Monday, November 30, 2015
I never thought I would say this, but my favorite book this year is about punctuation. That’s right. Punctuation! The book is Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation, by David Crystal, and it's well worth reading.
It’s an enjoyable romp through the English language, with limited attention to writing in other languages as well. (I just placed something in a German English-language publication and discovered that Germans don’t know how to “correctly” use quotation marks.)
This isn’t a rule book; Crystal talks about current usage, including areas where the “experts” disagree. (Oxford comma, anyone?) But he also covers the history—how the use of punctuation has evolved over time. One of the book's recurring themes is how two functions of punctuation--clarifying the writer's meaning and providing cues to speakers--can sometimes be at odds.
The history is fascinating. I have to admit that, after reading this book and seeing what excellent writers have done in the past, it’s harder to argue for a prescriptive position. I don’t always agree with Crystal’s position on disputed issues, but his case is always cogent.
Crystal covers all the major punctuation marks: , , ;, :, . . . , ., and ( ). (Yes, I did write this sentence just to see what it would look like.) But he also covers other lesser-known punctuation marks that have fallen into disuse, as well as the use of capital letters and spacing. (I was surprised to learn that early Anglo-Saxon writing often didn’t have spacing between words.)
I’m a writing geek, so I love to read books like this. But this book isn’t just for people like me. Anyone who writes for a living or wants to write for a living—and that includes all lawyers and law students—should read this book. Making a Point is entertaining and informative, and the writing is clear. (I almost restrained the urge to write “crystal-clear.”) Check it out.
Thursday, November 26, 2015
It’s Thanksgiving, which means it’s time to do Christmas shopping. No, that’s not it. I’m sure Thanksgiving is supposed to be about more than that. Food? Football? No, there’s something else. It’s on the tip of my tongue; I just can’t quite remember. . . . . . . . .
Oh, yeah: being thankful.
I’m thankful for many things, but I want to use this column to thank some of the people who have touched my professional life.
First, thanks to my co-bloggers (in alphabetical order): Josh Fershee; Joan Heminway; Ann Lipton; Haskell Murray; Marcia Nanine; Stefan Padfield; and Anne Tucker. Their blog posts are always interesting and informative, and usually, I have to admit, better than anything I write. But, if you think their blog posts are good, you ought to see the incredible behind-the-scenes e-mail conversations we share. I have learned a lot from each of them. Believe it or not, I’ve only met two of them in person, but I’m happy to have all of them in my academic life.
Second, I’m thankful for my colleagues here at the University of Nebraska—well, most of them anyway. All of them are deserving of thanks—if for nothing else, just for putting up with me. But I want to pick out one of my colleagues for special mention. My long-time friend and colleague Bill Lyons is retiring at the end of this year (as a colleague; not as a friend, I hope), and I’m really going to miss him. (I never would have thought anyone would miss a tax lawyer, but apparently it's possible.) Bill and I have shared conversations about law school, teaching, children, Monty Python, Star Trek, Babylon 5, Douglas Adams, and a number of equally important matters. I will miss those conversations when Bill retires. Bill has helped keep me sane, or at least as close as I’ll ever get. Thanks, Bill.
I have already publicly thanked two other former colleagues who, sadly, are no longer with us: John Gradwohl and Alan Bromberg. But I can’t thank either of them enough, so I again want to express my thanks for what each of them did for me.
The final person I want to thank is my mother, Bettie Johnston. What's my mother doing on a list of people who touched me professionally? For one thing, I wouldn't be here today but for her. She helped me through the hard times; I don't think I would have survived without her. (And there was that womb thing, too.) But she also taught me to question, and sparked a lifetime love of learning. Our kitchen conversations when I was in junior high and high school started me on the path to be a law professor.
The list of people who deserve thanks could go on and on. My students, who have made teaching so fun—and challenging. The many good teachers I had, who molded me into what I am today. (Blame them.) The many people who have used, commented on, and responded to my scholarship. But if I tried to list everyone who positively affected me professionally, this post would go on forever. To all of you, wherever you are, thank you. I haven't forgotten you. (Well, some of your names, but that's an age thing.)
I’ll be back to business law next week. In the meantime, have a happy Thanksgiving. Eat a lot of turkey. Watch a lot of football. And, if you must, do some shopping. But, whatever else you do, don’t forget to thank all of the people who have touched your lives—professionally or otherwise.
Monday, November 23, 2015
Last week was the 30th anniversary of the Delaware Supreme Court’s decision in Moran v. Household International, Inc., 500 A.2d 1346 (Del. 1985). In Moran, decided on Nov. 19, 1985, the Delaware Supreme Court upheld what has become the leading hostile takeover defensive tactic, the poison pill.
Martin Lipton, the primary developer of the pill, even makes an appearance in the case—and obviously a carefully scripted one: “The minutes reflect that Mr. Lipton explained to the Board that his recommendation of the Plan was based on his understanding that the Board was concerned about the increasing frequency of ‘bust-up’ takeovers, the increasing takeover activity in the financial sector industry, . . . , and the possible adverse effect this type of activity could have on employees and others concerned with and vital to the continuing successful operation of Household even in the absence of any actual bust-up takeover attempt.”
I’m not sure the takeover world would be that different today if Moran had rejected poison pills. I’m reasonably confident the Delaware legislature would have amended the Delaware statute to overturn the ruling, as they effectively did with another ruling decided earlier that same year, Smith v. Van Gorkom, 488 A.2d 858 (Del. 1985). Shortly after Van Gorkom made it clear that directors might actually be liable for violating the duty of care, the legislature added section 102(b)(7) to the Delaware law, allowing corporations to eliminate any possibility of damages for duty-of-care violations.
As my colleague Joan Heminway has pointed out, 1985 was an incredibly important year for M & A practitioners. In addition to Moran and Van Gorkom, a third major case was also decided that year: Unocal Corp. v. Mesa Petroleum Co., 493 A.2d 946 (Del. 1985).
Van Gorkom was decided in late January of 1985, Unocal in June, and Moran in November. Corporations casebooks and treatises are filled with Delaware Supreme Court decisions, but that has to be one of the most important ten-month periods in Delaware corporate law jurisprudence—especially in the mergers and acquisitions area.
Monday, November 16, 2015
One final post on the SEC’s proposed changes to Rule 147 and I promise I’m finished—for now. Today’s topic is the effect the proposed changes will have on state crowdfunding exemptions. If the SEC adopts the proposed changes to Rule 147, many state legislatures will have to (or at least want to) amend their state crowdfunding legislation.
As I explained in my earlier posts here and here, the SEC has proposed amendments to Rule 147, currently a safe harbor for the intrastate offering exemption in section 3(a)(11) of the Securities Act. If the proposed amendments are adopted, Rule 147 would become a stand-alone exemption rather than a safe harbor for section 3(a)(11). There would no longer be a safe harbor for intrastate offerings.
That creates some issues for the states. Many states have adopted state registration exemptions for crowdfunded securities offerings that piggyback on the federal intrastate offering exemption. That makes sense, because, if the offering isn’t also exempted at the federal level, the state crowdfunding exemption is practically worthless. (An offering pursuant to the federal crowdfunding exemption is automatically exempted from state registration requirements, but these state crowdfunding exemptions provide an alternative way to sell securities through crowdfunding.)
The SEC’s proposed amendments would actually make it easier for a crowdfunded offering to fit within Rule 147. (In fact, the SEC release says that’s one of the purposes of the amendments.) Most importantly, the SEC proposes to eliminate the requirement that all offerees be residents of the state. That change would facilitate publicly accessible crowdfunding sites which, almost by definition, are making offers to everyone everywhere. The securities would still have to be sold only to state residents, but it’s much easier to screen purchasers than to limit offerees.
Problem No. 1: Dual Compliance Requirements
Unfortunately, many state crowdfunding exemptions require that the crowdfunded offering comply with both section 3(a)(11) and Rule 147 in order to be eligible for the state exemption. Here, for example, is the relevant language in the Nebraska state crowdfunding exemption: “The transaction . . . [must meet] . . . the requirements of the federal exemption for intrastate offerings in section 3(a)(11) of the Securities Act of 1933 . . . and Rule 147 under the Securities Act of 1933.” (emphasis added).
Currently, that double requirement doesn’t matter. An offering that complies with the Rule 147 safe harbor by definition complies with section 3(a)(11). That would no longer true if the SEC adopts the proposed changes. Since Rule 147 would no longer be a safe harbor, an issuer that complied with Rule 147 would still have to independently determine if its offering complied with section 3(a)(11). Because of the uncertainty in the case law under 3(a)(11), that determination would be risky. (But see my argument here.) The leniency the SEC proposes to grant in the amendments to Rule 147 would not be helpful unless state legislators amended their crowdfunding exemptions to eliminate the requirement that offerings also comply with section 3(a)(11).
Problem No. 2: State-of-Incorporation/Organization Requirements
There’s another potential issue. Many state crowdfunding exemptions include an independent requirement that the issuer be incorporated or organized in that particular state. That’s inconvenient, and reduces the value of the state crowdfunding exemption, because corporations and LLCs are often incorporated or organized outside their home states. But, until now, that state requirement hasn’t mattered because both section 3(a)(11) and Rule 147 also impose such a requirement.
The SEC proposes to eliminate that requirement from Rule 147, so it now matters whether the state crowdfunding exemption independently imposes such a requirement. Issuers won’t be able to take full advantage of the proposed changes to Rule 147 unless states eliminate the state-of-incorporation/organization requirements from their state crowdfunding exemptions as well.
On to More Important Things
That’s the end of my Rule 147 discussion for now. I promise! Now, we can turn to more important questions, such as why your favorite team belongs in the college football playoff. (I know for sure that my college football team won't be there. I would be happy just to have my college football team in a bowl game.)
Monday, November 9, 2015
Once the SEC has created a safe harbor for a statutory exemption, can it ever really get rid of it? That’s one of the issues raised by the SEC’s proposed changes to Rule 147, which I considered in detail last week.
Rule 147 is currently a safe harbor for the intrastate offering exemption in section 3(a)(11) of the Securities Act. Section 3(a)(11) exempts from the Securities Act registration requirement
“Any security which is a part of an issue offered and sold only to persons resident within a single State or Territory, where the issuer of such security is a person resident and doing business within or, if a corporation, incorporated by and doing business within, such State or Territory.”
Rule 147 currently provides that an offering
“made in accordance with all of the terms and conditions of this rule shall be deemed to be part of an issue offered and sold only to persons resident within a single state or territory where the issuer is a person resident and doing business within such state or territory, within the meaning of section 3(a)(11) of the Act.”
In other words, if you meet the requirements of Rule 147, you are within the section 3(a)(11) exemption.
However, as I wrote in my post last week, the SEC is proposing to decouple Rule 147 from section 3(a)(11) and make Rule 147 an independent exemption. As a result, section 3(a)(11) would no longer have a safe harbor. Issuers could still use the section 3(a)(11) exemption, but they would be relegated to the uncertain case law that prevailed under section 3(a)(11) before Rule 147 was adopted.
Or would they?
Consider the nature of a safe harbor. The SEC is saying that, if you comply with the current requirements of Rule 147, you have met the requirements of section 3(a)(11). The SEC is not creating a new exemption or redefining the requirements of section 3(a)(11), merely saying that a particular class of offerings (those that meet all of Rule 147’s requirements) falls within the exemption defined by Congress in section 3(a)(11).
But, if that’s the case, the elimination of the safe harbor should have no effect on offerings that meet the old requirements. If those offerings fell within the exemption created by Congress the day before the safe harbor was eliminated, they should still fall within the congressional requirements the day after the safe harbor is eliminated.
After Rule 147’s amendment, an issuer who meets the old requirements should still fall within the section 3(a)(11) exemption. Why? Because the SEC said an offering like that falls within section 3(a)(11) and, unless the Commission was wrong in the first place, that conclusion should still hold even after the formal rule is eliminated.
Thursday, November 5, 2015
With the recent release of bar results in many states, I have been obsessed of late about the sorry state of bar passage across the country--as well as specific bar passage issues relating to our graduates. So, rather than (as I should and will do soon) responding to Steve Bradford's prompting post on the final JOBS Act Title III crowdfunding rules and the related proposals regarding Rules 147 and 504 under the Securities Act of 1933, as amended (as well as his follow-up post on the Rule 147 proposal), I have decided to focus on bar passage for my few minutes of air time this week. Specifically, I want to begin to explore the question of what we can do, if anything, as business law professors to help more of our students succeed in passing the bar on the first attempt.
At a base level, this means we should endeavor to understand something about the reasons why our individual students fail the bar the first time around. A lot has been written about the national trends (inconclusively, as a general rule). And I am sure every law school is now analyzing the data on its own bar passage shortcomings. But my experience teaching Barbri and my conversations with former students who have not passed the bar indicate a number of possible causes. They include (and these are my descriptions based on that experience and those conversations, in no particular order):
- Failing to state the applicable legal rule(s) and apply them to the facts;
- Difficulty in processing legal reasoning in the time allotted;
- Nerves, sleep deprivation, illness and the like; and
- Engaging insufficiently with study materials and practice examinations.
Assuming that these anecdotal observations are, in fact, causes contributing to bar exam failures for at least some students, how might we be able to help?
Monday, November 2, 2015
Here’s something everyone who has ever taken Securities Regulation should know: Section 3(a)(11) of the Securities Act, the intrastate offering exemption, has a safe harbor, Securities Act Rule 147.
As Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast, my friend.” The SEC is proposing to overturn that longstanding wisdom. If the SEC’s proposed changes to Rule 147 are adopted,Rule 147 would no longer be tied to section 3(a)(11) and section 3(a)(11) would no longer have a safe harbor. The intrastate nature of Rule 147 would be preserved, but the proposed changes would be adopted under the SEC’s general exemptive authority in section 28 of the Securities Act.
Here are the most significant changes that the SEC has proposed:
Tied to State Regulation
The premise of section 3(a)(11) and its Rule 147 safe harbor is to relegate purely intrastate offerings to state regulation. But there’s currently nothing in Rule 147 to enforce that premise; federal exemption does not depend on state regulation of the offering.
The SEC proposal would expressly tie the federal Rule 147 exemption to state regulation. An offering would qualify for the federal exemption only if it was (1) registered at the state level or (2) sold pursuant to a state exemption that imposes investment limits on purchasers and limits the amount of the offering to $5 million in any 12-month period. (This second possibility is clearly aimed at the crowdfunding exemptions that many states have recently enacted.)
Rule 147 does not currently limit the amount of the offering. The SEC proposal would limit the offering amount to $5 million in any 12-month period, unless the offering is registered at the state level.
State of Incorporation
Rule 147 currently requires that the issuer be incorporated or organized in the state in which the securities are sold. Because of that, even a corporation or LLC with all of its business in a single state cannot use Rule 147 if it happens to be incorporated or organized in another state, such as Delaware.
The SEC proposes to eliminate the focus on state of incorporation or organization, and require instead that the issuer’s “principal place of business” be within the state in which the offering is made. This would be defined as the state where “the officers, partners or managers . . . primarily direct, control and coordinate” the issuer’s activities.
Doing Business in the State
Under the current rule, the issuer must meet four requirements to establish that it is doing business in the state:
- It must derive at least 80% of its gross revenues from operations within the state;
- At least 80% of its assets must be located within the state;
- It must intend to use and actually use at least 80% of the offering proceeds in connection with operations in the state; and
- Its principal office must be located in the state.
All four of those requirements must be met.
The proposed rule is much less restrictive. An issuer only has to meet any one of the following requirements:
- It derives at least 80% of its gross revenues from operations in the state;
- At least 80% of its assets are located in the state;
- It intends to use and uses at least 80% of the offering proceeds in connection with operations in the state; or
- A majority of its employees are based in the state.
(Notice the addition of the new fourth test.) It will obviously be easier to satisfy a single one of the new requirements that it is to satisfy all four of the requirements under the current rule.
Intrastate Offers and Sales
Rule 147 currently provides that the securities must be offered and sold only to state residents. In other words, it’s not enough to screen out non-residents before sale. You can’t even solicit non-residents.
The SEC proposes to eliminate the restriction on offerees. An issuer could make a general public solicitation to the world, as long as it only sells the securities to state residents. This obviously makes it much easier to make Rule 147 offerings on the Internet.
Reasonable Belief Standard
The current rule requires that all of the purchasers (and offerees) be residents of the state. If one of them is a non-resident, the exemption is lost, even if the issuer thought the person was a resident.
The proposed rule adds a reasonable belief standard. The exemption is protected as long as the issuer had a reasonable belief that the non-resident purchaser was a resident.
Resales and the Issuer’s Exemption
Both the current rule and the SEC’s proposal limit resales to non-residents. However, there’s a crucial difference between the two.
The current rule makes the exemption dependent on meeting all of the terms and conditions of the rule, including the resale limit. Thus, if a purchaser immediately resold to a non-resident, the issuer could lose the exemption.
The proposed rule, like the current rule, requires the issuer to take certain precautions to prevent resales to non-residents, but the prohibition on resales is no longer a condition of the issuer’s exemption. Thus, if the issuer took the required precautions and a purchaser resold to a non-resident anyway, the issuer would not lose the exemption.
Protection from Integration
Rule 147 currently has a provision that protects the Rule 147 offering from integration with sales pursuant to certain other exemptions six months prior to or six months after the Rule 147 offering.
The SEC proposal offers a much broader anti-integration safe harbor, similar to the integration safe harbor included in Regulation A. Offers or sales under the amended Rule 147 exemption would not be integrated with any prior offers or sales. And Rule 147 offerings would not be integrated with subsequent offers or sales that are (1) federally registered; (2) pursuant to Regulation A; (3) pursuant to Rule 701; (4) pursuant to an employee benefit plan; (5) pursuant to Regulation S; (6) pursuant to the crowdfunding exemption in section 4(a)(6); or (7) more than six months after completion of the Rule 147 offering.
There is also some protection against integration when an issuer begins an offering under Rule 147 and decides to register the offering instead.
Section 3(a)(11) Remains Available
As I mentioned earlier, the amended Rule 147 would no longer be a safe harbor for section 3(a)(11) of the Securities Act. But Section 3(a)(11) would remain available. It just wouldn’t have a safe harbor.
An issuer would be free to use the section 3(a)(11) statutory exemption, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless everything is unquestionably intrastate. It was the uncertain interpretations of section 3(a)(11) that led to Rule 147 in the first place.
A Move in the Right Direction
I think the proposed exemption is a move in the right direction. Rule 147, one of the SEC’s earliest surviving safe harbors, was a little long in the tooth. The proposed changes will make it a little more viable.
Pat Haden is the athletic director at the University of Southern California. Until Friday, he was also a member of the College Football Playoff selection committee. And, according to this story in the L.A. Times, he is also a director of at least nine non-profits or foundations and three businesses.
According to the Times, Haden spends an average of 70 hours a week on his U.S.C. job. As a playoff selection committee member, he was expected to spend countless hours watching football games and evaluating teams.
So where does he find the time to serve as a board member? Not a problem, according to Haden. He has “never been to one meeting” of some of the nonprofits he serves. And he spends “very little” time on his board positions.
Haden’s attitude is representative of an earlier era when outside directors merely showed up at meetings and nodded their head to whatever the chairman said. Those days are long gone. Today, board members are expected to spend much more time on their board duties, at the risk of liability if they don't.
Mr. Haden, a former Rhodes Scholar, is a very bright guy, but even bright guys can say stupid things. I just hope he’s never sued. (At least one of the businesses he serves as a director is a public corporation.) A plaintiff’s lawyer could use quotes like this to mince him.
In the meantime, I suggest he read something on modern corporate governance. He has a law degree, so he shouldn’t have any trouble understanding it.
Thursday, October 29, 2015
. . . are you sure I qualify?
From a spam email I recently received:
On behalf of The International Women’s Leadership Association, it is my distinct pleasure to notify you that, in consideration of your contribution to family career, and community, you have been selected as a woman of outstanding leadership.
Monday, October 26, 2015
The Second Circuit decision in the Newman case has provoked much discussion of the Supreme Court’s opinion in Dirks and how to interpret the requirements it lays out for tippee liability. But it’s important to remember that Dirks was not writing on a clean slate. This year is the 35th anniversary of the case that preceded Dirks and laid the foundation for the Supreme Court’s insider-trading jurisprudence, Chiarella v. United States.
I realize that this was not the Supreme Court’s first look at insider trading. That honor, arguably, goes to Strong v. Repide, 213 U.S. 419 (1909). But Chiarella was the court’s first discussion of insider trading under Rule 10b-5.
The facts of the Chiarella case are relatively simple. Vincent Chiarella, the defendant in the case, was an employee of Pandick Press, a financial printer. His company was hired to print announcements of takeover bids. Although the identities of the target corporations were concealed in the announcements, Chiarella was able to figure out who they were. He bought stock in the target companies and made a profit of roughly $30,000. He was convicted of a criminal violation of Rule 10b-5, but the Supreme Court overturned his conviction.
It’s important to remember the basic problem Chiarella had to deal with (or perhaps it’s fairer to say the problem as the Chiarella majority constructed it). Rule 10b-5 prohibits securities fraud. People engaged in insider trading don’t usually make false statements and, under the common law, mere silence is not usually fraud. Because of that, the majority in Chiarella rejected the notion that a mere failure to disclose nonpublic information prior to trading violates Rule 10b-5. There’s no fraud.
However, the majority pointed out that a failure to disclose can be fraudulent when the non-disclosing party has a duty to disclose to the other person “because of a fiduciary or other similar relation of trust and confidence between them.” That fiduciary duty, the majority indicated in dictum, does exist in the case of corporate insiders. But Vincent Chiarella was not an insider of the corporations whose stock he traded. Since the government had not otherwise shown that Chiarella violated a fiduciary duty by not disclosing to anyone, he was not liable under Rule 10b-5.
That’s the essence of Chiarella: nondisclosure violates Rule 10b-5 only if there’s a fiduciary duty to disclose. No fiduciary duty, no liability.
Everything that followed—Dirks; O’Hagan; the Second Circuit’s decision in Newman; even the SEC’s Rule 10b5-2—depends on Chiarella. How different things would have been if Justice Blackmun’s dissent had carried a majority. His view was that “persons having access to confidential material information that is not legally available to others” could not trade without liability under Rule 10b-5.
The ultimate irony of Chiarella is that, if the case were tried today, Vincent Chiarella would without a doubt be liable under Rule 10b-5. The Supreme Court’s subsequent decision in United States v. O’Hagan, 521 U.S. 642 (1997) makes it crystal clear that one can be liable for trading on the basis of nonpublic information obtained from one’s employer or client. But the majority in Chiarella refused, on procedural grounds, to reach that question.
Wednesday, October 21, 2015
As Steve Bradford mentioned in his post on Monday (sharing his cool idea about mining crowdfunded offerings to find good firms in which to invest), our co-blogger Haskell Murray published a nice post last week on venture capital as a follow-on to capital raises done through crowdfunding. He makes some super points there, and (although I was raised by an insurance brokerage executive, not a venture capitalist), my sense is that he's totally right that the type of crowdfunding matters for those firms seeking to follow crowdfunding with venture capital financing. I also think that, of the types of crowdfunding he mentions, his assessment of venture capital market reactions makes a lot of sense. Certainly, as securities crowdfunding emerges in the United States on a broader scale (which is anticipated by some to happen with the upcoming release of the final SEC rules under Title III of the JOBS Act), it makes sense to think more about what securities crowdfunding might look like and how it will fit into the cycle of small business finance.
Along those lines, what about debt crowdfunding as a precursor to venture capital funding? Andrew Schwartz has written a bit about that. Others also may have taken on this topic. Professor Schwartz may be right that issuers will prefer to issue debt than equity--in part because it may prove to be less of an impediment to later equity financings. But I don't necessarily have a warm feeling about that . . . .
And what about the crowdfunding of investment contracts (e.g., what I have previously called "unequity" in this article (and elsewhere, including in this further article) and perhaps even the newly popular SAFEs)? There is no equity overhang with unequity and some other types of investment contract, but crowdfunded SAFEs, which are convertible paper, may be viewed negatively in later financing rounds--especially if the conversion rights are held by a wide group of investors. While part of me is surprised that people are not taking the investment contract part of the potential securities crowdfunding market seriously (since folks were crowdfunding investment contracts before the JOBS Act came along--not knowing it was unlawful), the other part of me says that crowdfunded investment contracts would have a niche market at best.
So, thanks, Haskell, for the food for thought. No doubt, more will be written about this issue as and if the market for crowdfunded securities develops. Coming soon, says the SEC . . . .
Monday, October 19, 2015
My co-blogger Haskell Murray had an interesting post on Friday about the use of crowdfunding as a strategy to attract venture capital. He points out that many companies that had successful crowdfunding campaigns on Kickstarter or Indiegogo subsequently raised venture capital. He argues that a successful crowdfunding campaign might be a signal to venture capitalists.
If you haven’t read Haskell’s post yet, it’s well worth reading. I want to take the discussion in a slightly different direction.
I don’t think venture capitalists should be waiting to see if a company has a successful crowdfunding campaign. I think they should use crowdfunding listings as leads and try to preemptively capture those companies before they complete their crowdfunding campaigns—convince the good companies to forego crowdfunding and go the venture capital route instead.
If I were a wealthy venture capitalist, I would have someone skimming through all of the crowdfunding sites, including the equity crowdfunding sites, looking for potential investments. The venture capital business is extremely competitive. Getting to the good companies before they have a successful raise is one way to one-up the competition. Once a company has shown crowdfunding success, others will want a piece.
Many of the companies doing crowdfunding will not interest venture capitalists. But it only takes a few hidden gems to make the weeding process worthwhile. And most of the weeding out could be done quite easily by inexpensive, low-level staff. Even I could spot most of the obvious losers.
I have suggested this strategy at a couple of conferences where venture capitalists were present. It will be interesting to see if any of them try it. (For some reason, professional venture capitalists don't seem all that interested in my investment advice.)
As for me, I’ll file this in my “What I would do if I had a ton of money” folder. (It’s a very full folder.)
Monday, October 12, 2015
Last week, I asked whether casebooks should include statutes. That post provoked a healthy debate in the comments and elsewhere. Today, I want to address another content question, this one dealing not with the content of casebooks but with the content of the Business Associations course itself. What securities law topics should be included in the basic business associations course?
The answer to that question obviously depends on whether the course is for three or four credit hours. I don’t think a comprehensive business associations course should ever be limited to three credit hours. But, if I had to teach a three-hour course, I would not cover any securities law. Agency, partnership, corporations, and LLCs are already too much to cram into a three-hour course. Adding securities topics on top of all that would, in my opinion, make the course too superficial.
Luckily, I have the hard-fought right to teach B.A. as a four-hour course. In a four-hour course, I think it’s essential to cover proxy regulation. Federal law or not, it’s mainstream corporate governance, at least for public companies, and many, perhaps most, securities regulation courses don’t cover it.
Beyond that, I’m not sure any securities coverage is absolutely essential. I spend a few minutes on the registration of securities offerings and a few minutes on Rule 10b-5 and securities fraud. I cover both topics in my Securities Regulation course, so I don’t want to cover either topic in any detail, but it’s so easy to stumble into these areas without even realizing it that every future lawyer should be warned. My main message: if you’re not a regular practitioner of securities law, call a securities lawyer. It’s too complicated to pick up on your own.
When I say I cover those topics in a few minutes, I mean no cases and, except for the text of 10b-5, no regulations. Just a brief summary by me of the potential pitfalls.
I do cover insider trading in depth. It could be relegated to the basic securities course; I cover the rest of Rule 10b-5 in Securities Regulation. But it just seems to work better in Business Associations, perhaps because of its focus on fiduciary duties. And covering it in B.A. keeps me from having to cram even more into my three-hour Securities Regulation course.
I would be interested in hearing what others think about this. Which securities law topics should be covered in the basic B.A. course and which should be relegated to Securities Regulation?
Friday, October 9, 2015
Christine Hurt has written an interesting article on limited liability partnerships in bankruptcy. It's available here.
Here's the abstract:
Brobeck. Dewey. Howrey. Heller. Thelen. Coudert Brothers. These brand-name law firms had many things in common at one time, but today have one: bankruptcy. Individually, these firms expanded through hiring and mergers, took on expensive lease commitments, borrowed large sums of money, and then could not meet financial obligations once markets took a downturn and practice groups scattered to other firms. The firms also had an organizational structure in common: the limited liability partnership.
In business organizations classes, professors teach that if an LLP becomes insolvent, and has no assets to pay its obligations, the creditors of the LLP will not be able to enforce those obligations against the individual partners. In other words, partners in LLPs will not have to write a check from personal funds to make up a shortfall. Creditors doing business with an LLP, just as with a corporation, take this risk and have no expectation of satisfaction of claims by individual partners, absent an express guaranty. In bankruptcy terms, creditors look solely to the capital of the entity to satisfy claims. While bankruptcy proceedings involving general partnerships may have been uncommon, at least in theory, bankruptcy proceedings involving limited liability partnerships have recently become front-page news.
The disintegration of large, complex LLPs, such as law firms, does not fit within the Restatement examples of small general partnerships that dissolve fairly swiftly and easily for at least two reasons. First, firm creditors, who have no recourse to individual partners’ wealth, wish to be satisfied in a bankruptcy proceeding. In this circumstance, federal bankruptcy law, not partnership law, will determine whether LLP partners will have to write a check from personal funds to satisfy obligations. Second, these mega-partnerships have numerous clients who require ongoing representation that can only be competently handled by the full attention of a solvent law firm. In these cases, the dissolved law firm has neither the staff nor the financial resources to handle sophisticated, long-term client needs such as complex litigation, acquisitions, or financings. These prolonged, and lucrative, client matters cannot be simply “wound up” in the time frame that partnership law anticipates. The ongoing client relationship begins to look less like an obligation to be fulfilled and more like a valuable asset of the firm.
Partnership law would scrutinize the taking of firm business by former partners under duty of loyalty doctrines against usurping business opportunities and competing with one’s own partnership, both duties that terminate upon the dissolution of the general partnership or the dissociation of the partner. However, bankruptcy law is not as forgiving as the LLP statutes, and bankruptcy trustees view the situation very differently under the “unfinished business” doctrine. The bankruptcy trustee, representing the assets of the entity and attempting to salvage value for creditors, instead seeks to make sure that assets, including current client matters, remain in partnership solution unless exchanged for adequate consideration, even if the partners agree to let client matters stay with the exiting partners.
This Article argues that the high-profile bankruptcies of Heller Ehrman LLP, Howrey LLP, Dewey & LeBeouf, LLP, and others show in stark relief the conflict between general partnership law and bankruptcy law. The emergence of the hybrid LLP creates an entity with general partnership characteristics, such as the right to co-manage and the imposition of fiduciary duties, but with limited liability for owner-partners. These characteristics co-exist peacefully until they do not, which seems to be at the point of dissolution. Then, the availability of limited liability changes partners’ incentives upon dissolution. Though bankruptcy law attempts to resolve this, it conflicts with partnership law to create more uncertainty.
Monday, September 28, 2015
I detest bad legal writing. (I detest bad writing of all kinds, but this is a law blog, so I’ll limit my rant to legal writing.) I don’t like to read it and I hate it when I (sometimes?) write it. I’m not a great writer, but I appreciate lawyers and legal scholars who can write clear, concise prose. Unfortunately, although writing is an essential element of legal practice, many lawyers do not write well.
If you care about legal writing, and you should, the Scribes Journal of Legal Writing recently published a short piece you might want to read: Legal-Writing Myths, by Judge Gerald Lebovits.
I knew after reading the first paragraph that I was going to like Judge Lebovits’s article. His first sentence rejects the prohibition on beginning a sentence with a conjunction. His second sentence rejects the prohibition on ending a sentence with a preposition. And [remember his first sentence?] his third sentence rejects the prohibition on splitting infinitives.
I was not disappointed as I read the rest of the article. In just a few pages, Judge Lebovits artfully rebuts ten myths of legal writing.
My favorite myths:
- “Writing a lengthy brief is harder and takes more time than writing a short one.”
- “Good legal writers rarely need time to edit between drafts.”
Check it out. It’s definitely worth reading. Judge Lebovits has written a number of other interesting articles on legal writing. You can find many of them here.
Friday, September 25, 2015
Regular readers of this blog know that I have chastised the SEC on several occasions for its lengthy delay in adopting rules to implement the exemption for crowdfunded securities offerings. (It has now been 1,268 days since the President signed the bill, 998 days past the statutory rulemaking deadline, and 702 days since the SEC proposed the rules.)
The long wait may soon be over. According to BNA, SEC Chair Mary Jo White said yesterday that the SEC will finish adopt its crowdfunding rules in the "very near term."
I don't know exactly what "very near term" means to a government official. Given my luck, it probably means immediately prior to the two crowdfunding presentations I'm scheduled to give in October. Nothing like a little last-minute juggling to keep me on my toes.
Monday, September 21, 2015
Haskell Murray had an interesting post on Friday about businesses buying fake reviews, followers, or friends online. That post led me to think about another issue—if a company did that, could it be liable under Rule 10b-5 for securities fraud?
Consider this scenario: An investor is thinking about investing in a company called Ebusiness, Inc. She carefully reviews the company’s online presence and sees that Ebusiness has more followers and friends than anyone else in the industry. The reviews of its products are overwhelmingly positive. She concludes that Ebusiness is destined for greatness and buys its stock.
Later, the press discloses that most of Ebusiness’s followers and friends, and most of its online product reviews, are fake. Ebusiness paid someone else to produce them. The price of Ebusiness’s stock drops precipitously. Would Ebusiness be liable under Rule 10b-5?
Rule 10b-5 makes it unlawful "to make any untrue statement of a material fact . . . in connecton with the purchase or sale of any security. There’s no question that Ebusiness, through its paid agent, made fraudulent statements. There’s also no question that the investor relied on those fraudulent statements and suffered a loss when the truth became known. The real issue is whether those fraudulent statements were “in connection with the purchase or sale of any security,” as required by Rule 10b-5.
The courts have read the “in connection with” requirement broadly, but its meaning is still far from clear. The Second Circuit has indicated that the false statement must be disseminated “in a manner reasonably calculated to influence the investing public.” SEC v. Texas Gulf Sulphur Co. 401 F.2d 833, 862 (2d Cir. 1968). The false statements do not have to be directed specifically at investors, as long as the statement is of a sort that reasonable investors would rely on. In Re Carter-Wallace, Inc. Securities Litigation, 150 F.3d 153, 156 (2d Cir. 1998). The Carter-Wallace case held that product advertisements in medical journals could be covered by Rule 10b-5, although the primary goal of advertising is to influence consumers, not investors.
The same can be said of false "likes" and product reviews. Their primary goal is to influence consumers, not to convince investors to buy the company's stock. A reasonable investor certainly would not rely on a single "like" or product review. But, given the importance of a company's Internet presence, a reasonable investor might rely on the overall weight of likes and product reviews. Such use by an investor is certainly reasonable foreseeable.
Given the uncertainty of the case law, a definite conclusion is impossible. But it is at least possible that fraudulent product reviews or Facebook “likes” could trigger liability under Rule 10b-5. It’s probably just a matter of time before an ambitious plaintiff’s lawyer tries.
Monday, September 14, 2015
A student of mine studying peer-to-peer lending ran across an interesting provision in the securities filings of Prosper Marketplace, one of the two main peer-to-peer lending sites. (The other is Lending Club.)
Here is one of the risk factors in Prosper’s filings:
In the unlikely event that PFL receives payments on the Borrower Loan corresponding to an investor’s Note after the final maturity date, such investor will not receive payments on that Note after maturity.
Each Note will mature on the initial maturity date, unless any principal or interest payments in respect of the corresponding Borrower Loan remain due and payable to PFL upon the initial maturity date, in which case the maturity of the Note will be automatically extended to the final maturity date. If there are any amounts under the corresponding Borrower Loan still due and owing to PFL on the final maturity date, PFL will have no further obligation to make payments on the related Notes, even if it receives payments on the corresponding Borrower Loan after such date.
To understand how this works, you need to understand a little about how the Prosper site works. When a loan is funded by the peer-to-peer lenders on Prosper's site, the borrower signs a note payable to Prosper. Prosper, in turn, issues notes to the peer-to-peer lenders, but Prosper promises to make payments only to the extent that the underlying borrowers pay their notes to Prosper. In other words, Prosper is essentially just passing through any payments made by the peer-to-peer borrowers, with no additional recourse against Prosper. But, because of the limitation quoted above, Prosper won’t even pass through all loan payments. It’s free to keep any payments made after the final maturity date.
Prosper is, of course, free to structure its contracts in any way it wants, and I can understand why a provision like this would be useful. Prosper does not want to maintain records on these loans and lenders in perpetuity, and the final maturity date is a convenient cut-off point.
However, this limitation produces a potential windfall to Prosper. Payment after the final maturity date may be unlikely, but surely some borrowers will make payments after that point. If a conscientious borrower decides to pay later, Prosper pockets all of the money.
I would think the peer-to-peer lending sites, eager to attract the “crowd” to their sites, would bend over backwards to demonstrate their fairness to potential lenders, even if it does increase their administrative costs. Apparently not.
Monday, August 31, 2015
Andrew Vollmer, a law professor at the University of Virginia and a former SEC deputy general counsel, has written two excellent papers on SEC enforcement.
The first, SEC Revanchism and the Expansion of Primary Liability under Section 17(a) and Rule 10b-5, is a critical look at the SEC’s decision in the Flannery administrative proceeding. If you’re a securities lawyer and you’re not familiar with Flannery, you should be. It stakes out a number of broad interpretations of liability under Rule 10b-5 and section 17(a) of the Securities Act. I (and Professor Vollmer) believe some of those positions are inconsistent with Supreme Court precedent, but the SEC’s is clearly trying to set up an argument for judicial deference under Chevron.
Professor Vollmer’s second article is Four Ways to Improve SEC Enforcement. He discusses the problems with SEC administrative proceedings and how to fix them.
Both articles are definitely worth reading.
Friday, August 28, 2015
I don't agree with SEC Commissioner Luis Aguilar on many issues. But I agree with his recent call for transparency in the disqualification waiver process.
A number of SEC rules, such as some of the offering registration exemptions, are not available to companies that have engaged in certain misbehavior in the past. But the SEC has the authority to waive those disqualifications, and it often does. Or, I should say, the SEC staff often does. As Commissioner Aguilar points out, the commissioners are often unaware that a waiver has been requested. And, as with staff no-action letters, it's often unclear why some waivers are granted and others are not.
I'm not a fan of the whole idea of discretionary waivers. Allowing government employees to waive the law on a case-by-case basis with little explanation strikes me as inconsistent with the rule of law. But, if we're going to have them, the process should be as transparent as possible.