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May 25, 2016

Fixing the Economics of Securities Defense

Summary:

The economic structures of typical securities defense firms result in costs that significantly exceed what is rational to spend in a usual class action.

Photo Courtesy of Buffy May

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 from experienced securities litigators from regional firms with economic structures that are naturally more rational.

See Also: Future of Securities Class Actions

But litigation venues are regional. We have state and federal courts organized by states and areas within states. Because 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 belief 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). These days, in most cases, there are just a handful of in-person court hearings. And the reality is that most clients don’t want their lawyers hanging around in-person at their offices because 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 the 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, the case activities in the forum city (in a typical case) amount only to (1) a short visit to the client’s 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 a typical securities case requires 1,000 hours of lawyer time through an initial motion to dismiss, fewer than 50 of those hours — one-half of 1% — need to be spent in the forum city.  The other 99.5% can be spent anywhere.

Discovery doesn’t change these percentages much.  Assume it takes another 10,000 hours of attorney time to litigate a case through a summary judgment motion (so 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.

And the cost of travel does not 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 minuscule in relationship to total defense costs. For example, my total travel costs (airfare and lodging) for a five-night trip to New York City 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 use 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 where the local firm was a boutique and a case where 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 securities litigation defense can and should be a nationwide practice. It is no longer local. We need to look no further 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 where their firms have lawyers.

This all seems relatively simple, but it requires us all to abandon old assumptions about law practices 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 better-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 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.

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About the Author

Douglas Greene is chair of the Securities Litigation Group at Lane Powell. He has focused his practice exclusively on the defense of securities class actions, corporate governance litigation, and SEC investigations and enforcement actions since 1997. From his home base in Seattle, he defends public companies and individual directors and officers in such matters around the United States.

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