Friday, May 22, 2015
I haven’t met Hollywood producer Edward Zwick, who brought the movie and the concept of Blood Diamonds to the world’s attention, but I have had the honor of meeting with medical rock star, and Nobel Prize nominee Dr. Denis Mukwege. Both Zwick and Mukwege had joined numerous NGOs in advocating for a mandatory conflict minerals law in the EU. I met the doctor when I visited Democratic Republic of Congo in 2011 on a fact finding trip for a nonprofit that focuses on maternal and infant health and mortality. Since Mukwege works with mass rape victims, my colleague and I were delighted to have dinner with him to discuss the nonprofit. I also wanted to get his reaction to the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals regulation, which was not yet in effect. I don’t remember him having as strong an opinion on the law as he does now, but I do remember that he adamantly wanted the US to do something to stop the bloodshed that he saw first hand every day.
The success of the Dodd-Frank law is debatable in terms of stemming the mass rape, use of child slaves, and violence against innocent civilians. Indeed, earlier this month, over 100 villagers were raped by armed militia. A 2014 Human Rights Watch report confirms that both rebels and the Congolese military continue to use rape as a weapon of war to deal with ethnic tensions. I know this issue well having co-authored a study on the use of sexual and gender-based violence in DRC with a medical anthropologist. With all due respect to Dr. Mukwege (who clearly know the situation better than I), that research on the causes of rape, but more important, my decade of experience in the supply chain industry have lead me to believe that the US Dodd-Frank law was misguided. The law aims to stem the violence by having US issuers perform due diligence on their supply chains. I have spoken to a number of companies that have told me that it would have been easier for the US to just ban the use of minerals from Congo because the compliance challenges are too high. Thus it was no surprise that last year’s SEC filings were generally vague and uninformative. It remains to be seen whether the filings due in a few weeks will be any better.
To me Dodd-Frank is a convenient way for the US government to outsource human rights enforcement to multinational corporations. Due diligence and clean supply chains are good, necessary, and in my view nonnegotiable, but they are not nearly enough to deal with the horrors in Congo. Nonetheless, in a surprise move, the EU Parliament voted this week to go even farther than the US law. According to the Parliament’s press release:
Parliament voted by 400 votes to 285, with 7 abstentions, to overturn the Commission's proposal as well as the one adopted by the international trade committee and requested mandatory compliance for "all Union importers" sourcing in conflict areas. In addition, "downstream" companies, that is, the 880, 000 potentially affected EU firms that use tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold in manufacturing consumer products, will be obliged to provide information on the steps they take to identify and address risks in their supply chains for the minerals and metals concerned… The regulation applies to all conflict-affected high risk areas in the world, of which the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Great Lakes area are the most obvious example. The draft law defines 'conflict-affected and high-risk areas' as those in a state of armed conflict, with widespread violence, the collapse of civil infrastructure, fragile post-conflict areas and areas of weak or non-existent governance and security, characterised by "widespread and systematic violations of human rights".
(emphasis mine). I hope this proposed law works for the sake of the Congolese and all of those who live in conflict zones around the world. The EU member states have to sign off on it, so who knows what the final law will look like. Some criticize the law because the list of “conflict-affected areas” is constantly changing. Although that’s true, I don’t think that criticism should affect passage of the law. The bigger flaw in my view is that there are a number of natural resources from conflict-affected zones- palm oil comes to mind- that this regulation does not address. This law, like Dodd-Frank does both too much and not enough. In an upcoming book chapter, I propose that governments use procurement and other incentives and penalties related to executive compensation and clawbacks to drive human rights due diligence and third-party audits (sorry, I'm prohibited from posting a link to it but it's forthcoming from Cambridge University Press).
In the meantime, I will wait for the DC Circuit to rule on constitutional aspects of the Dodd-Frank bill. I will also be revising my most recent law review article on the defects of the disclosure regime to address the EU development. I will post the article next week from Havana, Cuba, where I will spend 10 days learning about the Cuban legal system and culture. Given my scholarship and the recent warming of relations between the US and Cuba, I may sneak a little research in as well, and in two weeks I will post my impressions on the challenges and opportunities that US companies will face in the Cuban market once the embargo is lifted. Adios!
May 22, 2015 in Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, International Business, Legislation, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Travel | Permalink | Comments (0)
In my first post of this series, I asked whether business leaders had unknowingly provided the legal industry with a long-term solution to declining interest in the legal profession and potential waning influence. I suggested that business leaders may be the driving force that ends up saving the legal profession, and its "respectability". In my second post, I discussed the current state of in-house attorneys. In this post, I would like to look at the current state of private firms as it relates to the in-house attorney discussion. My view is that the competitive marketplace reactions of a growing number of firms are partially contributing to the dimming of their own future prospects. Firms will need to evolve rather quickly; how they can, I’ll discuss in a future post. However, because of the firms’ relatively weaker position compared to corporations, many firms are in very precarious circumstances.
In this interim period between past firm dominance and the future corporate acceptance of Professors Bird and Orozco’s “corporate legal strategy” (in which attorneys are fully accepted and integrated as part of business teams in corporations, resulting in greater legal opportunities), firms are struggling. From my discussions with attorneys, I have learned that many private firms are beginning to intentionally screen out attorneys that even appear to be on a path to in-house corporate life in the future. They feel less inclined to provide expensive training for someone that has (in their perception) little intention of making a career of private practice, especially their private practice. This diminishes the number of opportunities for new lawyers. Firms have a harder time training the new lawyers they have, because much of the basic business work is now taken up by in-house counsel. Corporations, for their part, have exacerbated the lack of work for new associates by using their increased influence and wealth to insist that only the most senior firm attorneys handle their corporate work—perhaps shortsightedly robbing firms of talent continuity that has historically benefitted the corporations in the end. Expensive summer clerkships and recruiting drives have all but disappeared.
Additionally, firms have become focused on hiring attorneys with portable business for the “quick hit” of income and are less concerned about hiring new law graduates. This cannibalization of mature legal talent has always occurred, but it now seems to be a much greater part of firm business plans. It has resulted in some lawyers commoditizing themselves, rather than some of their clients doing so, perhaps further weakening the profession's "respectability". Of course, because the legal industry is currently well staffed, this “horse-trading” approach will work for the present. However, it will eventually be unsustainable—as lawyers retire, there will be fewer talented lawyers to replace them or have the capacity to buy out retiring partners’ percentages. Of those, even fewer still will invite the rigors of private practice if the rewards diminish.
I, for one, am not a complete believer in the “end of Big Law”, or any size "Law", for that matter. (The late Professor Larry Ribstein discussed the subject here--disappointingly, he only briefly touched on the in-house counsel effect, and instead, focused on the firms themselves.) However, I do believe in the necessary evolution of “All Law”—where the legal industry (firm, in-house, and academia) evolves to a point of natural and mutual support which benefits society as a whole (creating greater “respectability” for all lawyers)—and businesses will initially play a dominant role. How will businesses do so? More soon in a post coming your way!
--Marcos Antonio Mendoza
Thursday, May 21, 2015
My former research assistant Sam Moultrie and his colleague Andrea Schoch Brooks have authored a short article entitled "Defining a Proper Purpose for Books and Records Actions in Delaware."
The article unpacks two recent Delaware books and records cases: AbbVie and Citigroup. Worthwhile reading for those who wish to stay current on this area of the law.
Business and Human Rights Junior Scholars Conference
Wednesday, May 20, 2015
The centerpiece of the Florange Law is a mandate that French companies give two votes to any share held for longer than two years. This goes against the historical one-vote-for-every-share system that most countries have. The law allows an opt-out if two-thirds of shareholders approve one by March 31, 2016.
ISS issued a guide (Download Impact-of-florange-act-france) opposing the law and encouraging investors to pressure directors to opt out of the law (through amendments to corporate bylaws) before the deadline.
Professor Davidoff Solomon questions the strength of the one-share-one-vote corporate democracy in the U.S., noting that recent IPOs, like Facebook, went public with two classes of stock as a anti-takeover measure. There is also the related question of what impact a law like this would have given the turnover rates of many institutional investors.
Tuesday, May 19, 2015
In my last post, I asked whether business leaders had unknowingly provided the legal industry with a long-term solution to declining interest in the legal profession (based on the drop in applications to law school) and potential waning influence. I suggested that business leaders (inadvertently or otherwise) may be the driving force that ends up saving the legal profession. I would like to take the discussion one step further.
There is no doubt in my mind that, historically, companies rarely did much legal training for the lawyers they hired. They simply bought talent—usually by offering employment to attorneys with private practice experience that was valuable to the corporation. Sometimes this worked extremely well, and sometimes it failed miserably. Why? Business leaders sometimes possess only basic knowledge of what quality legal talent really looks like (after all, they usually are not lawyers themselves). Moreover, they often have difficulty finding a lawyer who can operate in a corporate environment and have high-level legal skills. The “a lawyer is a lawyer” mentality still prevails.
Adding to the difficult situation is that private firm attorneys often view corporate attorneys as those who could not flourish in private practice (for whatever reason—lack of skill, drive, ability, focus, etc.), and they consequently may be perceived at times by their own companies as somewhat suspect (“If they were really good attorneys, wouldn’t they be practicing with a firm?”). It becomes a Kobayashi Maru-type of character test for such in-house attorneys—virtually, a no-win situation. They are hired to help, but at times not fully trusted to do so because they are on staff. Professional respect, and compensation, for in-house attorneys lags behind that for lawyers in private firms.
Corporations are struggling with the concept of attorneys as part of entrepreneurial teams. Few companies hire law students directly out of law school for the very same reasons that firms are currently limiting their new-hires—lack of return on their dollar. Lawyers take 5-15 years to build the experience necessary to obtain the “gravitas” needed for a high level of trust, depending on the field. Many lawyers never achieve this status; they are simply caught in an eddy of repeating activity. (Perhaps this issue is worthy of a separate post!)
At this juncture, the in-house path remains precarious, and pursued at one’s peril. At most companies, there is no specified legal track, unlike the well-worn management paths. Many corporate legal positions are much lower paying than firm jobs, and often of the “J.D. preferred” type of position—helpful to be a lawyer, but not necessary. Graduating law students usually do not choose this corporate path—it is chosen for them, as they graduate from lower tier law schools, have less than stellar grades, or perhaps due to personal obligations involving location or family. Perhaps such students never had a great desire to be lawyers, drifting into professional school through lack of other opportunities. Additionally, inside companies, non-lawyers often feel that their in-house attorneys are a form of threat, and sometimes attempt to undermine them.* Advanced education continues to be viewed, probably irrationally, with some suspicion in the business environment. Perhaps because the lawyers presently in-house have offered little to benefit the business operations, or because they are just not well understood.
These attitudes appear to be changing. As the legal environment continues evolve, students may actually enter law school for the specific purpose of being in-house counsel, perhaps even having a specific company or industry in mind prior to taking their first class. Law schools are well advised to shift their focus to accommodate this new reality. Law schools that play the game well will again become a dominant option for bright college students. What does this future look like? That will be the subject of my next post. More soon!
--Marcos Antonio Mendoza
*Interestingly, I have never heard a single MBA joke (has anyone?), but frequently hear lawyer jokes. However, many millennials report to me that lawyer jokes are no longer de rigueur around them—in other words, people feel sorry for them and the challenges they face!
Monday, May 18, 2015
You may recall my blog post this fall about the Delaware Chancery Court opinion in In Re Nine Systems Corporation Shareholders Litigation. That case discusses what happens when a self-dealing transaction results in a fair price, thus causing no damage to the corporation, but the process followed was fair. The court held that the plaintiff could still recover attorneys' fees and costs. I noted that the only people likely to be satisfied with that result were plaintiffs' attorneys. (It makes no difference to the plaintiffs in the case because they had a contingent fee agreement with their attorneys-no recovery, no attorneys' fees to be paid.)
The Chancery Court just entered its order awarding plaintiffs' counsel, Jones Day, $2 million dollars in attorneys' fees and expenses. That's right, the attorneys get $2 million even though, as the Vice Chancellor notes, "the quantifiable benefit obtained in this litigation was $0." Thus, the defendants have to pay $2 million to counsel for helping the court determine that nothing they did harmed the corporation or its shareholders.
It could have been worse; plaintiffs' counsel asked for $11 million.
I'm afraid that this opinion will give plaintiffs' attorneys an incentive to search for problems with the process in conflict-of-interest cases just so they can get in on the Nine-Systems action and collect attorneys' fees. No harm to the corporation? No problem!
Thursday, May 14, 2015
Last week, I looked lovingly at a picture of a Starbucks old-fashioned grilled cheese sandwich. It had 580 calories. I thought about getting the sandwich and then reconsidered and made another more “virtuous” choice. These calorie disclosures, while annoying, are effective for people like me. I see the disclosure, make a choice (sometimes the “wrong” one), and move on.
Regular readers of this blog know that I spend a lot of time thinking about human rights from a corporate governance perspective. I thought about that uneaten sandwich as I consulted with a client last week about the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act. The law went into effect in 2012 and requires retailers, sellers, and manufacturers that exceed $100 million in global revenue that do business in California to publicly disclose the degree to which they verify, audit, and certify their direct suppliers as it relates to human trafficking and slavery. Companies must also disclose whether or not they maintain internal accountability standards, and provide training on the issue in their direct supply chains. The disclosure must appear prominently on a company’s website, but apparently many companies, undeterred by the threat of injunctive action by the state Attorney General, have failed to comply. In April, the California Department of Justice sent letters to a number of companies stating in part:
If your company has posted the required disclosures on its Internet website or, alternatively, takes the position that it is not required to comply with the Act, we request that – within 30 days of this letter’s date – you complete the form accessible at http://oag.ca.gov/sb657 and provide this office with (1) the web links (URLs) to both your company’s Transparency in Supply Chains Act disclosures and its homepage containing a link to the disclosures; and/or (2) information demonstrating your company is not covered by the Act.
There are no financial penalties for noncompliance. Rather, companies can face reputational damage and/or an order from the Attorney General to post something on their websites. A company complies even if that disclosure states that the company does no training, auditing, certification, monitoring or anything else related to human trafficking or slavery. The client I spoke to last week is very specialized and all of its customers are other businesses. Based on their business profiles, those “consumers” are not likely to make purchasing decisions based on human rights due diligence. I will be talking to another client in a few weeks on the California law. That client is business to consumer but its consumers specifically focus on low cost—that’s the competitive advantage for that client. Neither company-- the B2B nor the B2 (cost conscious)C-- is likely to lose significant, if any business merely because they don’t do extensive due diligence on their supply chains. Similarly, Apple, which has done a great job on due diligence for the conflict minerals law will not set records with the sale of the Apple Watch because of its human rights record. I bet that if I walked into an Apple Store and asked how many had seen or heard of Apple’s state of the art conflict minerals disclosure, the answer would be less than 1% (and that would be high).
People buy products because they want them. The majority of people won’t bother to look for what’s in or behind the product, although that information is readily available through apps or websites. If that information stares the consumer in the face (thanks Starbucks), then the consumer may make a different choice. But that assumes that (1) the consumer cares and (2) there is an equally viable choice.
To be clear, I believe that companies must know what happens with their suppliers, and that there is no excuse for using trafficked or forced labor. But I don’t know that the use of disclosures is the way to go. Some boards will engage in the cost benefit analysis of reputational damage and likelihood of enforcement vs cost of compliance rather than having a conversation about what kind of company they want to be. Many board members will logically ask themselves, “should we care if our customers don’t care?”
My most recent law review article covers this topic in detail. I’ll post it in the next couple of weeks because I need to revise it to cover the April development on the California law, and the EU’s vote on May 19 on their own version of the conflict minerals law. In the meantime, ignorance is bliss. I’m staying out of Starbucks and any other restaurant that posts calories- at least during the stressful time of grading exams.
May 14, 2015 in Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, International Business, Law Reviews, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (3)
I sincerely appreciate the opportunity to post! I have been following this blog for some time with great interest. I hope to bring a third perspective—not as an academic, nor a private firm practitioner, but as an employee of a company who happens to be a lawyer.
A few weeks back, Professor Heminway posted, and I commented, on the difficulty good law students have in finding jobs. I made the point that the law is in a state of transition—firms are becoming smaller, but more opportunities are arising within corporate models. Over the past 20 or so years, attorneys have gradually become more integrated in the corporate world, and we have seen the number of positions with firms gradually decline in comparison.
As part of this mainstreaming of lawyers into the business model, lawyers are becoming more and more part of business teams, not walled-off in legal departments.* By incorporating lawyers into operational divisions, have businesses “humanized” lawyers, making them more accepted and respected? Will this growing engagement and familiarity, with lawyers as co-workers in the business environment, lead to greater opportunities for all lawyers, including those in private practice? The answer is, maybe, possibly. It’s complicated. Allow me to explain.
Let’s be clear—external counsel are respected for their pure legal skill, or otherwise, businesses wouldn’t hire them! However, business leaders often view external counsel with some trepidation, as engaging them could result in great cost and perceived “rolling roadblocks” of legal reasons things cannot done. Additionally, while lawyers and business leaders work in parallel, their goals do not exactly align. Law firms are for-profit organizations, after all, and have their own operating concerns. Nevertheless, businesses value the private law firm stamp of approval on the company’s work product for many reasons.
Most businesses (I believe, and from what I have seen) initially began onboarding lawyers not to deepen the bench of their overall business talent, but simply to lower costs tied to legal spending for basic legal services. An excellent article in the MIT Sloan Management Review by Professors Robert C. Bird and David Orozco outlines the progression for effective use of internal counsel, and I’ll return to some specific discussion of that in later posts. But I think the article accurately reflects the continuum for integration of lawyers, and most companies are somewhere around the early “avoidance” or “compliance” stages for use and understanding of internal lawyers.
However, as businesses advance in their view of legal assistance and business models incorporate lawyers as part of their entrepreneurial focus at the highest levels, I think their lawyers are on the path to becoming valued in a way that is impossible for private practice attorneys. Rather than the (unfair or not) stereotypical view of self-serving or disinterested firm lawyers some business leaders may have dealt with in the past, will these same leaders that work daily with lawyers integrated into their corporate teams grow to appreciate and respect them more, since their talent and loyalty to the companies’ interests is paramount? Will this eventually lead to a shift as to societal viewpoints about lawyers, as they become more familiar and helpful personas around everyday workplaces? And in turn, will the law firms become more generally appreciated and respected (and less commoditized!), as this growing force of in-house attorneys bridge the communication gaps with external counsel, thus increasing trust levels between the entities?
Maybe business leaders, who have historically been at odds with their law firms to some degree, will actually be the force (perhaps initially, quite inadvertently) that saves the legal profession from potentially destructive isolation and gives greater hope to aspiring law students. This interim period—as the prevalence of the private firms lessens and corporate legal strategy grows—may be difficult for all involved. More thoughts on this soon.
--Marcos Antonio Mendoza
*Depending on the organization, direct control of such lawyers may or may not remain in the general counsel’s office.
Friday, May 8, 2015
Thanks to faithful BLPB reader Scott Killingsworth for the tip about this new article appearing in the New Yorker detailing the scholarship and advocacy of renowned Harvard constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe. The article raises questions about conflicts of interest between scholarship and advocacy.
[I]t would also be foolish to ignore the inherent tension in searching for truth while also working for paying clients. The scholar-warrior may lapse into a far more contemptible figure: the scholar for hire, who sells his name and his title for cash. A subtler danger comes from the well-known and nearly unavoidable tendency lawyers have of identifying with their clients.
The article also highlights his role in the current debate on corporate constitutional rights.
Tribe has taken a strong view of individual rights; his view of corporate rights is similar, and in this capacity he has at times advanced constitutional arguments that might invalidate great parts of the administrative state, in a manner recalling the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence of the nineteen-twenties and thirties. In that sense, the current condemnation of Tribe can be seen as part of a larger progressive backlash against the use of the Bill of Rights to serve corporate interests.
This short article is absolutely worth making your Friday procrastination list or your weekend "catch-up" reading list.
Thursday, May 7, 2015
I currently teach two classes that are on the bar exam—civil procedure and business associations. Many of my BA students are terrified of numbers and don’t know much about business and therefore likely would not take the course if it were not required. I know this because they admit that they take certain classes only because they are required or because they will be tested on the bar, and not because they genuinely have an interest in learning the subject. I went to Harvard for law school and although I had an outstanding education, I learned almost nothing that helped me for the NY, NJ, or FL bars (hopefully that has changed). I owe all of my bar passages to bar review courses so naturally (naively?), I think that almost any student can learn everything they need to know for the bar in a few short months assuming that they had some basic foundation in law school and have good study habits.
The pressure to ensure that my students pass the bar exam definitely informs the way I teach. Though there has only been one round of civil procedure testing on the multistate, this semester I found myself ensuring that I covered certain areas and glossed over others, even though I know having litigated for 20 years, that some subjects are more relevant in real life. Similarly, in BA, I had to make sure that I covered what will be on the Florida bar, while still ensuring that my students understand Delaware law and some basic finance and accounting, which isn't on the Florida bar, but which they need to know.
New York recently announced that it would join other states in adopting the uniform bar examination effective July 2016. The other states using the UBE include Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. New York, as the largest adopter, hopes to inspire other states to do the same.
NY students would still have to take online courses and pass a 50-question test regarding specific NY laws, but the students would take the MBE, and MPT or multistate performance test. According to the National Conference of Bar Examiners, the two 90-minute MPT exercises are “designed to test an examinee’s ability to use fundamental lawyering skills in a realistic situation and complete a task that a beginning lawyer should be able to accomplish. The MPT is not a test of substantive knowledge. Rather, it is designed to evaluate certain fundamental skills lawyers are expected to demonstrate regardless of the area of law in which the skills arise.” The NY graduates will also no longer have to write on 6 NY-based essays, but will instead write the multistate essay examination. Students will have to write on topics including: Business Associations (Agency and Partnership; Corporations and Limited Liability Companies), Civil Procedure, Conflict of Laws, Constitutional Law, Contracts, Criminal Law and Procedure, Evidence, Family Law, Real Property, Torts, Trusts and Estates (Decedents' Estates; Trusts and Future Interests), and Uniform Commercial Code (Secured Transactions).
In adopting the change, New York officials explained, a “significant advantage of adopting the UBE is that passage of the test would produce a portable score that could be used by the bar applicant to gain admission in other UBE states, assuming the applicant satisfies any other jurisdiction-specific requirements. This portability is crucial in a legal marketplace that is increasingly mobile and requires more and more attorneys to engage in multi-jurisdictional practice.”
I think this is sound reasoning. Many of today’s graduates do not know where they will end up, and I personally know that the thought of taking yet another bar exam was a reason that I decided to stay in Florida when I was in private practice. But the better reason to move to the UBE is the testing of the practical skills that lawyers say recent graduates lack. It won’t solve the problem of the lack of legal work, but it will make it easier for students who want to try to find work in other states. I doubt that Florida, which wants to make it as difficult as possible for snowbirds to set up practice here, will ever adopt the UBE but it should. Many oppose the adoption because schools may not have the faculty or resources to prepare students for the new test. But I welcome the change. Despite the pressure to prep my students for the bar, I have ensured that my students work on drafting client memos, discovery plans, markups of poorly written documents, and even emails to partners and clients so that they can be ready for the world that awaits them. If Florida joins the UBE bandwagon, they will be ready for the MPT too.
Wednesday, May 6, 2015
Monday, I had the privilege of moderating a discussion on structuring merger and acquisition transactions that I had organized as part of a continuing legal education program for the Tennessee Bar Association. Rather than doing the typical comparison/contrast of different business combination structures (with charts, etc.), I organized the hour-long discussion around the banter that corporate/securities and tax folks have in structuring a transaction. We used the terms of a proposed transaction (an LLC business being acquired by a public corporation) as a jumping-off point.
The idea for the format came from a water cooler conversation--literally--among me (in the role of a corporate/securities lawyer), one of my property lawyer colleagues, and one of my tax lawyer colleagues. The conversation started with a question my property law colleague had about the conveyance of assets in a merger. I told him that mergers are not asset conveyance transactions but, rather, statutory transactions that have the effects provided for in the statute, which include a vesting of assets in the surviving corporation. I told him that I call this "merger magic." I showed him Section 259(a) of the Delaware General Corporation Law:
When any merger or consolidation shall have become effective under this chapter, . . . all property, real, personal and mixed, and all debts due to any of said constituent corporations on whatever account, as well for stock subscriptions as all other things in action or belonging to each of such corporations shall be vested in the corporation surviving or resulting from such merger or consolidation . . . .
We discussed the possibility of an assignment/transfer of assets by operation of law under that provision and more generally under Delaware law in connection with different types of mergers, including recent case law regarding reverse triangular mergers. Ultimately, my property law colleague decided that a direct merger involved an asset sale by the target entity and a purchase transaction by the surviving corporation, as a matter of property law, notwithstanding my "merger magic" explanation I was forwarding as a descriptor under state corporate law.
The tax guy thought all this (both descriptions of a merger) was balderdash. These descriptions were too complex and stilted for his taste. Not to be outdone, he offered that all merger and acquisition transactions are either asset sales or sales of equity. At least, he allowed, that's how federal income tax law looks at them . . . . I told him that asset and equity sale transactions are joined by mergers (direct, reverse triangular, and forward triangular) and share exchange transactions (which are also statutory transactions, available in Tennessee and other Model Business Corporation Act states, but not available in Delaware) in the corporate lawyer's business combination toolkit. I also noted that federal securities law voting and reporting requirements work off these different corporate law descriptors.
Fascinating! Three lawyers, three different conceptions of business combination transactions. The moderated discussion on Monday was, in effect, an attempt by me to recreate, albeit in a different form, parts of that conversation. The discussion was, in my view, decently successful in achieving its limited purpose in the program. Nevertheless, I really wish I had a transcription of that original conversation by the water cooler. That was truly priceless . . . .
Friday, May 1, 2015
I’ve been thinking a lot about whistleblowers lately. I serve as a “management” representative to the Department of Labor Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee and last week we presented the DOL with our recommendations for best practices for employers. We are charged with looking at almost two dozen whistleblower laws. I've previously blogged about whistleblower issues here.
Although we spend the bulk of our time on the WPAC discussing the very serious obstacles for those workers who want to report safety violations, at the last meeting we also discussed, among other things, the fact that I and others believed that there could be a rise in SOX claims from attorneys and auditors following the 2014 Lawson decision. In that case, the Supreme Court observed that: “Congress plainly recognized that outside professionals — accountants, law firms, contractors, agents, and the like — were complicit in, if not integral to, the shareholder fraud and subsequent cover-up [Enron] officers … perpetrated.” Thus, the Court ruled, those, including private contractors, who see the wrongdoing but may be too fearful of retaliation to report it should be entitled to SOX whistleblower protection.
We also discussed the SEC's April KBR decision, which is causing hundreds of companies to revise their codes of conduct, policies, NDAs, confidentiality and settlement agreements to ensure there is no language that explicitly or implicitly prevents employees from reporting wrongdoing to the government or seeking an award.
Two weeks ago, I spoke in front of a couple hundred internal auditors and certified fraud examiners about how various developments in whistleblower laws could affect their investigations, focusing mainly on Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank Whistleblower. I felt right at home because in my former life as a compliance officer and deputy general counsel, I spent a lot of time with internal and external auditors. Before I joined academia, I testified before Congress on what I thought could be some flaws in the law as written. Specifically, I had some concerns about the facts that: culpable individuals could receive awards; individuals did not have to consider reporting wrongdoing internally even if there was a credible, functioning compliance program; and that those with fiduciary responsibilities were also eligible for awards without reporting first (if possible), which could lead to conflicts of interest. The SEC did make some changes to Dodd-Frank. The agency now weighs the whistleblower’s participation in the firm’s internal compliance program as a factor that may increase the whistleblower’s eventual award and considers interference with internal compliance programs to be a factor that may decrease any award. It also indicated that compliance or internal audit professionals should report internally first and then wait 120 days before going external.
Before I launched into my legal update, I gave the audience some sobering statistics about financial professionals:
- 23% have seen misconduct firsthand
- 29% believe they may have to engage in illegal or unethical conduct to be successful
- 24% would engage in insider trading if they could earn $10 million and get away with it
I also shared the following awards with them:
- $875,000 to two individuals for “tips and assistance” relating to fraud in the securities market;
- $400,000 to a whistleblower who reported fraud to the SEC after the employee’s company failed to address internally certain securities law violations;
- $300,000 to an employee who reported wrongdoing to the SEC after the company failed to take action when the employee reported it internally first;
- $14 million- tip about an alleged Chicago-based scheme to defraud foreign investors seeking U.S. residency; and
- More than $30 million to a tipster living in a foreign country, who would have received more if he hadn't delayed reporting
I also informed them about a number of legal developments that affect those that occupy a position of trust or confidence. These white-collar whistleblowers have received significant paydays recently. Last year the SEC paid $300,000 to an employee who performed “audit or compliance functions.” I predicted more of these awards, and then to prove me right, just last week, the SEC awarded its second bounty to an audit or compliance professional, this time for approximately 1.4 million.
I asked the auditors to consider how this would affect their working with their peers and their clients, and how companies might react. Will companies redouble their efforts to encourage internal reporting? Although statistics are clear that whistleblowers prefer to report internally if they can and don’t report because they want financial gain, will these awards embolden compliance, audit, and legal personnel to report to the government? Will we see more employees with fiduciary duties coming forward to report wrongdoing? Does this conflict with any ethical duties imposed upon lawyers or compliance officers with legal backgrounds? SOX 307 describes up the ladder reporting requirements, but what happens to the attorney who chooses to go external? Will companies consider self-reporting to get more favorable deferred and nonprosecution agreements to pre-empt the potential whistleblower?
I don’t have answers for any of these questions, but companies and boards should at a minimum look at their internal compliance programs and ensure that their reporting mechanisms allow for reports from outside counsel and auditors. In the meantime, it’s now entirely possible that an auditor, compliance officer, or lawyer could be the next Sherron Watkins.
And by the way, if you were in Busan, South Korea last Wednesday, you may have heard me on the morning show talking about whistleblowers. Drop me a line and let me know how I sounded.
Almost three years ago, I helped organize a conference on social enterprise law. (The law review members, especially Rachel Bauer and Sam Moultrie, were responsible for most of the organizing and did an excellent job).
My co-bloggers Joan Heminway and Marcia Narine were among the speakers.
Also joining us was Michael Pirron of Impact Makers, one of the first certified B corporations in Virginia. While Impact Makers was a certified B corporation at the time of the conference, it was organized as a Virginia nonstock corporation; now Impact Makers is organized as a benefit corporation. Michael did an excellent job serving as a panelist and the keynote speaker.
Recently, I saw Michael back in the news. He transferred ownership of his company (valued at approximately $11.5 million) to two foundations. As Michael mentioned to me over e-mail, this was not a radical departure from his previous business model for Impact Makers. Previously, Impact Makers donated 100% of its profits to area charities, so this move just formalized their previous commitment. Impact Makers has given away approximately $1 million to date.
At the University of Connecticut social enterprise and entrepreneurship conference I attended and presented at last week, Mike Brady (Greyston Bakery) and Jeff Brown (Newman's Own) presented. Jeff called Newman's Own a "grandfather of social enterprise" Both companies started business in 1982, well before heavy use of the term "social enterprise."
Also, both Greyston Bakery and Newman's Own appear to have adopted a structure where a foundation owns the stock of their for-profit company. You can learn a bit more about the structure of Newman's Own here. Greyston Bakery's annual reports are here and you can view a video about Greyston Bakery (and their client Ben & Jerry's).
From a legal perspective, Greyston Bakery and Impact Makers are benefit corporations, under New York and Virginia law respectively (in addition to being certified B corporations.) Newman's Own, however, is a traditional c-corporation. With foundations owning 100% of the stock, the benefits of using the benefit corporation form are likely limited. There still may be some branding value and most benefit corporation statutes require consideration of a broad group of stakeholders, which might prevent the foundation from focusing on a smaller subset of stakeholders. That said, shareholders are the one expected to bring lawsuits to enforce this consideration requirement in the benefit corporation statutes, so as a practical matter, the benefit corporation and c-corporation forms may operate similarly when wholly-owned by one or more foundations.
Wednesday, April 29, 2015
OK. So, Tennessee is not Delaware. But the Tennessee legislature and Supreme Court have been busy bees this spring on business law matters. Here's the brief report.
In the last week of the legislative term, the Tennessee Senate and House adopted the For-Profit Benefit Corporation Act, about which I earlier blogged here, here, and here. Although I remain skeptical of the legislation, it looks like the governor will sign the bill. So, we will have benefit corporations in Tennessee. We'll see where things go from there . . . .
The Tennessee legislature also passed a technical corrections bill for the Tennessee Business Corporation Act. The bill was drafted by the Tennessee Bar Association's Business Entity Study Committee (on which I serve and to which I have referred in the past), a joint project of the Tennessee Bar Association's Business Law Section and Tax Law Section. The governor has already signed this bill into law.
Separately, in a bit of a stealth move (!), the Tennessee Supreme Court recently announced the establishment of a business court, an institution many other jurisdictions already have. The court is being introduced as a pilot project in Davidson County (where Nashville resides)--but only, as I understand it, to iron the kinks out before introducing the court on a permanent basis. Interestingly, the Tennessee Bar Association Business Law Section Executive Council was not informed about the new court project until its public announcement in the middle of March. Although we found that a bit odd, the "radio silence" is apparently attributable to the excitement of the Tennessee Supreme Court to get the project started effective as of May 1 and the deemed lack of need for a study on the subject before proceeding. Regardless, I think it's safe to say that the bar welcomes the introduction of a court that specializes in business law cases as a matter of principle. Again, we'll see where it goes from here.
A few reflections on all this follow.
Tuesday, April 28, 2015
Last week, the Deal Professor, Steven Davidoff Solomon, wrote an article titled, The Boardroom Strikes Back. In it, he recalls that shareholder activists won a number of surprising victories last year, and more were predicted for this year. That prediction made sense, as activists were able to elect directors 73% of the time in 2014. This year, though, despite some activist victories, boards are standing their grounds with more success.
I have no problem with shareholders seeking to impose their will on the board of the companies in which they hold stock. I don't see activist shareholder as an inherently bad thing. I do, however, think it's bad when boards succumb to the whims of activist shareholders just to make the problem go away. Boards are well served to review serious requests of all shareholders, but the board should be deciding how best to direct the company. It's why we call them directors.
As the Deal Professor notes, some heavy hitters are questioning the uptick in shareholder activism:
Some of the big institutional investors are starting to question the shareholder activism boom. Laurence D. Fink, chief executive of BlackRock, the world’s biggest asset manager, with $4 trillion, recently issued a well-publicized letter that criticized some of the strategies pushed by hedge funds, like share buybacks and dividends, as a “short-termist phenomenon.” T. Rowe Price, which has $750 billion under management, has also criticized shareholder activists’ strategies. They carry a big voice.
I am on record being critical of boards letting short-term planning be their primary filter, because I think it can hurt long-term value in many instances. I don't, however, think buybacks or dividends are inherently incorrect, either. Whether the idea comes from an activist shareholder or the board doesn't really matter to me. The board just needs to assess the idea and decide how to proceed.
[Please click below to read more.]
Monday, April 27, 2015
The following guest blog post on my recent article, Institutional Investing When Shareholders Are Not Supreme, is available at Columbia's Blue Sky Blog discussing institutional investors' attitudes towards alternative business forms and similar issues raised by Etsy's IPO.
Wednesday, April 22, 2015
Marco Ventoruzzo (Penn State Law) alerts us to the upcoming international conference for the sixtieth anniversary of the Rivista delle società, which will be held in Venice, on San Giorgio Maggiore, on 13-14 November 2015. The title of the conference is "Rules for the Market and Market for Rules. Corporate Law and the Role of the Legislature." The program and information on how to register (and other logistics) can be found here. It looks like only an Italian version of the program is available on the website as of the time this is being posted, but I have an English version. So, please just contact me if you want one.
Marco notes that the conference, organized every ten years by the Rivista, is one of the major events for corporate law scholars and practitioners in Italy (and probably in Europe as a whole). He anticipates well over 300 participants from several European countries, the U.S., and elsewhere. He notes that, as an additional incentive to participate, the venue is probably one of the most spectacular that can be imagined. San Giorgio is a tiny island in the Venice lagoon, just in front of Saint Mark's Square, that overlooks the entire Venetian waterfront. On the island, inhabited since Roman times, the conference will be hosted in a monastery partially designed by Andrea Palladio in the XVI century.
Hat tip to Marco for this announcement.
Last week the New York Times hosted a debate about the Public Corporation's Duty to Shareholders. Contributors include corporate law professors Stephen Bainbridge, Tamara Belinfante, Lynn Stout, David Yosifan and Jean Rogers, CEO of Sustainability Accounting Standards Board.
This collection of essays is not only more interesting than anything that I could write, but it is also the type of short, assessable debate that would be a great starting point for discussion in a seminar or corporations class.
Thursday, April 16, 2015
Regular readers know that I have blogged repeatedly about my opposition to the US Dodd-Frank conflict minerals rule, which aims to stop the flow of funds to rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Briefly, the US law does not prohibit the use of conflict minerals, but instead requires certain companies to obtain an independent private sector third-party audit of reports of the facilities used to process the conflict minerals; conduct a reasonable country of origin inquiry; and describe the steps the company used to mitigate the risk, in order to improve its due diligence process. The business world and SEC are awaiting a First Amendment ruling from the DC Circuit Court of Appeals on the “name and shame” portion of the law, which requires companies to indicate whether their products are DRC Conflict Free.” I have argued that it is a well-intentioned but likely ineffective corporate governance disclosure that depends on consumers to pressure corporations to change their behavior.
The proposed EU regulation establishes a voluntary process through which importers of certain minerals into the EU self-certify that they do not contribute to financing in “conflict-affected” or “high risk areas.” Unlike Dodd-Frank, it is not limited to Congo. Taking note of various stakeholder consultations and the US Dodd-Frank law, the EU had originally limited the scope to importers, and chose a voluntary mechanism to avoid any regional boycotts that hurt locals and did not stop armed conflict. Those importers who choose to certify would have to conduct due diligence in accordance with the OECD Guidance, and report their findings to the EU. The EU would then publish a list of “responsible smelters and refiners,” so that the public will hold importers and smelters accountable for conducting appropriate due diligence. The regulation also offers incentives, such as assistance with procurement contracts.
One of the problems with researching and writing on hot topics is that things change quickly. Two days after I submitted my most recent article to law reviews in March criticizing the use of disclosure to mitigate human rights impacts, the EU announced that it was considering a mandatory certification program for conflict minerals. That meant I had to change a whole section of my article. (I’ll blog on that article another time, but it will be out in the Winter issue of the Columbia Human Rights Law Review). Then just yesterday, in a reversal, the European Parliament’s International Trade Committee announced that it would stick with the original voluntary plan after all.The European Parliament votes on the proposal in May.
Reaction from the NGO community was swift. Global Witness explained:
Today the European Parliament’s Committee on International Trade (INTA) wasted a ground-breaking opportunity to tackle the deadly trade in conflict minerals. […] Under this proposal, responsible sourcing by importers of tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold would be entirely optional. The Commission’s proposed voluntary self-certification scheme would be open to approximately 300-400 companies—just 0.05% of companies using and trading these minerals in the EU, and would have virtually no impact on companies’ sourcing behaviour. The law must be strengthened to make responsible sourcing a legal requirement for all companies that place these minerals on the European market–in any form. This would put the European Union at the forefront of global efforts to create more transparent, responsible and sustainable business practices. It would also better align Europe with existing international standards on responsible sourcing, and complement mandatory requirements in the US and in twelve African countries.
I’m all for due diligence in the supply chain and for forcing companies to minimize their human rights impacts. Corporations should do more than respect human rights-- they must pay when they cause harm. I plan to spend part of my summer researching and writing in Latin America about stronger human rights protections for indigenous peoples and the deleterious actions of some multinationals.
But a mandatory certification scheme on due diligence is not the answer because it won’t solve deep, intractable problems that require much more widespread reform. To be clear, I don't think the EU has the right solution either. Reasonable people can disagree, but perhaps the members of the EU Parliament should look to Dodd-Frank. SEC Chair Mary Jo White disclosed last month that the agency had spent 2.75 million dollars, including legal fees, and 17,000 hours writing and implementing the conflict minerals rule. A number of scholars and activists have argued that the law has in fact harmed the Congolese it meant to help and news reports have attempted to dispel some of the myths that led to the passage of the law.
So let’s see what happens in May when the EU looks at conflict minerals again. Let’s see what happens in June when the second wave of Dodd-Frank conflict minerals filings come in. As I indicated in my last blog post about Dodd-Frank referenced above, the first set of filings was particularly unhelpful. And let’s see what happens in December when parents start the holiday shopping—how many of them will check on the disclosures before buying electronics and toys for the members of their family? Most important, let's see if someone can actually tie the money and time spent on conflict minerals disclosure directly to lower rates of rape, child slavery, kidnapping, and forced labor-- the behaviors these laws intend to stop.
April 16, 2015 in Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, International Business, Law Reviews, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)