Tag Archives: securities

Future of Securities Class Actions

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 restatements.

Although 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. The Reform Act’s lead plaintiff process gives plaintiffs’ firms incentives 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 most 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 most 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 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 smaller firms have initiated an increasing number of cases. Like the China cases, these 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 that 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 it loses, to settle for more than $6 million just because it 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. Rein 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; 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. 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. Because 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 or an early settlement that doesn’t reflect the merits but that 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 the 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.

Because 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.

When Not to Use Regular Counsel

When selecting counsel to defend them against a securities class action, companies usually face the question of whether they want to hire attorneys from their regular outside corporate firm. Sometimes, companies will retain their regular outside firm as a matter of course, without even going through an audition process to interview other potential defense firms.

While such an arrangement is frequent, it can be inappropriate.  Ethical and practical conflicts lurk beneath the surface that can make it unwise for a company to hire its regular outside firm for securities class action defense — and these conflicts need to be examined more closely by companies, their insurance carriers and the counsel seeking to represent them.

It is a dilemma that all securities counsel faces at one time or another — when should they turn down representation of a firm client in a securities lawsuit? Over the years, I have struggled with that question, and my analysis has evolved and grown sharper.  The north star of the analysis is a basic principle: Attorneys should not represent a client when they have a conflict that could compromise the client’s defense.

In the context of securities litigation defense, a conflict can arise when it is in the client’s interest to rely on the defense firm’s corporate work as a defense against allegations of falsity or scienter (intent or knowledge of wrongdoing), or to establish a due-diligence defense. For the client, it is a question that boils down to whether the same firm that provided disclosure or stock-trading advice can make an objective decision about whether to disclose that advice to assert these defenses.

The company, not its lawyers, makes disclosures. But lawyers play a prominent role in many disclosures, by drafting or editing them, by giving advice to the company about their adequacy and by weighing in on decisions not to disclose certain information. This is more true of some disclosures than others — public offering materials, for example, are likely to be largely drafted by the attorneys, who will weigh in on every important disclosure decision. Lawyers also advise on matters that bear on scienter — primarily the presence or absence of material nonpublic information in connection with establishment of 10b5-1 plans and periodic stock sales, and on stock offerings. Even if lawyers have not technically provided legal advice or representation on these matters, directors and officers often rely on their regular counsel to object to potential misrepresentations or ill-advised stock sales about which they had notice.

I am not suggesting that it is never appropriate for a company to hire its regular outside firm to defend a securities class action — in some cases, the firm may not have had any involvement in the disclosures or decisions that are being challenged, or that are likely to be challenged as the case proceeds. For example, if the stock price drop that triggered the litigation was caused by a restatement, the litigation likely will not implicate the lawyers’ disclosure advice, because the case will be about the company’s financial statements, on which the lawyers didn’t work.The above considerations yield two guiding principles:

  • If the securities class action challenges a disclosure on which a firm has provided disclosure advice, as to what was disclosed or what was not disclosed, the firm generally should not defend the litigation.
  • If the securities class action relies on stock sales as evidence of scienter, a firm that advised on the stock sales – or 10b5-1 plans under which the stock sales were made – generally should not defend the litigation.

In addressing this issue, some law firms tend to emphasize only the lawyer-as-witness problem, which in many states can be avoided by having another firm examine the defense firm’s lawyers. But the problem can be more significant than this.

Let’s analyze the situation with a simple hypothetical. A securities class action against Acme Corporation challenges a statement in Acme’s 10-K. Acme’s regular outside corporate counsel provided advice to the company about the challenged disclosure, including advice that certain omitted information that allegedly made it misleading did not need to be disclosed. As evidence of scienter, the lawsuit cites Acme’s officers’ sales of company stock pursuant to 10b5-1 plans established during the alleged class period. Corporate counsel advised that the officers had no material nonpublic information when they established the plans.

Acme and the individual defendants will have an interest in defending themselves by asserting that they relied on the law firm’s advice, both as to the disclosure decision and the stock sales. At first blush, it may seem that the positions of Acme and its law firm are the same — both want to defend the correctness of the disclosures and stock-sale decisions. But their interests are not the same. Even if their lawyers’ advice was wrong, the defendants may be able to avoid liability, as long as their reliance upon it was reasonable and genuine.

On the other hand, Acme’s lawyers have an interest in preventing the disclosure of incorrect legal advice, which could not only prove embarrassing but also expose them to liability. And even if their advice was defensible, lawyers do not like to have their legal work, including their internal law firm communications, produced in discovery — and potentially dissected by competing firms. And, like everyone, lawyers have a natural aversion to testifying, or to making themselves the focus of litigation.

This all means that defense firms that also serve as corporate counsel have enormous incentives to avoid having their clients introduce evidence about their legal work, even if that evidence is plainly in the clients’ interest. These defense firms are motivated, consciously or not, to steer the clients away from a defense based on reliance on legal advice — something that may be easy to do without many questions being asked, because of the general bias against revealing privileged information. This may not result in substantial prejudice if there are good defenses otherwise, but no doubt there is prejudice in many cases, which is largely (if not entirely)  invisible to the client — through, for example, higher settlement amounts than would otherwise be necessary, or pressure to settle a case that might otherwise be a good trial candidate.

So why do companies hire their corporate counsel so often? I’d say there are three reasons.

First, it’s fair to say that outside counsel law firms don’t routinely go through this kind of analysis with their clients, before asking that they be hired to defend a securities class action. Few companies have been through securities class actions, so they need to be guided through this analysis in a candid fashion. At most, regular outside counsel discusses the lawyer-as-witness problem, and correctly notes that it’s common for regular outside counsel to defend securities claims.

Second, companies often regard securities class actions as frivolous and don’t take the counsel-selection process as seriously as they should. Most companies think their case will be dismissed, so there won’t ever be any conflict issues, and it is safe to just hand the lawsuit off to their regular firm.

Third, firms tell companies that if a case does not get dismissed, it will settle — so, again, conflict issues will never arise.

Because the conflicts that arise from these situations are largely invisible to the clients and the carriers, and any visible effects — such as potentially higher settlements — cannot be measured, there is no outcry against the practice. But the fact that the harm is difficult to detect or measure doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, or that it is not potentially significant in some cases.

All of the above problems are exacerbated when a company hires its regular outside firm without even interviewing other firms. In failing to interview other firms, companies fail to get an outside reality check regarding conflict issues, miss out on the free legal advice they will receive from the firms they interview and give up the leverage they have during the selection process to get economic concessions from the firm that they ultimately hire. In addition, without an audition process, companies have no way to compare the securities litigators from its regular outside firm with other securities litigators, and sometimes unknowingly engage less effective and efficient lawyers than they would if they simply took a half a day to interview a handful of firms.

There is a simple, common-sense remedy: The company should conduct an interview process during which it can ask other firms about the regular outside firm’s conflict (taking into account those firms’ interest in being hired) — a process that, as noted above, has advantages for the company anyway. Alternatively, the company can engage securities litigation defense counsel who isn’t under consideration for the defense role to advise on the issue. Under either procedure, the company should also seek advice from its insurers and broker, who have a unique and helpful perspective as “repeat players” in securities litigation, having typically been involved in a very large number of securities litigation matters.

Whoever does this analysis needs to think past the initial complaint to the claims that are likely to be asserted by the lead plaintiff in a consolidated complaint. For example, if a class-period 10-K contains disclosures that are causally related to the reason the stock dropped, the analysis should consider the 10-K even if it isn’t mentioned in the initial complaint, because the lead plaintiff is likely to challenge it. Or if there are class-period stock sales, the analysis should take them into account, even if the initial complaint doesn’t mention them.

If regular outside counsel were to advise their corporate clients to obtain counsel-selection advice through an audition process or an independent firm, as well as from their insurers and broker, they would do great service to their clients, in ensuring that the clients received the maximum amount of protection possible from their appropriate reliance on the advice of counsel to navigate the difficult waters of disclosures and stock sales. Significant potential harm, albeit largely invisible and unmeasurable, can be avoided by simply insisting upon an impartial counsel-selection process that allows the client to evaluate the full spectrum of potential conflicts.

Even if the company and its directors and officers end up selecting the company’s regular outside counsel, the benefits of the selection process will most certainly serve the company well throughout the litigation.