its perception that securities class actions were reflexive, lawyer-driven litigation that often asserted weak claims based on little more than a stock drop, and relied on post-litigation discovery, rather than pre-litigation investigation, to sort out the validity of the claims.  The Reform Act, among other things:

  • Imposed strict pleading standards for showing both falsity and scienter, to curtail frivolous claims by increasing the likelihood that they would be dismissed;
  • Created a Safe Harbor for forward-looking statements, to encourage companies to make forecasts and other predictions without undue fear of liability;
  • Imposed a stay of discovery until the motion-to-dismiss process is resolved, to prevent discovery fishing expeditions and to eliminate the burden of discovery for claims that do not meet the enhanced pleading standards; and
  • Created procedures for selecting a lead plaintiff with a substantial financial stake in the litigation, to discourage lawyer-driven actions and the “race to the courthouse.”

Following are my grades for each of these provisions:

Falsity Pleading Standard – Grade: D

The Reform Act requires a plaintiff to plead the element of a false or misleading statement with particularity.  Indeed, the statute says that “if an allegation regarding the statement or omission is made on information and belief, the complaint shall state with particularity all facts on which that belief is formed.” 15 U.S.C. § 78u-4(b)(1) (emphasis added).

Yet this powerful tool is now almost a museum piece.  I don’t just mean the “all facts” part – an issue plaintiffs and defendants heavily litigated for years,  before courts converged around the proposition that plaintiffs only need to include enough detail to adequately plead the claim.  Rather, I mean that most defense firms now merely go through the motions of attacking and analyzing plaintiffs’ falsity allegations.

How could that have happened?  To be blunt, it’s mostly through bad lawyering by defense lawyers, who got sidetracked by the Safe Harbor and the scienter pleading standard (see below), and by self-indulgent statutory analysis, such as what Congress meant by the term “all facts.”  In doing so, they overlooked the more basic but powerful point: the Reform Act’s falsity standard must be a higher and different hurdle than Rule 9(b), requiring a robust analysis of the falsity allegations.  And when they got distracted, defense counsel took their eye off their main job: to stick up for their clients’ honesty.

Indeed, the core argument of virtually every motion to dismiss should be that the defendants told the truth and said nothing false.  The Reform Act, and now the Supreme Court’s decision in Omnicare, Inc. v. Laborers Dist. Council Const. Industry Pension Fund, 135 S. Ct. 1318 (2015), leave securities defense lawyers with broad latitude to attack falsity.  A proper falsity analysis always starts by examining each challenged statement individually, and matching it up with the facts that plaintiffs allege illustrate its falsity.  From there, the truth of what the defendants said can be supported in numerous ways that are still within the proper scope of the motion-to-dismiss standard:  showing that the facts alleged do not actually undermine the challenged statements, because of mismatch of timing or substance; pointing out gaps, inconsistencies, and contradictions in plaintiffs’ allegations; demonstrating that the facts that plaintiffs assert are insufficiently detailed under the Reform Act; attacking allegations that plaintiffs claim to be facts, but which are really opinions, speculation, and unsupported conclusions; putting defendants’ allegedly false or misleading statements in their full context to show that they were not misleading; and pointing to judicially noticeable facts that contradict plaintiffs’ theory.

These arguments must be supplemented by a robust understanding of the relevant factual background, which defines and frames the direction of any argument based on the complaint and judicially noticeable facts.  Yet most motions to dismiss do not make a forceful argument against falsity that is supported with a specific challenge to the facts alleged by the plaintiffs.  Some motions superficially assert that the allegations are too vague to satisfy the pleading standard, but do not engage in a detailed defense of the challenged statements.  Others simply attack the credibility of “confidential witnesses” without addressing in sufficient detail the content of the information the complaint attributes to them.  And others fall back on the doctrine of “puffery,” essentially conceding that the statements may have been lies, but contending that they were not specific or important enough to be taken seriously.  By focusing on these and similar approaches, a brief may leave the judge with the impression that defendants concede falsity, and that the real defense is that the false statements were not made with scienter.  Not only is this an argument not available for Section 11 and 12 claims, but defense counsel’s failure to attack falsity allegations in detail actually undermines the argument that defendants did not have scienter.

The Reform Act’s falsity pleading standard was an enormous gift for defense attorneys, which enables them to mount a strong and vibrant defense on a motion to dismiss if it is used correctly.  But because it has not been used to its potential, I give it a D.

Scienter Pleading Standard – Grade: C

The Reform Act says that “with respect to each act or omission alleged to violate this chapter, [plaintiffs must] state with particularity facts giving rise to a strong inference that the defendant acted with the required state of mind,” i.e., scienter. 15 U.S.C. § 78u-4(b)(2).

Defense lawyers have billed billions of dollars analyzing and briefing what these simple words mean.  We argued for years about the meaning of “the required state of mind” – did it mean actual intent, recklessness, or a hybrid?  We litigated how courts must consider whether plaintiffs have pleaded a “strong inference” of that state of mind, an issue ultimately decided by the Supreme Court in Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308 (2007), which held that courts must weigh inferences of scienter to decide whether the alleged inference of fraud is stronger than opposing innocent inferences.  We then argued over whether Tellabs did away with the various “rules” courts had established, such as the amount or percentage of stock holdings a defendant had to sell before his or her sales suggested scienter, and whether looking at stock sales, or any other type of scienter allegation, in isolation was even allowed.  And we have argued over the degree of particularity Congress intended to require, and engaged in thousands of “did so, did not” spats over whether the allegations met the standard for which we were arguing.

For defendants, the overall outcome of all of this is decent.  The dismissal rate is pretty good, and the vast majority of dismissals are based on plaintiffs’ failure to plead scienter.  But the defense counsel community’s intense focus on improving the defendant-friendly scienter standard contributed to the distraction that sidetracked good falsity analysis.  And to what end?  I would bet a great deal that the difference between plain old “recklessness” and a slightly higher degree of recklessness has made no real difference in the dismissal rate.  A judge who believes that a defendant didn’t mean to say something false would not deny a motion to dismiss simply over a slightly different formulation of the legal standard.

But defendants have achieved this decent dismissal rate without their defense counsel making the best possible arguments for them.  As with falsity, the primary flaw in most defense arguments against scienter is with defense counsel’s failure to engage in a fact-specific analysis of the complaint’s allegations about what the defendants knew in regard to each specific challenged statement.  All too often, defendants allow themselves to be sidetracked by technicalities, or even worse, drawn to the plaintiffs’ preferred ground of battle, focusing on arguing about the sufficiency of the circumstantial evidence that plaintiffs use to create the impression that the defendants must have done something wrong.

Both of these flaws are found in defense counsel’s typical approach to plaintiffs’ arguments under the “core operations” inference of scienter and the “corporate scienter” doctrine.  Each of these theories allows a plaintiff to avoid pleading specific facts establishing the speaker’s scienter.  For example, the core operations inference posits that scienter can be inferred where it would be “absurd to suggest” that a senior executive doesn’t know facts about the company’s “core operations.”  Many motions to dismiss set up some formulation of this statement as a legal rule and then use it to make a simplistic syllogistic argument.  Such arguments devolve into “did not, did so” debates, and thus play into plaintiffs’ hands because they are detached from knowledge of falsity.  Instead, the right approach to the core operations inference is to understand that it requires a falsity so blatant that we can strongly infer that the executive had knowledge of the exact facts that made the statement false – not just the subject matter of the facts.  The most effective defense against the core operations inference thus focuses on falsity first, to show that even if a statement is false, it is at least a close call – making it hard for plaintiffs to contend that defendants must have known of this falsity.  But this can’t be done effectively if the argument against falsity does not vigorously attack the falsity allegations.

For these reasons, I give defense counsel’s use of the scienter pleading standard an overall grade of C: a B for the results and a D for how we got there.

Safe Harbor – Grade: D

The Safe Harbor for forward-looking statements was a centerpiece of the Reform Act.  Companies were being sued following announcements of missed earnings forecasts, which deterred companies from giving valuable earnings guidance.  Congress sought to encourage companies to give guidance and make other forward-looking statements by shielding such statements from liability if they are accompanied by “meaningful cautionary statements” or made without “actual knowledge” that they were false.  15 U.S.C. § 77z-2(c)(1); 15 U.S.C. § 78u-5(c)(1).

Yet the Safe Harbor is anything but safe.  In the 20 years of the Reform Act, surprisingly few dismissals are based solely the Safe Harbor; instead, courts either use it as  fallback grounds for dismissal, or just sidestep it – which has resulted in some significant legal errors.  The most notorious erroneous Safe Harbor decision was written by one of the country’s most renowned judges, Judge Frank Easterbrook, in Asher v. Baxter, 377 F.3d 727 (7th Cir. 2004).  Judge Easterbrook read into the Safe Harbor the word “the” before “important” in the phrase “identifying important factors,” to then hold that discovery was required to determine whether the company’s cautionary language contained “the (or any of the) ‘important sources of variance’” between the forecast and the actual results.  Id. at 734.

The reason for this judicial antipathy was best articulated by Bill Lerach, who famously said that the Safe Harbor would give executives a “license to lie.”  Judges have tended to agree with this conclusion.  Some have been quite explicit about it.  For example, in In re Stone & Webster, Inc. Securities Litigation, the First Circuit called the Safe Harbor a “curious statute, which grants (within limits) a license to defraud.”  414 F.3d 187, 212 (1st Cir. 2005).  And the Second Circuit, in its first decision analyzing the Safe Harbor – 15 years after the Reform Act was enacted, illustrating the degree of judicial avoidance – correctly interpreted “or” to mean “or,” but stated that “Congress may wish to give further direction on …. the reference point by which we should judge whether an issuer has identified the factors that realistically could cause results to differ from projections.  May an issuer be protected by the meaningful cautionary language prong of the safe harbor even where his cautionary statement omitted a major risk that he knew about at the time he made the statement?”  Slayton v. American Express Co., 604 F.3d 758, 772 (2d Cir. 2010).  Probably for this reason, the Safe Harbor has not deterred plaintiffs’ counsel from continuing to bring false forecast cases.  Twenty years later, a great many securities class actions still focus on earnings forecasts and other forward-looking statements.

We as a defense community have worsened the judicial antipathy and reluctance to issue rulings on Safe Harbor grounds, by making hyper-technical arguments that are detached from any notion that the challenged forward-looking statements aren’t false in the first place.  Most challenged forward-looking statements are true statements of opinion, and don’t even need the Safe Harbor’s protection.  But by bypassing the falsity argument, and falling back on the Safe Harbor, defense counsel plays right into plaintiffs’ hands.  Many defense lawyers try to overcome this problem by emphasizing that Congress intended to immunize even unfair forward-looking statements, if they are accompanied by appropriate warnings.  But this species of the disfavored defense of caveat emptor rings hollow.  Judges don’t like caveat emptor, and they don’t like liars – regardless of Congressional intent.  A much better way to defend forward-looking statements is to show that they were true statements of opinion, and then use the Reform Act as a fallback argument.  It makes the judge feel comfortable dismissing in either or both of two ways.  But few defense lawyers take that approach.

Finally, companies and their outside corporate counsel have contributed to the Safe Harbor’s lack of safety by failing to describe their risks in a fresh and detailed way each quarter.  When I evaluate a securities class action that challenges forward-looking statements and other statements of opinion (which comprise nearly all securities cases), one of the first things I look for is the progression of the risk factors each quarter.  I have a chart made, and I read them start to finish, as the judge will when we create the context for our arguments against falsity and to support the application of the Safe Harbor.  Are the risk factors specific or generic?  Do they change over time or are they static?  Do the changes in the risk factors track disclosed changes in business conditions?  Etc.  But companies and their outside corporate counsel frequently devolve to boilerplate, and fail to draft careful disclosures that make a judge feel comfortable that they were trying to disclose their real risks each quarter.

So, I give the Safe Harbor a D.

Lead Plaintiff Procedures – Grade C

The symbol of the pre-Reform Act era is the race to the courthouse among plaintiffs’ lawyers to file a complaint first and thus win the lead counsel role.  Congress intended the heightened pleading standards and the Safe Harbor to play a role in fixing that problem, because they are meant to incentivize plaintiffs to do more pre-filing investigation.  However, the Reform Act’s lead plaintiff provisions – which require the court to choose a lead plaintiff and lead plaintiff’s counsel after a beauty contest – undermine that goal, since only the lead plaintiff has an economic incentive to invest much time and money in an investigation.  So although the initial filer no longer has a competitive advantage by being the first plaintiff to file, the initial complaint is still routinely filed without any real investigation or worry about satisfying the pleading standards.

The lead plaintiff procedures were also designed to prevent lawyer-driven litigation, by providing that the lead plaintiff is presumptively the plaintiff with the largest financial loss – i.e., a plaintiff with “skin in the game.”  While that goal is salutary, it has spawned complex and mixed results.  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, retained the more prominent plaintiffs’ firms, and smaller plaintiffs’ firms were 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 of cases that survive dismissal motions is fairly low.  These dynamics placed a premium on experience, efficiency, and scale.  Larger firms 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 these cases, 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 in amounts that, while on the low side, appear to have yielded good outcomes for the smaller plaintiffs’ firms.

The smaller plaintiffs’ firms thus built up a head of steam that has kept them going, even after the wave of China cases subsided.  For the last year or two, 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.

To be sure, the larger firms still mostly can and will beat out the smaller firms for the cases they want.  But it increasingly seems clear that the larger firms don’t want to take the lead in initiating many of the cases against smaller companies, and are content to focus on larger cases on behalf of their institutional investor clients.  The result is now two classes of plaintiffs and plaintiffs’ firms:  larger firms with institutional investor clients, as Congress intended, and smaller plaintiffs’ firms with smaller individual clients, which Congress sought to displace.   In a sense, we’re back to where we started, but now with more aggressive institutional investors to boot.

As a result, from the defense perspective, I give the lead plaintiff procedures a C.

Discovery Stay – Grade: A

The Reform Act’s automatic stay of discovery was also meant to prevent plaintiffs from filing a lawsuit without adequate investigation, and conducting formal discovery to fish for facts to support it.  The discovery stay has saved defendants and their insurers many billions of dollars in discovery costs, and prevented millions of hours of unnecessary distraction by employees who have been able to focus on their jobs instead of helping their lawyers and electronic discovery consultants collect documents.  Although the statute contains several exceptions, there has been relatively little litigation over their application, especially over the last decade; the plaintiffs’ bar has shown restraint and efficiency in not over-litigating the discovery stay.  The discovery stay has worked well.

Conclusion:  The Reform Act’s Overall Grade

Grade: C+

In outlining this post, I originally organized my thoughts around this question: Are companies and their directors and officers really better off than they were 20 years ago?  Although it may seem absurd that a defense lawyer could even think about answering that question “no,” it really is a fair question.  I could make the case that the Reform Act’s tools have actually hindered the overall effectiveness of securities litigation defense by distracting from its core purpose: to convince a judge or jury that the defendants didn’t say anything false.  That is best done by thinking about the defense of the litigation overall, through trial – which not only sets the case up for a better defense on the merits, but results in better motion-to-dismiss results, for the reasons I’ve described.  But instead, the Reform Act tempts defense counsel to rely on technicalities, which can result in a mediocre defense, and an increased liability and economic exposure that overall are harmful to public companies, their directors and officers, and insurers.

 

* I never call the Reform Act the “PSLRA.”  The Reform Act was meant to reform securities litigation, not PSLRA-ize it.

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.

In my last D&O Discourse post, “The Future of Securities Class Action Litigation,” I discussed why changes to the securities litigation defense bar are inevitable: in a nutshell, the economic structures of the typical securities defense firms – mostly national law firms – result in defense costs that significantly exceed what is rational to spend in a typical securities class action.  As I explained, the solution needs to come from outside the biglaw paradigm; when biglaw firms try to reduce the cost of one case without changing their fundamental billing and staffing structure, they end up cutting corners by foregoing important tasks or settling prematurely for an unnecessarily high amount.  That is obviously unacceptable.

The solution thus requires us to approach securities class action defense in a new way, by creating a specialized bar of securities defense lawyers from two groups: lawyers from national firms who change their staffing structure and lower their billing rates, and experienced securities litigators from regional firms with economic structures that are naturally more rational.

But litigation venues are regional.  We have state courts and federal courts organized by states and areas within states.  Since lawyers need to go to the courthouse to file pleadings, attend court hearings, and meet with clients in that location, the lawyer handling a case needs to live where the judge and clients live.

Right?

Not anymore.

Although the attitude that a case needs a local lawyer persists, that is no longer how litigation works.  We don’t file pleadings at the courthouse.  We file them on the internet from anywhere – even from an airplane.  There are just a handful of in-person court hearings in most cases.  And the reality is that most clients don’t want their lawyers hanging around in person at their offices – email, phone calls, and Skype suffice.  Even document collection can be done mostly electronically and remotely.  And with increasingly strict deposition limits, and witnesses located around the country and world, depositions don’t require much time in the forum city either.

In a typical Reform Act case, where discovery is stayed through the motion-to-dismiss process, the amount of time a lawyer needs to spend in the forum city is especially modest.  If a case is dismissed on a motion to dismiss, the case activities in the forum city in a typical case amount only to (1) a short visit to the clients’ offices to learn the facts necessary to assess the case and prepare the motion to dismiss, and (2) the motion-to-dismiss argument, if there is one.  Indeed, assuming that a typical securities case requires a total of 1,000 hours of lawyer time through an initial motion to dismiss, fewer than 50 of those hours – one-half of one percent – need to be spent in the forum city.  The other 99.5% can be spent anywhere.

Discovery doesn’t change these percentages much.  Assume that it takes another 10,000 hours of attorney time to litigate a case through a summary judgment motion, or 11,000 total hours.  Four lawyers/paralegals spending four weeks in the forum city for document collection and depositions (a generous allotment) yields only another 640 hours.  So in my hypothetical, only 0.63% of the defense of the case requires a lawyer to be in the forum city.  The other 99.37% of the work can be done anywhere.  Because a biglaw firm would litigate a securities class action with a larger team, the total number of hours in a typical biglaw case would be much higher – both the total defense hours and the total number of hours spent in the forum city – but the percentages would be similar.

Nor does the cost of travel move the economic needle.  Of course, if a firm is willing not to charge for travel time and travel costs to the forum city, there is no economic issue.  My firm is willing to make this concession, and I would bet others are as well.  Even if a firm does charge for travel cost and travel time, the cost is miniscule in relationship to total defense costs.  For example, my total travel costs for a five-night trip to New York City – both airfare and lodging – are typically less than the cost of two biglaw partner hours.

Of course, there are some purposes for which local counsel is necessary, or at least ideal – someone who knows the local rules, is familiar with the local judges, and is admitted in the forum state.  But the need to utilize local counsel for a limited number of tasks doesn’t present any economic or strategic issue either, if the lawyers’ roles are clearly defined.  Depending on the circumstances, I like to work either with a local lawyer in a litigation boutique that was formed by former large-firm lawyers with strong local connections, or with a lawyer from a strong regional firm.  I just finished a case in which the local firm was a boutique, and a case in which the local firm was another regional firm.  In both cases, the local firms charged de minimis amounts.  In some cases, the local firm can and should play a larger role, but whatever the type of firm and its role, the lead and local lawyers can develop the right staffing for the case and work together essentially as one firm – if they want to.

All of these considerations show that securities litigation defense can and should be a nationwide practice.  It is no longer local.  We need look no farther than the other side of the “v” for a good example.  Our adversaries in the plaintiffs’ bar have long litigated cases around the country, often teaming up with local lawyers from different firms.  Like securities defense, plaintiffs’ securities work requires a full-time focus that has led to a relatively small number of qualified firms.  The qualified firms litigate cases around the country, not just in their hometowns or even where their firms have lawyers.

This all seems relatively simple, but it requires us all to abandon old assumptions about the practice of law that are no longer applicable, and embrace a new mindset.  Biglaw defense lawyers need to obtain more economic freedom within their firms to reduce their rates and staffing for typical securities cases, or they must face the reality that their firms perhaps are well suited only for the largest cases.  Regional firms must recruit more full-time securities litigation partners and be willing not to charge for travel time and costs.  And companies and insurers must appreciate that securities litigation defense will improve – through better substantive and economic results in both individual cases and overall – if they recognize that a good regional firm with dedicated securities litigators can defend a securities class action anywhere in the country, and can usually do so more effectively and efficiently than a biglaw firm.

Securities litigation has a culture defined by multiple elements: the types of cases filed, the plaintiffs’ lawyers who file them, the defense counsel who defend them, the characteristics of the insurance that covers them, the way insurance representatives approach coverage, the government’s investigative policies – and, of course, the attitude of public companies and their directors and officers toward disclosure and governance.

This culture has been largely stable over the nearly 20 years I’ve defended securities litigation matters full time.  The array of private securities litigation matters (in the way I define securities litigation) remains the same – in order of virulence: securities class actions, shareholder derivative litigation matters (derivative actions, board demands, and books-and-records inspections), and shareholder challenges to mergers.  The world of disclosure-related SEC enforcement and internal corporate investigations is basically unchanged as well.  And the art of managing a disclosure crisis, involving the convergence of shareholder litigation, SEC enforcement, and an internal investigation, involves the same basic skills and instincts.

But I’ve noted significant changes to other characteristics of securities-litigation culture recently, which portend a paradigm shift.  Over the past few years, smaller plaintiffs’ firms have initiated more securities class actions on behalf of individual, retail investors, largely against smaller companies that have suffered what I call “lawsuit blueprint” problems such as auditor resignations and short-seller reports.  This trend – which has now become ingrained into the securities-litigation culture – will significantly influence the way securities cases are defended and by whom, and change the way that D&O insurance coverage and claims need to be handled.

Changes in the Plaintiffs’ Bar

Discussion of the history of securities plaintiffs’ counsel usually focuses on the impact of the departures of former giants Bill Lerach and Mel Weiss.  But although the two of them did indeed cut a wide swath, the plaintiffs’ bar survived their departures just fine.  Lerach’s former firm is thriving, and there are strong leaders there and at other prominent plaintiffs’ firms.

The more fundamental shifts in the plaintiffs’ bar concern changes to filing trends.  Securities class action filings are down significantly over the past several years, but as I have written, I’m confident they will remain the mainstay of securities litigation, and won’t be replaced by merger cases or derivative actions.  There is a large group of plaintiffs’ lawyers who specialize in securities class actions, and there are plenty of stock drops that give them good opportunities to file cases. Securities class action filings tend to come in waves, both in the number of cases and type.  Filings have been down over the last several years for multiple reasons, including the lack of plaintiff-firm resources to file new cases as they continue to litigate stubborn and labor-intensive credit-crisis cases, the rising stock market, and the lack of significant financial-statement restatements.

While I don’t think the downturn in filings is, in and of itself, very meaningful, it has created the opportunity for smaller plaintiffs’ firms to file more securities class actions.  As D&O Discourse readers know, 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 the more 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 of cases that survive dismissal motions is fairly low.  These dynamics placed a premium on experience, efficiency, and scale.  Larger firms 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 in amounts that, while on the low side, appear to have yielded good outcomes for the smaller plaintiffs’ firms.

The smaller plaintiffs’ firms thus built up a head of steam that has kept them going, even after the wave of China cases subsided.  For the last year or two, 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.

To be sure, the larger firms still mostly can and will beat out the smaller firms for the cases they want.  But it increasingly seems clear that the larger firms don’t want to take the lead in initiating many of the cases against smaller companies, and are content to focus on larger cases on behalf of their institutional investor clients.

These dynamics are confirmed by recent securities litigation filing statistics.  Cornerstone Research’s “Securities Class Action Filings: 2014 Year in Review,” concludes 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.”  Cornerstone’s “Securities Class Action Filings: 2015 Midyear Assessment” reports that two key measures of the size of cases filed in the first half of 2015 were 43% and 65% lower than the 1997-2014 semiannual historical averages.  NERA Economic Consulting’s “Recent Trends in Securities Class Action Litigation:  2014 Full-Year Review” reports that 2013 and 2014 “aggregate investor losses” were far lower than in any of the prior eight years.  And PricewaterhouseCoopers’ “Coming into Focus: 2014 Securities Litigation Study” reflects that in 2013 and 2014, two-thirds of securities class actions were against small-cap companies (market capitalization less than $2 billion), and one-quarter were against micro-cap companies (market capitalization less than $300 million).*  These numbers confirm the trend toward filing smaller cases against smaller companies, so that now, most securities class actions are relatively small cases.

Consequences for Securities Litigation Defense

Securities litigation defense must adjust to this change.  Smaller securities class actions are still important and labor-intensive matters – a “small” securities class action is still a big deal for a small company and the individuals accused of fraud, and the number of hours of legal work to defend a small case is still significant.  This is especially so for the “lawsuit blueprint” cases, which typically involve a difficult set of facts.

Yet most securities defense practices are in firms with high billing rates and high associate-to-partner ratios, which make it uneconomical for them to defend smaller litigation matters.  It obviously makes no sense for a firm to charge $6 million to defend a case that can settle for $6 million.  It is even worse for that same firm to attempt to defend the case for $3 million instead of $6 million by cutting corners – whether by under-staffing, over-delegation to junior lawyers, or avoiding important tasks.  It is worse still for a firm to charge $2 million through the motion to dismiss briefing and then, if they lose, to settle for more than $6 million just because they can’t defend the case economically past that point.  And it is a strategic and ethical minefield for a firm to charge $6 million and then settle for a larger amount than necessary so that the fees appear to be in line with the size of the case.  .

Nor is the answer to hire general commercial litigators at lower rates.  Securities class actions are specialized matters that demand expertise, consisting not just of knowledge of the law, but of relationships with plaintiffs’ counsel, defense counsel, economists, mediators, and D&O brokers and insurers.

Rather, what is necessary is genuine reform of the economics of securities litigation defense through the creation of a class of experienced securities litigators who charge lower rates and exhibit tighter economic control.  Undoubtedly, that will be difficult to achieve for most securities defense lawyers, who practice at firms with supercharged economics.  The lawyers who wish to remain securities litigation specialists will thus face a choice:

  1. Accept that the volume of their case load will be reduced, as they forego smaller matters and focus on the largest matters (which Biglaw firms are uniquely situated to handle well, on the whole);
  2. Reign in the economics of their practices, by lowering billing rates of all lawyers on securities litigation matters, and by reducing staffing and associate-to-partner ratios; and/or
  3. Move their practices to smaller, regional defense firms that naturally have more reasonable economics.

I’ve taken the third path, and I hope that a number of other securities litigation defense lawyers will also make that shift toward regional defense firms.  A regional practice can handle cases around the country, because litigation matters can be effectively and efficiently handled by a firm based outside of the forum city.  And they can be handled especially efficiently by regional firms outside of larger cities, which can offer a better quality of life for their associates, and a more reasonable economic model for their clients.

Consequences for D&O Insurance

D&O insurance needs to change as well.  For public companies, D&O insurance is indemnity insurance, and the insurer doesn’t have the duty or right to defend the litigation.  Thus, the insured selects counsel and the insurer has a right to consent to the insured’s selection, but such consent can’t be unreasonably withheld.  D&O insurers are in a bad spot in a great many cases.  Since most experienced securities defense lawyers are from expensive firms, most insureds select an expensive firm.  But in many cases, that spells a highly uneconomical or prejudicial result, through higher than necessary defense costs and/or an early settlement that doesn’t reflect the merits, but which is necessary to avoid using most or all of the policy limits on defense costs.

Given the economics, it certainly seems reasonable for an insurer to at least require an insured to look at less expensive (but just as experienced) defense counsel before consenting to their choice of counsel – if not outright withholding consent to a choice that does not make economic sense for a particular case.  If that isn’t practical from an insurance law or commercial standpoint, insurers may well need to look at enhancing their contractual right to refuse consent, or even to offer a set of experienced but lower-cost securities defense practices in exchange for a lower premium.  It is my strong belief that a great many public company CFOs would choose a lower D&O insurance premium over an unfettered right to choose their own defense lawyers.

Since I’m not a D&O insurance lawyer, I obviously can’t say what is right for D&O insurers from a commercial or legal perspective.  But it seems obvious to me that the economics of securities litigation must change, both in terms of defense costs and defense-counsel selection, to avoid increasingly irrational economic results.

 

* Median settlement values are falling as well.  In 2014, the median settlement was just $6.5 million according to NERA and $6.0 million according to Cornerstone.  NERA found that “[o]n an inflation-adjusted basis, 2014 median settlement was the third-lowest since the passage of the PSLRA: only in 1996 and in 2001 were median settlement amounts lower on an inflation-adjusted basis.”  Cornerstone reports that 62% of settlements in 2014 were $10 million or less, compared to an average of 53% over 2005-13.  Since settlements in 2014 were of cases filed in earlier years, when the size of cases was larger, it stands to reason that median settlements should remain small or decrease further in future years.

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.

 

Why do the costs of defending securities class actions continue to increase?  Because of my writing on the subject (e.g. here and here), I’m asked about the issue a lot.  My answer has evolved from blaming biglaw economics – a combination of rates and staffing practices – to something more fundamental.  Biglaw economics is a consequence of the problem, not its cause.  I believe the root cause is the convergence of two related factors:

  • The prevailing view, fueled by defense lawyers, that securities class actions are “bet the company” cases and threaten the personal financial security of director and officer defendants; and
  • As a result of these perceived threats, the reflexive hiring of biglaw firms, which companies and their directors and officers feel are uniquely equipped to defend them – in other words, they go to what they perceive to be the “Mayo Clinic” of defense firms.

But it simply isn’t necessary, and is often even strategically unwise, to turn to a biglaw firm for most securities class actions.

To be sure, securities class actions are serious matters that assert large theoretical damages.  But the vast majority of cases, if defended effectively and efficiently by securities litigation specialists, are easily managed and settled within D&O insurance limits, with no real risk of any out-of-pocket payment by a company’s directors and officers.

The Vast Majority of Securities Litigation Is Manageable

Companies and their directors and officers understandably feel threatened by securities class actions.  Plaintiffs asserting 10b-5 claims allege that the defendants lied on purpose, and claim theoretical damages in the hundreds of millions or billions of dollars in the lion’s share of cases.  Plaintiffs asserting Section 11 claims have relaxed standards of pleading and proof – the company’s liability is strict, and individuals have the burden of showing their due diligence.  Section 11 damages are typically lower than 10b-5 damages, but they are still substantial.  In the world of complex corporate litigation, securities lawsuits certainly are among the most threatening.

Not surprisingly, many biglaw lawyers exaggerate this threat – so that the obvious and necessary recourse seems to be to hire their firm.  In turn, in-house lawyers often reflexively turn to biglaw because “no one ever got fired for hiring _______ [fill in your favorite biglaw firm].”  This is especially so if such a “safe” biglaw firm is their regular outside firm.  Busy CEOs and CFOs, the typical individual defendants, rely on their in-house lawyers’ recommendation of which firm to hire, or firms to interview.  Boards often defer to management’s hiring process and recommendation or decision, even though board members often will become defendants themselves in a related shareholder derivative action shortly after the securities class action is filed.

In reality, however, very few securities class actions pose a real threat to the company or its directors and officers.  Most securities class actions are brought by a small group of plaintiffs’ firms, who have a playbook that experienced defense counsel know well.  There are few surprises in the vast majority of cases.  Indeed, at the outset of a securities class action, most good securities defense lawyers and D&O insurance professionals can accurately estimate the odds of prevailing on a motion to dismiss and, if the case is not dismissed, the settlement value.

Securities class actions follow a highly predictable course.  The first step, of course, is a motion to dismiss.  Because of the high pleading standards imposed by the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, the rate of dismissal of 10b-5 cases is high.  According to NERA Economic Consulting, approximately 50% of securities class actions filed and resolved from 2000 through 2013 were dismissed on a motion to dismiss.

Of cases that are not dismissed, nearly all are settled short of a trial verdict.  According to NERA, of the 4,226 securities class actions filed since the Reform Act, only 20 have gone to trial and only 14 have reached a verdict.  Settlements, moreover, are generally relatively modest.  For the past five years, the median settlement amount was, in millions (again according to NERA), $8.5, $11.0, $7.5, $12.3, and $9.1 respectively – well within the limits of a typical public company D&O insurance program.

Shareholder derivative litigation and shareholder challenges to M&A transactions likewise pose little real threat to companies and individual defendants as a general rule.  Corporate law imposes high hurdles for plaintiffs in the typical shareholder derivative case, which is often dismissed on motions to dismiss.  If not dismissed, the vast majority of such cases are settled through corporate governance changes and a six-figure payment to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.  Likewise, the vast majority of shareholder challenges to M&A transactions are resolved early in the litigation through proxy statement changes, and sometimes changes to the transaction, and a six-figure payment to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

These settlements are covered by D&O insurance, with limited exceptions.  Major D&O insurers typically handle D&O claims in an insured-friendly and responsive manner, owing in part to the fact that they are insuring the company’s directors and officers.  Actual D&O coverage litigation is uncommon.  Insurers’ in-house and outside claims professionals are experts in D&O liability litigation, and many of them have handled vastly more D&O claims than even the most experienced securities defense lawyers.  Good defense counsel are able to work cooperatively with D&O claims professionals through the litigation, utilize their experience to assist with strategic decisions to improve the defense of the litigation, and if the litigation isn’t dismissed, obtain funding of a reasonable settlement, typically within policy limits and without a contribution from the company – provided defense costs are in line with the settlement value of the litigation.

Biglaw Securities Defense Tends to Over-Litigate or Under-Litigate

To illustrate the way that biglaw firms tend to over-litigate or under-litigate securities actions, let’s use a hypothetical case.  Acme and its CEO and CFO are sued in a securities class action.  Acme has $25 million in D&O insurance, which is an appropriate amount based on Acme’s market capitalization, risk profile, and other company and industry considerations.  Acme hires a biglaw firm to defend the litigation.  Defense counsel’s billing rates range from $1,200 for the senior partner to $600 for a new associate.  There are 2 partners and 6 associates at various levels assigned to the case.*

At the outset of the case, Acme’s economist conducts a preliminary “plaintiffs’-style” damages analysis, and estimates that plaintiffs will assert damages of around $500 million.  Based on this estimate of asserted damages and analysis of various other factors, Acme’s economist, D&O insurer, and defense counsel suggest that the case should settle in the range of $10–15 million.

Acme makes a motion to dismiss the securities class action, and loses.  Acme’s defense counsel’s fees through the motion to dismiss total $1.5 million.  Acme’s D&O insurer asks defense counsel for a budget through completion of discovery and summary judgment – i.e., the budget does not include trial.  Defense counsel gives the insurer an estimate of $10 million (and, in most matters, the defense budget understates what the actual defense costs will be).  Around the same time, an Acme shareholder files a tag-along shareholder derivative action against Acme’s directors and officers.  Acme intends to move to dismiss the shareholder derivative action.  Depending on the outcome of the motion, defense counsel gives a budget estimate of $1–5 million up to, but not including, trial.

Let’s pause here.  At this point, at least $12.5 million of Acme’s $25 million of D&O insurance will be depleted for work up to, but not including, trials in the two matters:  $1.5 million incurred, plus $11 million estimated.  That amount could grow to $16.5 million if the derivative action survives a motion to dismiss.  And the actual cost could be even higher if the biglaw defense firm’s estimates are indeed low.  So let’s say a better estimate of total defense costs for the securities and derivative actions, not including trials, would be $20 million.  Based on that estimate, Acme would have as much as $12.5 million and as little as $5 million with which to settle the litigation if it were to litigate through summary judgment – which is normal in complex commercial cases, because litigation through summary judgment helps the parties reach a settlement that reflects the actual merits of the litigation.  And if the case did not settle at that point, there would not be enough insurance proceeds left to take the case to trial.

What are Acme’s options?

First, it could proceed to defend the litigation through summary judgment.  However, absent a denial of plaintiffs’ motion for class certification or dismissal on summary judgment, at most there would remain just enough to settle within insurance limits, and if in fact the defense firm has underestimated defense costs, there probably would not be sufficient proceeds left for settlement – which means that Acme itself would need to write a check to pay for the settlement.

Second, Acme could try to settle the case at this point, before incurring further defense costs.  This would allow for a settlement within policy limits.  However, early settlements tend to be more expensive than later settlements – i.e., they overpay the plaintiffs.  And Acme and its directors and officers feel they did nothing wrong, and would prefer to litigate the case further and try to obtain dismissal at class certification or summary judgment – and perhaps even consider taking the case to trial.  (Acme has tried several large commercial and IP cases over the years, and likes to take cases to trial if they can’t be settled reasonably.)

Thus, Acme has two options: (1) it can defend the case past its insurance limits, or (2) it can settle early and probably pay more than the merits say it should.  To avoid this dilemma, biglaw firms sometimes employ a third alternative: they under-litigate cases, cutting corners to make their economics fit matters that don’t justify the billing they would generate based on their “normal” rates and staffing practices.  The result, of course, is a diminished defense.  I suppose with client and insurer permission, deliberate under-litigation and corner-cutting would be a legitimate strategy.  But who would knowingly want a diminished defense?

The Solution is Non-Biglaw Alternatives

Some securities cases are well-suited for biglaw securities defense practices, primarily large cases that are relatively cost-insensitive and require large teams.  And some biglaw firms and partners do a better job than others defending securities matters within the biglaw system.  But, as the Acme hypothetical illustrates, there are many cases for which biglaw economics just don’t work.  Public companies and their directors and officers need an alternative to biglaw defense practices in such cases.

Let’s briefly re-analyze the Acme hypothetical assuming incurred fees of $500,000 and a capped defense-cost budget of $5 million for the securities class action and $500,000–$2.5 million for the derivative action.   If Acme were to litigate up to trial, it would have $17 to $19 million left with which to settle the litigation – leaving plenty of room under the policy for settlement, as well as potentially for trial.

There are a handful of firms (including mine) that can handle the hypothetical case with those economics while providing the same, or better, quality of defense, and can litigate nationwide.  D&O brokers and insurers can help companies find them.  But there need to be more.  The ideal profile of a biglaw alternative is a team comprising former biglaw lawyers, who can offer the best of both worlds: the sophistication and quality of defense biglaw offers, without the economic difficulties that biglaw can present.  I hope that other biglaw partners will consider doing what I did, and move their practice to a strong non-biglaw firm, and build a team that is a good alternative to biglaw in the right cases.

Public companies, their directors and officers, and their D&O insurers would be better served with more of us providing an attractive alternative to the standard defense practice.

* As we have written previously (e.g., here and here), the associate-heavy structure of the team is, in large part, simply a function of biglaw firms’ economic model – high associate-to-partner ratios designed to increase profits-per-partner.  That system invites over-litigation and economic inefficiency, including make-work, over-delegation, and inadequate supervision.  Even partners acting with the utmost good faith often can’t overcome the pressures biglaw’s economic system imposes.

 

In 1995, public companies and their directors and officers received one of the greatest statutory gifts in the history of American corporate law:  the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act.  The Reform Act established heightened standards for pleading falsity and scienter, among other protections, to allow for dismissal before discovery in a fair percentage of cases.  That was a tremendous change from the pre-Reform Act world, in which dismissals were infrequent and expensive discovery was the norm.

The provisions of the Reform Act make motions to dismiss in securities cases different from those in any other area of law, and guide our strategy in every case that we litigate.  As a full-time securities litigation defense lawyer, I feel a responsibility to understand the Reform Act and the cases applying it with as much sophistication as possible.  I have a sense of pride in my Reform Act analysis.  It may sound hokey, but I consider myself a craftsman, and I know that some of the most effective full-time securities litigators tend to feel the same.

I was recently asked about the biggest threats to the Reform Act’s protections, and have since been giving that question a lot of thought.  To be blunt, the biggest threat is the failure by many defense firms to make rigorous arguments on motions to dismiss that hold plaintiffs to the strict pleading standards of the Reform Act, allowing for court decisions that likewise lack rigor and fail to enforce the Act’s high pleading burdens.

This lack of technical rigor has many causes.  One factor is the dwindling number of securities litigation defense specialists, caused by the downturn in classic securities litigation cases calling for straightforward Reform Act motions to dismiss.  Beginning in 2006, securities litigation defense has mostly consisted of stock-option backdating derivative cases, large credit-crisis cases, and merger objection cases.  Through these waves, very few securities litigators remained dedicated to studying Reform Act developments and devising better arguments that take advantage of its provisions.  As a result, today there are relatively few practitioners whose practices are devoted to securities litigation defense – defense lawyers who sweat over subtleties in the law that in isolation may seem trivial, but which collectively make a big difference in the development of the law.

Another factor is the biglaw approach to writing motions to dismiss “by committee.”  Biglaw firms tend to write motions with large teams composed of new associates, mid-level associates, senior associates, and partners.  Writing by committee doesn’t work.  It is not only expensive, it is ultimately far less effective.  If the first draft of a motion is written without sufficient intellectual rigor and sophisticated understanding of the law and practice of securities litigation, it is difficult to reach an end result that will compensate for these deficiencies.  To draft the best motion to dismiss possible, Reform Act “craftsmen” should be involved in the process from the beginning, the entire drafting team needs to coordinate closely on the strategic objectives of the motion, and all the attorneys need to be well trained to appreciate the subtleties of the law.

Whatever the cause, the declining quality of many motions to dismiss is leading to a deterioration of the law that is eroding the Reform Act’s protections.  The rate of dismissals remains relatively high, but I predict that the dismissal rate will decrease, perhaps dramatically, over time as the law becomes more lax.

Below, I discuss the building blocks of a strong motion to dismiss and then address flaws found in many that I have seen filed lately – both by practitioners who do not specialize in the field, and by some “go to” biglaw firms with departments that specialize in securities litigation.

Constructing a Strong Motion to Dismiss

The Reform Act erected high hurdles for plaintiffs to clear before requiring a company to be put through the burdens of discovery:

  • To plead the falsity of a challenged statement of fact, plaintiffs must plead inconsistent contemporaneous facts.
  • To plead a false statement of opinion, in most circuits plaintiffs must plead that the statement was both objectively false and subjectively false, meaning they must show the speaker did not genuinely believe the opinion expressed.
  • To plead that the defendant made a false statement with intent to defraud, plaintiffs must plead facts demonstrating a strong inference that the defendant either knew the statement was false or was extremely and deliberately reckless in choosing not to find out whether it was true or false.
  • Even if plaintiffs plead facts demonstrating it was false, a forward-looking statement is not actionable under the Safe Harbor provisions of the Reform Act if either: (1) the statement was accompanied by meaningful cautionary statements, or (2) plaintiffs fail to plead that the speaker had actual knowledge of the statement’s falsity.

A rigorous motion to dismiss uses the Reform Act’s pleading tools in the most advantageous way possible, by really understanding them and maximizing their usefulness.  These tools give defense lawyers the opportunity to delve into factual issues in a manner that is unusual in motion -to-dismiss practice, and which may feel unnatural to attorneys who are not securities litigation specialists or who didn’t become securities litigation specialists during the Reform Act era.  An effective motion to dismiss not only dismantles the complaint with these tools, but capitalizes upon them to tell the judge a compelling story of an honest company that did its best to make straightforward disclosures to the market.

The Reform Act’s standards give judges enormous discretion; they can dismiss most complaints, or not, with very little room to challenge their decisions upon appeal.  Winning motions recognize the human element to  this discretion.  Even if a complaint is technically deficient, judges are less likely to dismiss it (certainly less likely to dismiss it with prejudice) if they nevertheless get the feeling that the defendants committed fraud.  Effective motions use the leeway given to defendants by the Reform Act to give judges a sense of comfort that they are not only following the law, but that by strictly applying the Reform Act’s protections, they are also serving justice.  On the other hand, one of the most common flaws in ineffective motions to dismiss is the use of formulaic and hyper-technical arguments, which fail to take advantage of the Reform Act to dig into the facts of the individual case, expose the flaws of each complaint in detail, and tell the judge a compelling story of the case that negates the inference of scienter.

Flaws Found in Many Motions to Dismiss

Flaws in Arguments against Falsity

The first element of a claim under Rule 10b-5(b) – the classic securities claim – is a false or misleading statement.  As we recently wrote, it is an incorrect statement of law to characterize this element as requiring a “materially false statement or omission.”  An omission is only actionable if it made what the defendant said materially misleading (or he or she otherwise had a duty to disclose it, which is a rare assertion as the main claim in a securities class action).

Yet if I had a dollar for every motion to dismiss that contained this misstatement of law, I would be writing this blog from a vacation home in Hawaii.  This is not a semantic issue; the difference between an “omission” and a “misleading statement” is enormous.  Every disclosure problem involves dozens or even hundreds of omitted facts that seem “material” in the sense that an investor would want to know them, but far fewer involve statements that were materially misleading (it is the statement that must be material, not the omitted fact) as a result of the omission.  I realize that many courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, use this incorrect terminology.  But that doesn’t mean we need to parrot it – and every time that we do, we weaken the standard that is an explicit part of the Reform Act statute.

Defense lawyers’ loose language is a symptom of a bigger problem:  a lack of focus on falsity.  The allegedly false statements frame the entire case; other defense arguments are derived from the attack on plaintiffs’ falsity claims.  Foremost among the arguments derived from a strong falsity argument is the argument against scienter.  Scienter requires plaintiffs to show that a speaker knew what he or she said was false.  Falsity thus sets the stage for the scienter analysis – if there was no false statement to begin with, there can be no knowledge of that falsity.  On the other hand, the more egregiously false plaintiffs can make a statement appear, the easier it will be for them to show knowledge of falsity.  A strong scienter argument has as its North Star, “scienter as to what?”  That “what” must be a false statement, and a good motion to dismiss will enforce that structure from the beginning.  I cringe when I read a motion to dismiss that addresses scienter before falsity.  That is simply backwards.

The lack of focus on falsity infects the way defense firms tend to argue against falsity.  The Reform Act falsity standard generally requires the plaintiffs to allege contemporaneous facts that are inconsistent with each challenged statement.  That is a high hurdle.

To be sure, it isn’t easy to make a fact-specific argument against falsity; it requires a great command of the complaint and judicially noticeable documents, which isn’t the forte of most litigators.  And it can seem “too factual” to general litigators, or to many senior securities litigators who became securities litigation specialists under the pre-Reform Act regime, where motions to dismiss had to be simple and safe to have any chance of success under lenient pleading standards.  Perhaps for these reasons, in addition to those discussed above, a large number of motions to dismiss bypass this advantageous and fundamental argument, or fail to emphasize it, and instead opt for arguments that lump statements together by type and argue against them as a group in a boilerplate fashion.  In my view, one of the worst arguments of this type is the “puffery” defense – which basically concedes that a statement was false, but contends it was too immaterial to be actionable.  The subtext is cavalier, and unlikely to reassure a dubious judge: “sure the defendant lied, but it doesn’t matter because no one cared.”  Although courts do sometimes accept this argument, whether to do so or not amounts to an unprincipled coin-flip, and it is often made at the expense of better and more definite arguments.  For example, statements constituting “puffery” also generally qualify as statements of opinion, which have a standard for falsity that is protective and can be analyzed specifically.

The Reform Act called out forward-looking statements for special analysis and protection.  As we have previously written, the Safe Harbor is not as safe as Congress intended.  Because they think it goes too far, and can give companies a “license to lie,” many judges go to great lengths to avoid the statute’s plain language.  Many defense lawyers’ arguments not only fail to address this judicial skepticism, but actually reinforce it.  They do this by relying solely on the Safe Harbor’s technical elements, while failing to simultaneously contend that the forward-looking statements in question also had a reasonable basis, and the company’s cautionary language was a good-faith effort to describe specific risks the company faced.  Such arguments based only on the letter of the Safe Harbor ring of “caveat emptor,” which the law has been trying to shake for centuries.

Flaws in Arguments against Scienter

Scienter allegations are of two types:  allegations pleading facts about what the defendant knew, to attempt to plead that he or she knew the challenged statements were false; and, far more prevalent, allegations that the defendant “must have” meant to lie, based on circumstantial considerations such as a defendants’ stock sales, corporate transactions, the temporal proximity of the challenged statement to the disclosure of the “truth,” and the relationship of the subject of the challenged statements to the company’s “core operations.”  As with falsity, the primary flaw in most defense arguments against scienter is with their failure to engage in a fact-specific analysis of the complaint’s allegations about what the defendants knew in regard to each specific challenged statement. All too often, defendants allow themselves to be drawn to the plaintiffs’ preferred ground of battle, focusing just on arguing about the sufficiency of the circumstantial evidence that plaintiffs use to create the impression that the defendants must have done something wrong.

Circumstantial scienter allegations are only ways to try to make an educated guess about what the speaker knew or intended.  But the Reform Act’s scienter standard requires particularized pleading yielding a “strong inference” that the defendant lied on purpose – a very high standard.  So it makes no sense for defense counsel not to approach the issue directly, by making it clear that the speaker did not lie, and holding plaintiffs to the strict standard of showing specific scienter as to each challenged statement.

For this reason, all effective motions to dismiss start by testing the complaint’s allegations that the defendants actually knew, or were intentionally reckless about not knowing, the facts establishing falsity.  This means that, for each statement and each defendant, the motion to dismiss needs to isolate the statement and the reasons that the complaint alleges it was false, and analyze what the complaint alleges each defendant knew about those facts at the time he or she made each challenged statement. Without this focus on each specific challenged statement, the scienter inquiry is vague, and becomes more about whether the defendant seems bad, or had generally bad motives, than whether he lied on purpose.  A good motion to dismiss does not let plaintiffs get away with these kinds of generalized allegations.

The problem is made worse if defense counsel approaches falsity categorically, without careful scrutiny of the reasons the complaint alleges the challenged statements were false.  Without this focus, defense counsel can’t meaningfully answer the central question in the Reform Act analysis – “scienter as to what?” – because there isn’t a sufficient nexus between the challenged statements and contemporaneous facts that made the statements false.  The scienter inquiry thus becomes unmoored from knowledge that specific statements were false.  The result is a lower burden for plaintiffs:  if they are able to plead falsity, and the defendants seemed to know something about the general subject matter, scienter is almost a foregone conclusion.

This problem is even worse under the “core operations” inference of scienter, and the “corporate scienter” doctrine.  Each of these theories allows a plaintiff to avoid pleading specific facts establishing the speaker’s scienter.  For example, the core operations inference posits that scienter can be inferred where it would be “absurd to suggest” that a senior executive doesn’t know facts about the company’s “core operations.”  Many motions to dismiss set up some formulation of this statement as a legal rule and make a simplistic syllogistic argument from it.  Such arguments devolve into “did not, did so” debates, and thus play into plaintiffs’ hands because they are detached from knowledge of falsity.

Instead, the right approach to the core operations inference is to understand that it requires a falsity so blatant that we can strongly infer that the executive had knowledge of the exact facts that made the statement false – not just the subject matter of the facts.  The most effective defense against the core operations inference thus focuses on falsity first, to show that even if a statement is false, it is at least a close call – making it hard for plaintiffs to contend that defendants must have known of this falsity.  This can’t be done effectively, of course, if the argument against falsity is categorical (i.e., embraces arguments such as “puffery,” rather than discussing the specific statements), or otherwise fails to address the falsity allegations in detail.  Of course, it is impossible to make this argument effectively if the scienter section precedes the falsity section of the brief.

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We plan to address in greater depth some of the technical Reform Act issues in later posts, in hopes that we can improve the craftsmanship of motions to dismiss.  These are important issues to discuss as a defense bar, because each motion to dismiss that fails to maximize the Reform Act’s protections runs the risk of weakening the law for the rest of us.