Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Business of Minor League Baseball: Antitrust Exemption May Be Wrong, But 9th Circuit is Right

Reuters reports that minor league baseball players lost a claim for artificially low" wages.  The court found, appropriately: "The employment contracts of minor league players relate to the business of providing public baseball games for profit between clubs of professional baseball players."

Samuel Kornhauser, the player's lawyer plan to ask the 9th Circuit to reconsider (probably en banc) or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Kornhasuer, in an interview, stated: 

"Obviously, we think it's wrong, and that the 'business of baseball' is a lot different today than it was in 1922. There is no reason minor leaguers should not have the right to negotiate for a competitive wage."

Kornhauser is certainly correct that things have changed in the last 100 years, though I would argue that the justification for the antitrust exemption was just as unfounded in 1922 as it is today. The origin is the Federal Baseball decision, and it was wrong then, and it is wrong now.  But it is also the law of the land. The 1998 Curt Flood Act, as the court appropriately explains, "made clear [Congress intended] to maintain the baseball exemption for anything related to the employment of minor league players."

There is no question Congress can change the law, and there is no question Congress has not. This is one to be resolved via negotiation or legislation, issue, and not via the courts.  

June 27, 2017 in Current Affairs, Joshua P. Fershee, Legislation, Sports | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Is This the End of Uber's PR Nightmare?

Yesterday, during a conversation with a law student about whether corporate social responsibility is a mere marketing ploy to fool consumers, the student described her conflict with using Uber. She didn’t like what she had read in the news about Uber’s workplace culture issues, sex harassment allegations, legal battles with its drivers, and leadership vacuum. The student, who is studying for the bar, probably didn’t even know that the company had even more PR nightmares just over the past ten days--- the termination of twenty employees after a harassment investigation; the departure of a number of executives including the CEO’s right hand man; the CEO’s “indefinite” leave of absence to “mourn his mother” following a scathing investigative report by former Attorney General Eric Holder; and the resignation of a board member who made a sexist remark during a board meeting (ironically) about sexism at Uber. She clearly hadn’t read Ann Lipton’s excellent post on Uber on June 17th.

Around 1:00 am EST, the company announced that the CEO had resigned after five of the largest investors in the $70 billion company issued a memo entitled “Moving Uber Forward.” The memo was not available as of the time of this writing. According to the New York Times:

The investors included one of Uber’s biggest shareholders, the venture capital firm Benchmark, which has one of its partners, Bill Gurley, on Uber’s board. The investors made their demand for Mr. Kalanick to step down in a letter delivered to the chief executive while he was in Chicago, said the people with knowledge of the situation.

… the investors wrote to Mr. Kalanick that he must immediately leave and that the company needed a change in leadership. Mr. Kalanick, 40, consulted with at least one Uber board member, and after long discussions with some of the investors, he agreed to step down. He will remain on Uber’s board of directors.

This has shades of the American Apparel controversy with ousted CEO Dov Charney that I have blogged about in the past. Charney also perpetuated a "bro culture" that seemed unseemly for a CEO, but isn't all that uncommon among young founders. The main difference here is that the investors, not the Board, made the decision to fire the CEO. As Ann noted in her post this weekend, there is a lot to unpack here. I’m not teaching Business Associations in the Fall, but I hope that many of you will find a way to use this as a case study on corporate governance, particularly Kalanick’s continuation as a board member. That could be awkward, to put it mildly. I plan to discuss it in my Corporate Compliance and Social Responsibility course later today. As I have told the students and written in the past, I am skeptical of consumers and their ability to change corporate culture. Sometimes, as in the case of Uber, it comes down to the investors holding the power of the purse.

June 21, 2017 in Ann Lipton, Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, CSR, Current Affairs, Marcia Narine Weldon, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Why Do Companies Bother With Corporate Social Responsibility Reports?

In 2016, a number of news outlets focused on Wal-Mart’s reputation crisis and outdated management style. Many, including union leaders, doubted the sincerity behind the company’s motivation in raising wages last year. I’ve blogged about Wal-Mart before, but today, there appears to be a different story to tell. Wal-Mart, the bogeyman of many NGOs and workers’ rights groups, actually believes that “serving the customers and society is the same thing… [and] putting the customer first means delivering for them in ways that protect and preserve the communities they live in and the world they will pass on to future generations.” This comes from the company’s 148-page 2016 Global Responsibility Report. Target’s report is a paltry 43 pages in comparison.

What accounts for the difference? Both use the Global Reporting Initiative framework, which aims to standardize sustainability reporting using materiality factors and items in the 10-K. Key GRI disclosures include: a CEO statement; key impacts, risks, and opportunities; markets; collective bargaining agreements; supply chain description; organizational changes; internal and external CSR standards (such as conflict mineral policy, LEED etc); membership associations; governance structure; high-level accountability for sustainability; consultation between stakeholders and the board; board composition; board knowledge of sustainability; board pay; helplines or hotlines for reporting unethical or unlawful behavior; climate change risks; energy consumption; GhG emissions; employee benefits; health and safety; performance appraisal process; human rights assessments; wage and hour audits; supplier diversity; community engagement; PAC contributions by party; and more.

Whew! Companies can of course glean a lot of this information from their proxy, 10-K and other disclosures, but it still takes the average company months to complete. It may not even be worth it. Although 82% of consumers say they want to buy from a socially-responsible company, only 17% have actually read a CSR report, according to one study.  To be honest, I’m surprised the number of CSR report readers is that high. My informal survey during Monday's class revealed that one student out of the 12 had read a CSR report, and this is in a group that chose to take a two-hour course in compliance and CSR that meets at 7:30 pm in the summer.

Here’s what I learned about Wal-Mart by reading the first four pages its report (it cleverly has big colorful picture blocks of statistics). I knew from press reports that Wal-Mart is currently facing numerous employment law class actions and may soon pay $300 million to the DOJ settle its bribery scandal. But the CSR report made Wal-Mart look like the model corporate citizen. The company earned 482 billion in revenue, employs 2.3 million employees, operates in 28 countries, and had 260 million weekly customer visits in 2016. It has invested 2.7 billion over 2 years in wages and benefits for its employees. It will train 1 million female farmers and factory workers around the world. It has eliminated 35.6 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from its supply chain. Target, which has settled for 18.5 million with several states over data breaches, took a different approach for its report. Its first few pages has pictures and charts too but focuses on what it has achieved/exceeded and what it hasn’t based on its own 20 goals. The Target 2015 report is a decidedly more humble looking document than the Wal-Mart product (the next Target report is due this year). 

I tend to believe that these CSR reports are designed for the consumption of regulators and lawmakers- hence the longer and more robust Wal-Mart report. Although Target claims in its report that CSR can enhance its reputation, the average Wal-Mart and Target consumer will not stop to read the report and many who boycott these stores will not likely change their minds be reading these reports. Instead, they may view them as an expensive marketing tool. Although Target doesn't face the same level of legal problems or reputational issues as Wal-Mart, it has still lost market share to Wal-Mart and Amazon, proving my theory that no matter what consumers say about shopping ethically, they really focus on convenience, quality, and price. 

I look forward to hearing what my students think at tonight’s class. I fear I may already traumatize them with the videos they will see about Nike, fair trade, and whether boycotting sweatshops make sense.

June 7, 2017 in Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

GM Votes Show Value of Shareholder Proposals as a Process for Accountability

More than two years ago, I posted Shareholder Activists Can Add Value and Still Be Wrongwhere I explained my view on shareholder proposals: 

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.    

Today, the Detroit Free Press reported that shareholders of automaker GM soundly defeated a proposal from billionaire investor David Einhorn that would have installed an alternate slate of board nominees and created two classes of stock.  (All the proposals are available here.) Shareholders who voted were against the proposals by more than 91%.  GM's board, in materials signed by Mary Barra, Chairman & Chief Executive Officer and Theodore Solso, Independent Lead Director, launched an aggressive campaign to maintain the existing board (PDF here) and the split shares proposal (PDF here).  GM argued in the board maintenance piece: 

Greenlight’s Dividend Shares proposal has the potential to disrupt our progress and undermine our performance. In our view, a vote for any of the Greenlight candidates would represent an endorsement of that high-risk proposal to the detriment of your GM investment.

Another shareholder proposal asking the board to separate the board chair and CEO positions was reported by the newspaper as follows: "A separate shareholder proposal that would have forced GM to separate the role of independent board chairman and CEO was defeated by shareholders." Not sure. Though the proposal was defeated, it's worth noting that the proposal would not have "forced" anything.  The proposal was an "advisory shareholder proposal" requesting the separation of the functions.  No mandate here, because such decisions must be made by the board, not the shareholders.  The proposal stated: 

Shareholders request our Board of Directors to adopt as policy, and amend our governing documents as necessary, to require the Chair of the Board of Directors, whenever possible, to be an independent member of the Board. The Board would have the discretion to phase in this policy for the next CEO transition, implemented so it did not violate any existing agreement. If the Board determines that a Chair who was independent when selected is no longer independent, the Board shall select a new Chair who satisfies the requirements of the policy within a reasonable amount of time. Compliance with this policy is waived if no independent director is available and willing to serve as Chair. This proposal requests that all the necessary steps be taken to accomplish the above.

GM argued against this proposal because the "policy advocated by this proposal would take away the Board’s discretion to evaluate and change its leadership structure." Also not true.  It the proposal were mandatory, then this would be true, but as a request, it cannot and could not take away anything.  If the shareholders made such a request and the board declined to follow that request, there might be repercussions for doing so,  but the proposal would have kept in place the "Board’s discretion to evaluate and change its leadership structure."  

These proposals appear to have been properly brought, properly considered, and properly rejected.  As I suggested in 2015, shareholder activists can help improve long-term value, even when following the activists' proposals would not.  That is just as true today and these proposals may well prime the pumpTM for future board or shareholder actions.  That is, GM has conceded that its stock is undervalued and that change is needed.  GM argues those changes are underway, and for now, most voting shareholder agree.  But we'll see how this looks if the stock price has not noticeably improved next year.  An alternative path forward on some key issues has been shared, and that puts pressure on this board to deliver.  They can do it their own way, but they are on notice that there are alternatives.  An shareholders now know that, too.

This knowledge underscores the value of shareholder proposals as a process.  They can and should create accountability, and that is a good thing. I agree with GM that the board should keep control of how it structures the GM leadership team.  But I agree with the shareholders that if this board doesn't perform, it may well be time for a change.  

June 6, 2017 in Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Joshua P. Fershee, Management, Securities Regulation, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 5, 2017

Marketing God and Jesus: The Growing Commercialization of Religion

This past week, I traveled through parts of Tennessee and Georgia to attend a concert (Train with Natasha Bedingfield and O.A.R.--fantastic!) and visit the University of Georgia School of Law (to plan the 2018 National Business Law Scholars conference).  On that trip, I saw a number of billboards with religious messages--more than I remember having seen in the past.  This set me to reflecting on the use of billboards--typically commercial space--for this purpose.  I share a few observations today on that topic.

The messages on the billboards I saw appear to be important to the speakers who offer them.  [Note that in this paragraph I am working from memory but have tried to describe what I saw as accurately as possible.]  I saw several that were just printed with the word "JESUS" (in all capital letters, as I have written it here) and one that said: "TRUST JESUS" (again, in all caps, as written here) with a faded waving American flag in the background.  But the most striking billboard that I saw was one that stated: "In the beginning God created everything," a message that was accompanied on the left by a circle in which the Darwinian progression to humankind was depicted and across which there was a large "X."

On the one hand, highway billboards are a great vehicle for the exercise of free speech.  We are captive in our vehicles and generally bound to certain key routes when engaged in car travel over any significant distance.  Other than distinctive local flora and buildings (as well as traffic, exit, and other roadside driving guidance), billboards are the primary visual as one drives on a highway.  In fact, their size often makes them more attractive than those flowers, structures, and signage.  (Although I have never missed an exit for a billboard, I have come close.)

The use of billboards for religious messaging does not convert the message to commercial speech (to the extent that question may be relevant to any free speech analysis).  

Continue reading

June 5, 2017 in Current Affairs, Joan Heminway, Religion | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, June 2, 2017

"Even Bank Robbers Can Tithe"

One of the most striking lines in Provost Jeff Van Duzer's talk at the Nashville Institute of Faith and Work a few months ago was his statement that "even bank robbers can tithe."

See a somewhat similar version of that talk here.

Jeff Van Duzer's point seemed to be that you cannot be a truly socially responsible company simply by giving some money to good causes. I think he was exactly right. He went on to explain that socially responsible businesses should focus on creating good products and good jobs. 

This week I was thinking about Jeff Van Duzer's talk when I considered, for about the one hundredth time, how to define social enterprises.

Think about Ben & Jerry's, a company that comes up at almost every social enterprise conference. While I can think of some good that ice cream does, I wonder if Ben & Jerry's main products are, on the whole, socially beneficial. We have a serious, deadly obesity problem in the country, and Ben & Jerry's products seem to be contributing to this problem. Perhaps Ben & Jerry's ice cream is more healthy than most options or uses more natural ingredients (I am unsure if this is true), but are Ben & Jerry's core products a net benefit to society? Perhaps Ben & Jerry's tip the scale in the social direction by providing good jobs with good benefits. However, Ben & Jerry's is best known for their giving and advocacy, which any business (no matter how socially destructive) could do.

The same arguments could be made against Hershey and Mars Corp., both of which are also well known for their focus on social responsibility. Are there certain industries that social enterprises should avoid altogether? Or should social enterprises enter all industries and try to make them incrementally better?

As a consumer, I am becoming more convinced that providing good products should among the very highest priorities. High quality products and thoughtful customer service is becoming increasingly difficult to find.

Given that I have two young children, Melissa & Doug toys come to mind as a company that is doing it right. Their products are durable and well-designed. Their products are designed to encourage Free Play, Creativity, Imagination, Learning, Discovery. Little Tikes is an older, but similar, company. I have never heard Melissa & Doug or Little Tikes referred to as "social enterprises," but, in my opinion, both companies benefit society much more than many of the frequently mentioned "social enterprises." 

June 2, 2017 in Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Haskell Murray, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, May 26, 2017

Nike Oregon Project and Morals Clauses

Logo

Last Friday, The New York Times ran a story on possible performance enhancing drug use inside the Nike Oregon Project.

The Nike Oregon Project is coached by running legend Alberto Salazar, who, by all accounts, is both incredibly competitive and dedicated to his work.

Among the athletes who are or have been associated with the Nike Oregon Project (and coached by Salazar )are gold medalist (in the 5000 & 10,000m in 2012 and 2016) Sir Mo Farah, gold medalist (in the 2016 1500m) Matt Centrowitz Jr., and silver medalist (in the 10,000m in 2012 and in the marathon in 2016) Galen Rupp. These three athletes have been the most dominant male distance runners for the U.S. over the last two Olympic cycles. 

Allegations of doping is nothing new for the Nike Oregon project coach and athletes. For example, Kara Goucher, U.S. Olympian and former member of the Nike Oregon Project herself, has been extremely vocal with allegations against the group for years. The Times of London published some of the same allegations against the Nike Oregon Project a few months before The New York Times. FloTrack has released what it thinks is the full report from USADA (US Anti-Doping Agency). The allegations are not only of doping, but of drug use that may have engaged the athletes' long-term health

I haven't seen any of the contracts for the Nike Oregon Project, but I would be willing to wager they contain morals clauses, allowing Nike to terminate the contracts, for cause, if the coach or athletes' actions tarnish Nike's brand. Often these morals clauses do not even require a finding of liability or guilt - often the mere allegations are enough. 

In this case, however, given the success of these athletes and coach, I expect Nike to wait to see if the allegations are confirmed. If, however, these athletes or coach were less popular and/or underperforming, the morals clause might have come into play earlier. These allegations do already appear to be hurting Nike's reputation among my friends who follow track & field. Sadly, however, I imagine that most of Nike's customers are more aware of the medals won by the athletes than the current allegations made against the athletes and coach.

This summer, I am working on a paper on morals clauses, including a discussion on when these clauses may be unenforceable, so I will continue to follow this story and may update with new information. 

May 26, 2017 in Current Affairs, Ethics, Haskell Murray, Sports | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Just Because You Can, Doesn't Mean You Should, Detroit Lions Edition

Last weekend, retired NFL receiver Calvin Johnson made news when he revealed that he was not pleased with the Detroit Lions and how they handled his retirement. Johnson is apparently frustrated that the Lions required him to pay back about 10% of the  unearned $3.2 million remaining on his $16 million signing bonus from his 2012 contract. This is apparently a thing for the Lions, who sought all of the unearned signing bonus money remaining on Barry Sanders' contract when he abruptly retired in 1999.

This is in contrast to Tony Romo's retirement, in which the Dallas Cowboys released him, making the $5 million remaining on the signing bonus Romo's.  Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he was following the “Do Right Rule” when he allowed the team to release him.  The Seattle Seahawks made a similar decision with Marshawn Lynch.  

Some have argued that Johnson is being "pettier" than the Lions in this spat.  Mike Florio, a sports writer and graduate of WVU College of Law, where I teach, argued that "while Johnson has every right to be miffed at the Lions, Johnson also should be miffed at himself. Or at whoever advised him to retire instead of biding his time until the Lions would have released him." Florio correctly notes that Johnson had a big cap number likely to come due had he not retired or accepted a restructured deal, so he was coming from a position of power in negotiating, which would have likely forced the Lions to cut him. Still, that doesn't mean Johnson is wrong to be frustrated.  

Perhaps Johnson didn't ever want to be cut in his career, even at that point in his carerr. Maybe he just wanted to retire.  The Lions were worried, perhaps about "precedent" that other players could use to walk away without paying back the bonus, though there is already such precedent out there, as discussed above, and the Lions have non-binding precedent already in the Barry Sanders case, where an arbitrator said Sanders had to pay back some of his signing bonus.  Beyond that, the response to most players would simply be, "I know we didn't ask Calvin Johnson for any money back. You're not Calvin Johnson." 

It is  true that the Lions could seek money from Johnson, and that Johnson almost certainly, from a legal sense, owed the money.  But having a legal right to something doesn't always mean it is a good idea.  And that is important for lawyers to remember.  The question I would have asked the Lions front office is this: "Is it really worth $320,000 when it is possible that one of your greatest players will feel disrespected by the process? Especially when you already created a rift with one of you other greatest players fifteen years ago?"  

Maybe it was asked, and the answer was yes, but I just don't see the upside.  My guess is that the Lions asked for a lot more and the two sides negotiated to this figure.  But that process, not the payment, is likely what irked Johnson.  Why does it matter? Because it tells future people the team wants, especially coaches and free agents, how the Lions do business.  And when choosing between two similar offers, that could very well lead one to choose the other team.  

I often use these kinds of issues facing a business when teaching the importance of the business judgment rule and allowing a board of directors not to pursue claims it can win (as long as there is no fraud or self dealing).  Sometimes, it is better for the entity to let a claim go than to extend a bad story or scare off potential talent.  Back in 2007, for example, Billy Donovan was hired to leave his head coaching job at the University of  Florida to lead the NBA's Orlando Magic.  Just days later, Donovan decided he did not want to leave Florida, and asked the Magic to let him return to the college game. The Magic decided to let him do so without any financial penalty, though they did ask him to agree not to coach in the NBA for five years.

Why let Donovan back out and return to Florida without a payment?  For one, the Magic needed to hire a new coach, and you want to send a message that you are a good employer.  Second, Donovan was beloved in Florida. He had won two NCAA championships in a key market for the team.  Don't irritate your prime audience is always a good bit of advice.  There was little upside to being difficult. The team was almost certainly irritated, but there is little value in letting that lead to bad publicity and unnecessary public spats. This principle extends well beyond the sports realm, but it is especially important in any area where employers fight for talent, which is common in the sports and entertainment areas. 

In assessing the legal (and business) options for the Calvin Johnson situation, good lawyering requires a recognition that key issues were likely related to perception and respect, not money.  As such, the fact that there was an argument about repayment at all was the issue that made Johnson frustrated (and now could have repercussions in the future free agent market).  It is certainly possible the Lions assessed this risk and decided it was worth it.  I disagree that it was worth it, but that would be a reasonable decision.  (As a life-long Lions fan, I will need more evidence the problem was properly assessed, though I do hold out hope for the new front office.) 

Such decisions, if made simply on the legal merits (e.g., Would I win in court?), run the risk of what Jeff Lipshaw calls "pure lawyering," which is essentially legal reasoning without context or assessment of non-legal impacts or opportunities. As Lipshaw explains in the preface to his book, Beyond Legal Reasoning, A Critique of Pure Lawyering

Legal reasoning is merely one way of creating meaning out of circumstances in the real world. In its pure form, it does nothing more than convert a real-world narrative to a set of legal conclusions that have no necessary connection either to truth or morality.

Or the ability to recruit free agents.  

May 23, 2017 in ADR, Compensation, Contracts, Corporate Personality, Current Affairs, Joshua P. Fershee, Lawyering, Sports | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Loyalty to Whom (or What)?

Loyalty has been in the news lately.  The POTUS, according to some reports, asked former Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI") Director James Comey to pledge his loyalty.  Assuming the basic veracity of those reports, was the POTUS referring to loyalty to the country or to him personally?  Perhaps both and perhaps, as Peter Beinart avers in The Atlantic, the POTUS and others fail to recognize a distinction between the two.  Yet, identifying the object of a duty can be important.

I have observed that the duty of government officials is not well understood in the public realm. Donna Nagy's fine work on this issue in connection with the proposal of the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge ("STOCK") Act, later adopted by Congress, outlines a number of ways in which Congressmen and Senators, among others, may owe fiduciary duties to others.  If you have not yet been introduced to this scholarship, I highly recommend it.  If we believe that government officials are entrusted with information, among other things, in their capacity as public servants, they owe duties to the government and its citizens to use that information in authorized ways for the benefit of that government and those citizens.  In fact, Professor Nagy's congressional testimony as part of the hearings on the STOCK Act includes the following in this regard:

Given the Constitution's repeated reference to public offices being “of trust,” and Members’ oath of office to “faithfully discharge” their duties, I would predict that a court would be highly likely to find that Representatives and Senators owe fiduciary-like duties of trust and confidence to a host of parties who may be regarded as the source of material nonpublic congressional knowledge. Such duties of trust and confidence may be owed to, among others:

  • the citizen-investors they serve;
  • the United States;
  • the general public;
  • Congress, as well as the Senate or the House;
  • other Members of Congress; and
  • federal officials outside of Congress who rely on a Member’s loyalty and integrity.

There is precious little in federal statutes, regulations, and case law on the nature--no less the object--of any fiduciary the Director of the FBI may have.  The authorizing statute and regulations provide little illumination.  Federal court opinions give us little more.  See, e.g., Banks v. Francis, No. 2:15-CV-1400, 2015 WL 9694627, at *3 (W.D. Pa. Dec. 18, 2015), report and recommendation adopted, No. CV 15-1400, 2016 WL 110020 (W.D. Pa. Jan. 11, 2016) ("Plaintiff does not identify any specific, mandatory duty that the federal officials — Defendants Hornak, Brennan, and the FBI Director— violated; he merely refers to an overly broad duty to uphold the U.S. Constitution and to see justice done.").  Accordingly, any applicable fiduciary duty likely would arise out of agency or other common law.  Section 8.01 of the Restatement (Third) of Agency provides "An agent has a fiduciary duty to act loyally for the principal's benefit in all matters connect with the agency relationship."  

But who is the principal in any divined agency relationship involving the FBI Director?  

Continue reading

May 20, 2017 in Agency, Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Joan Heminway, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

What is Loyalty?

This past week was a big one for loyalty stories.  First, we have the New York Times reporting that President Trump asked former FBI director James Comey for his pledge of loyalty, to which Comey apparently promised "honesty."  (The White House disputes this report.) 

Then, we have a high school quarterback in Illinois being forced to decommit from the University of Wisconsin's, apparently because he tweeted that the University of Georgia had offered him a scholarship.  The student called Wisconsin Coach Budmayr, telling him he had the offer and said he was "still 100% committed to the Badgers." The next day Budmayr apparently told him that he was no longer a good fit for Wisconsin and that he should keep looking.  The reason: lack of loyalty.  

Obviously, I only have the facts as they have been portrayed in these articles, and there are two sides to every story.  Nonetheless, these anecdotes got me to thinking about loyalty and how people tend to perceive the concept. 

To some, loyalty means fidelity.  This can be in the physical or emotional sense, as in the marriage context.  Some view extend it to ideological loyalty.  And to some, it means undying, uncompromising agreement and support.  It is this last idea that troubles me, because often it means that the loyalty is misguided. 

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines loyal as follows:

1. unswerving in allegiance: such a

a :  faithful in allegiance to one's lawful sovereign or government were loyal to the king    

b:  faithful to a private person to whom faithfulness is due a loyal husband

 c :  faithful to a cause, ideal, custom, institution, or product a loyal churchgoer

2. showing loyalty a loyal friend

3. obsolete :  lawful, legitimate

The Trump-Comey scenario is clearly type 1(a), but I think the same is true of the Badger football situation. The concept of requiring absolute loyalty to the cause as a prerequisite for being part of the team.  

The problem, of course, is what it means to be faithful and to whom.  In the Comey situation, Comey's loyalty is to the FBI, the country, and the truth, not the person in the White House. Trump has sort of acknowledged this, although it is not clear what the president had in mind if he really did ask Comey for such a pledge.  But it is clear that if Comey were to have pledged loyalty to the president, he would clearly have created the risk of compromising his loyalty to the country and the truth.  

For football, this is harder to define.  Is it to the team?  To the coach? To the other players?  To the program?  Everything? 

Blind allegiance is rarely a good thing, and can often lead to bad outcomes.  In the Badger football case, it seems the coach was either (a) looking to get out of the commitment and took an excuse, (b) really believes assurances from one of his commits are hollow, or (c) wanted to send a message about allegiance.  It is entirely possible it was some combination of the three. 

When it comes to the high school player, I can imagine a scenario where the player was excited to be pursued, and he was showing off a little.  Hard to blame a kid for that, frankly.  Despite assurances to the contrary, the Badger coach wanted none of it.  His team, his call, but I don't like it. 

In my view, loyalty runs two ways.  And loyalty should have room for misunderstandings, at a minimum, if not mistakes. Even it it doesn't, in the case of college player and college coach, the coach is the grown up.  He or she should act like it.  That means, if you have a real problem with the player, state it. And if you really don't want them any more, say it.  I have no idea what the coach said, and in fairness to him, he may be the one taking the high road here by not airing issues publicly. 

I can't say these stories raise any clear answers for me.  But they do raise questions about loyalty, and what it means.  I think that's worth thinking about, especially for lawyers and future lawyers. Both of these stories make me uncomfortable. It's worth it to me to think about why and what that means. And I think we should all spend a little time thinking about it. 

May 16, 2017 in Current Affairs, Joshua P. Fershee, Lawyering, Philosophy | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Does the Bar Exam Put Business Clients At Risk?

The Legal Skills Prof Blog has posted an article entitled Our Broken Bar Exam by Deborah Jones Merritt. The post discusses Merritt’s proposal for a task force on the bar exam. Merritt’s article states, among other things:

The bar exam is broken: it tests too much and too little. On the one hand, the exam forces applicants to memorize hundreds of black-letter rules that they will never use in practice. On the other hand, the exam licenses lawyers who don’t know how to interview a client, compose an engagement letter, or negotiate with an adversary.
 
This flawed exam puts clients at risk. It also subjects applicants to an expensive, stressful process that does little to improve their professional competence... The bar examination should test the ability of an applicant to identify legal issues in a statement of facts, such as may be encountered in the practice of law, to engage in a reasoned analysis of the issues, and to arrive at a logical solution by the application of fundamental legal principles, in a manner which demonstrates a thorough understanding of these principles... Why doesn’t our definition of minimum competence include cognitive skills that are essential for effective client representation? The answer does not lie in the fact that these skills are difficult to test on a written exam. Research, fact gathering, interviewing, and other lawyering skills are cognitive abilities.

We could test for these skills by directing test-takers to outline a research plan, interview approach, or negotiation strategy based on a mock client file. Test-takers could also identify potential pitfalls, fall back positions, and ethical issues associated with their plan. These questions are no more difficult to draft and grade than classic issue-spotter essay questions. The primary reason we don’t test bar candidates on these skills is that law schools don’t stress them. Schools teach some professional competencies (like appellate advocacy) quite effectively, but relegate others to a corner of the curriculum. Employers and state supreme courts have urged law schools to teach a fuller range of lawyer competencies, but most schools have resisted…

Here are some of the many ideas that the task force could consider:

  • Develop MBE and essay questions that test fundamental principles and legal reasoning, rather than memorization. As proposed above, practicing lawyers could serve as test subjects to validate these questions.
  • Allow test-takers to refer to notes, codes, and other sources while taking the bar exam. This practice would more accurately measure professional knowledge.
  • Develop tests for more of the competencies that new lawyers perform.
  • Replace some (or all) multiple-choice and essay questions with performance-oriented case files like those presented on the Multistate Performance Test (MPT).
  • Allow examinees to take portions of the exam at different times, including after the first year of law school.
  • Work with law schools to create lawyering classes that would substitute for portions of the bar exam, as the University of New Hampshire has done. Bar examiners could audit these classes for content and rigor.
  • Encourage bar associations, law schools, and other organizations to develop postgraduate lawyering institutes to replace some (or all) of the bar exam. Law graduates currently spend more than $100 million annually on bar review courses—in addition to the fees they pay to take the bar. That money could support six to eight week intensive summer programs to teach and assess new graduates’ lawyering competence.

I thought about these criticisms and recommendations as I graded my Business Associations exam this week. Every year, I dutifully spend time on GPs, LPs, and LLPs in class and test on them during exam time because the Florida bar tests on these business subjects every year. The bar pays scant attention to LLCs even though that’s the fastest growing business entity in my state. Indeed, I have had almost a dozen guest speakers in my startup law skills class, and all of the attorneys indicated that they deal almost exclusively with LLCs and corporations. I worry when I spend time on interviewing and negotiation skills in the doctrinal class because the bar won’t test on these topics, but these are precisely the skills my students will need in practice.

Perhaps I worry for nothing. After the administration of every bar exam, I receive notes from students indicating that they felt prepared for both the exam and for life after law school. But I fear that schools do too little to prepare students for either. I highly recommend that you read Merritt’s article and if you agree with her, work with your state bar and the NCBE on reform.


 


 

 

May 11, 2017 in Corporations, Current Affairs, Law School, Lawyering, LLCs, Marcia Narine Weldon, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

What's next for conflict minerals legislation? My views and the GAO report

Last week, a reporter interviewed me regarding conflict minerals.The reporter specifically asked whether I believed there would be more litigation on conflict minerals and whether the SEC's lack of enforcement would cause companies to stop doing due diligence. I am not sure which, if any, of my remarks will appear in print so I am posting some of my comments below:

I expect that if conflict minerals legislation survives, it will take a different form. The SEC asked for comments at the end of January, and I've read most of the comment letters. Many, including Trillium Asset Management, focus on the need to stay the course with the Rule, citing some success in making many mines conflict free. Others oppose the rule because of the expense. However, it appears that the costs haven't been as high as most people expected, and indeed many of the tech companies such as Apple and Intel have voiced support for the rule. It's likely that they have already operationalized the due diligence. The SEC has limits on what it can do, so I expect Congress to take action, unless there is an executive order from President Trump, which people have been expecting since February. 
 
The Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Africa held a hearing on conflict minerals on April 5, and some of the witnesses and Senators talked about what hasn't worked with the rule. Although the situation has improved, the violence continues, most notably with the murder of a member of the UN Group of Experts just last week. Rick Goss from the Information Technology Council testified the while the Rule has had some benefits such as increased transparency and raising global awareness, there are also things that don't work. He discussed fact that the illicit trade in gold continues and criminal elements are still exploiting other resources. A number of his and other witness' proposed solutions were more holistic and geopolitical and went beyond the SEC's purview, and I think that's where the government should look when trying to address these issues. You may see a push toward a safe harbor, which came up in some of the comment letters, and which was a point of discussion during the Senate testimony. With a safe harbor, the issuer could rely on supplier certifications.
 
Lack of enforcement or less enforcement could cause more issuers to continue to do business or start doing business there because it will be less onerous. On the other hand, with with the EU's conflict mineral rules, which will come into play in 2021 and which covers the same minerals (but is not limited in geography) you may find that the big issuers decide to stay the course with due diligence.
 
I have been focusing my research on the consumer aspect of these name and shame laws. While there have been conflict-free campuses and conflict-free cities (and some of them sent letters to the SEC), I haven't seen solid evidence that shows that consumers are boycotting the companies that aren't doing the full due diligence that 1502 requires or rewarding those that do. Apple is a stand-out in conflict minerals compliance but they also happen to sell something that people really want.
 
Although firms like Trillium state that investors like the transparency, they are likely benefitting from an improved supply chain in general because companies that attempted to follow 1502 by necessity had to upgrade systems and supplier protocols.
 
So in sum, I think that the firms that are already doing what they are supposed to may continue to do so (or scale back just a little) and may tout these voluntary efforts in their CSR reports. Those who have been unable to determine the origin of their minerals won't likely do any more than they have to or may just source their minerals elsewhere.
 
If Congress keeps the rule, I recommend that the SEC:
 
1) limit reporting obligations to those companies that manufacture products;
2) add a de minimis exception to the Conflict Minerals Rule; and
3) include a safe harbor provision to allow issuers to rely upon defined contract provisions and supplier certifications.
 
Ideally, theTrump government should take the onus of the responsibility for solving this human rights crisis off the private sector and instead work with the Congolese government, other governments, and NGOs on holistic solutions, especially as it relates to the members of the armed forces, who are also involved in illegal mineral trade and human rights abuses.
 

Just today, the GAO issued a report on conflict minerals. Dodd-Frank requires an annual report on the effectiveness of the rule "in promoting peace and security in the DRC and adjoining countries." Of note, the report explained that:

After conducting due diligence, an estimated 39 percent of the companies reported in 2016 that they were able to determine that their conflict minerals came from covered countries or from scrap or recycled sources, compared with 23 percent in 2015. Almost all of the companies that reported conducting due diligence in 2016 reported that they could not determine whether the conflict minerals financed or benefited armed groups, as in 2015 and 2014. (emphasis added).

The Trump Administration, some SEC commissioners, and many in Congress have already voiced their concerns about this legislation. I didn't have the benefit of the GAO report during my interview, but it will likely provide another nail in the coffin of the conflict minerals rule. 

 

 

 

April 26, 2017 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Human Rights, International Law, Legislation, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (1)

What Is Ideological Diversity in the Legal Academy?

More than a few legal blogs and scholars have taken note of a recent paper by Adam Bonica (Stanford University), Adam S. Chilton (University of Chicago), Kyle Rozema (Northwestern University) and Maya Sen (Harvard University), “The Legal Academy’s Ideological Uniformity.”  The paper finds that those in the legal academy are more liberal than those in legal profession generally.  Anecdotally, I have to say I am not surprised. 

The abstract of the piece is as follows:

We find that approximately 15% of law professors are conservative and that only approximately one out of every twenty law schools have more conservative law professors than liberal ones. In addition, we find that these patterns vary, with higher-ranked schools having an even smaller presence of conservative law professors. We then compare the ideological balance of the legal academy to that of the legal profession. Compared to the 15% of law professors that are conservative, 35% of lawyers overall are conservative. Law professors are more liberal than graduates of top 14 law schools, lawyers working at the largest law firms, former federal law clerks, and federal judges. Although we find that professors are more liberal than the alumni at all but a handful of law schools, there is a strong relationship between the ideologies of professors from a law school and the ideologies of alumni from that school. However, this relationship is weaker for schools with more conservative alumni.

Jonathan Adler recently discussed the paper in a piece for The Volokh Conspiracy How ‘ideologically uniform’ is the legal academy? Adler notes, that the paper's "findings are based upon an examination of reported political donations. While this is an admittedly imperfect measure of ideology, it does allow for comparisons across population groups." I agree on both counts.   

I am particularly interested in (and a bit skeptical of) the use of political donations as the proxy for ideology.  I understand why the authors used that proxy: the information is available and it does, as Adler says, provide for comparisons.  My skepticism is not about their process or choice, but merely about whether it tells us very much about legal ideology. I think it tells us primarily about political party. And even there, in a primarily two-party system, it only tells us about preferences between those two parties, and if the data is primarily presidential, about those two specific candidates. 

My point is that legal ideology is often different that political party choice. When choosing between two parties, we all have priorities of our views, too. For example, I am a far bigger believer in the ability of markets to solve problems than many of my colleagues.  I am more skeptical of government intervention and increased regulation than many of my colleagues. But because of a few priorities that tip my balancing test, I would almost certainly come out "liberal" in using my modest contributions to political parties as the assessment of my ideology.  

In assessing legal ideology, though, I would argue diversity comes more from how we view the law than particular candidates or certain social issues. Obviously, it is much harder to assess that, but I think it should matter when considering how law schools teach.  

Some legal programs (like SEALS) have been seeking diversity of viewpoints, along with other measures of diversity, for panel and discussions groups. This is a good thing. It's not always easy to assess, though. Maybe we should just ask. Here's how I'd assess my own legal ideology: When it comes to economic regulation, my thinking is much more in line with former law professor and SEC Commissioner Troy A. Paredes than I am with, say, Elizabeth Warren. When it comes to business entities law, I am far more Bainbridge than Bebchuck.  For environmental law, more Huffman or Adler than Parenteau. Of course, I have at various times agreed and disagreed with them all.  

I, like many others, am very skeptical of an ideological litmus test or quota system. And yet I also think there is value in embracing different perspectives and viewpoints.  Ultimately, I don't care how someone votes when I assess whether they are a good legal scholar, a good colleague, and a good teacher. I do care that they value diversity of all kinds (including ideological), and I care that they believe in encouraging and faciltitating productive discourse. There is little value in lockstep thinking in any arena, and that is particularly true in legal education. I'm glad this discussion is part of how we consider moving forward in legal education.  

April 26, 2017 in Corporate Governance, Current Affairs, Joshua P. Fershee, Law and Economics, Law School, Lawyering, Research/Scholarhip, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Is Hashtag Activism Finally Changing Corporate Culture?

Ratings behemoth Bill O'Reilly is out of a job at Fox News “after thorough and careful review of the [sexual harassment] allegations” against him by several women. Fox had settled with almost half a dozen women before these allegations came to light, causing advertisers to leave in droves once the media reported on it. According to one article, social media activists played a major role in the loss of dozens of sponsors. Despite the revelations, or perhaps in a show of support, O’Reilly’s ratings actually went up even as advertisers pulled out. Fox terminated O’Reilly-- who had just signed a new contract worth $20 million per year-- the day before its parent company’s board was scheduled to meet to discuss the matter. The employment lawyer in me also wonders if the company was trying to preempt any negligent retention liability, but I digress.

An angry public also took to social media to expose United Airlines' after its ill-fated decision to have a passenger forcibly removed from his seat to make room for crew members. However, despite the estimated 3.5 million impressions on Twitter of #BoycottUnited, the airline will not likely suffer financially in the long term because of its near monopoly on some key routes. United’s stock price nosedived by $800 million right after the disturbing video surfaced, but has rebounded somewhat with EPS beating estimates. Check out Haskell Murray's recent post here for more perspective on United.

Pepsi and supermodel Kendall Jenner also suffered more embarrassment than financial loss after people around the world erupted on social media over an ad that many believed trivialized the Black Lives Matter movement. Pepsi pulled the controversial ad within 24 hours. Some believe that Pepsi may suffer in sales, but I’m not so sure. Ironically, Pepsi’s stock price went up during the scandal and went down after the company apologized.

Pepsi and United both suffered public relations nightmares, but the skeptic in me believes that consumers will ultimately focus on what’s most important to them- convenience, quality, price, and in Pepsi’s case, taste. I recently attended my 25th law school reunion, and all of my colleagues who used a ride sharing app used Uber nowithstanding its well-publicized leadership scandals and the #deleteuber campaign. Indeed, many social media campaigns actually backfire. The #grabyourwallet boycott of Ivanka Trump’s brand raised public awareness but may have actually led to its recent record sales.

Reasonable people can disagree about whether social media campaigns and threats of consumer boycotts actually cause long-standing and permanent changes in corporate culture or policy. There is no doubt, however, that CEOs and PR departments will be working more closely than ever in the age of viral videos and 24-hour worldwide Twitter feeds.

April 19, 2017 in Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Ethics, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, April 17, 2017

Bonus Post for a Monday: International Haiku Poetry Day

I rarely post twice in one day, but I am making an exception today.  After posting this morning, I learned that today is International Haiku Poetry Day.  I loved Haiku poetry as a kid.  I still love it as an adult.  It has structure--a structure that, in my opinion, encourages both brevity and creativity.

In honor of this special day, I wrote a personal haiku for my Facebook page.

Yoga feeds the soul
And calms the body and mind.
Breathe and move. Repeat.

I am pretty proud of that one, inspired by my Monday night Iyengar practice.  So, I thought I would try my hand at a BLPB haiku.  Here goes.

A new President.
Time to revamp business regs!
Uncertainty reigns.

The inspiration for this haiku is obvious . . . .  :>)

Prefer more humorous verse? I also loved limericks.  So, I checked to see whether there might be an International or National Limerick Day.  Indeed, it appears that we will celebrate limericks on Friday, May 12, 2017.  Hmm . . . .

 

April 17, 2017 in Current Affairs, Joan Heminway | Permalink | Comments (2)

Visioning the Publicly Held Benefit Corporation

As Haskell earlier announced here at the BLPB, The first U.S. benefit corporation went public back in February--just before publication of my paper from last summer's 8th Annual Berle Symposium (about which I and other BLPB participants contemporaneously wrote here, here, and here).  Although I was able to mark the closing of Laureate Education, Inc.'s public offering in last-minute footnotes, my paper for the symposium treats the publicly held benefit corporation as a future likelihood, rather than a reality.  Now, the actual experiment has begun.  It is time to test the "visioning" in this paper, which I recently posted to SSRN.  Here is the abstract.

Benefit corporations have enjoyed legislative and, to a lesser extent, popular success over the past few years. This article anticipates what recently (at the eve of its publication) became a reality: the advent of a publicly held U.S. benefit corporation — a corporation with public equity holders that is organized under a specialized U.S. state statute requiring corporations to serve both shareholder wealth aims and social or environmental objectives. Specifically, the article undertakes to identify and comment on the structure and function of U.S. benefit corporations and the unique litigation risks to which a publicly held U.S. benefit corporation may be subject. In doing so, the article links the importance of a publicly held benefit corporation's public benefit purpose to litigation risk management from several perspectives. In sum, the distinctive features of the benefit corporation form, taken together with key attendant litigation risks for publicly held U.S. benefit corporations (in each case, as identified in this article), confirm and underscore the key role that corporate purpose plays in benefit corporation law.

Ultimately, this article brings together a number of things I wanted to think and write about, all in one paper.  While many of the observations and conclusions may seem obvious, I found the exploration helpful to my thinking about benefit corporation law and litigation risk management.  Perhaps you will, too . . . .

April 17, 2017 in Anne Tucker, Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Haskell Murray, Joan Heminway, Litigation, Management, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, April 14, 2017

United Airlines, the Law, and Company Culture

By now, I am sure virtually all of our readers have heard about the United Airline issue involving the dragging of a passenger off the plane.

If not, you can catch up here, here, and here. And you can watch the viral video here.  

Shortly following the incident, United Airlines stock dropped sharply, losing hundreds of millions of dollars of value. (Of course, it is difficult to tell how much of this drop is related to the incident).

The CEO of United Airlines' first public statement was tone deaf at best. He wrote, "I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers" when better terms would have been "unacceptable" and "immediate corrective procedures." There is not evidence that they "had" to remove passengers; they removed passengers because they wanted to transport some of their employees on that flight. The internal e-mail to the corporation's employees was no better, calling the passenger "disruptive and belligerent."

My social media feeds, which include many lawyers and legal academics, are full of debate over whether United Airlines acted within the bounds of the law and their terms & conditions. While this is an interesting discussion, I think it is largely beside the point in this case. Regardless of whether United Airlines was legally correct, they surely could have handled the situation better (by offering more money for volunteers to go on a later flight, by explaining the terms of the deal better, by having their employees transported in another plane, etc.)

United Airlines is already paying a heavy public relations price. One thinks they would have learned from the United Airlines Breaks Guitars incident that went viral a few years ago and which I use in my negotiation classes every year.

After this incident, I just kept thinking how unlikely it would be for something like this to happen at Southwest Airlines. Southwest Airlines has a famously great company culture. See here, here, and here. Their employees always treat me significantly better than any other airline employee I have dealt with on my travel. Southwest Airlines is not perfect--I don't love their odd boarding procedure, for example---but they do strive to treat their consumers and their own employees extremely well, not just as poorly as the law will allow.

Southwest Airlines' company culture has also translated to remarkably reliable profits. Perhaps United needs to take notes.

Note: This appears to detail the rights of passengers who are denied boarding (up to $1,350) that many in the media are citing, though one can wonder whether this applies since the passenger in question had already boarded.

Update: This is the type of thing Southwest Airlines has become known for - turning a plane around so that a woman could be put in touch with her husband about a head injury their son had sustained. And booking her on the next flight, for free. 

April 14, 2017 in Business Associations, CSR, Current Affairs, Haskell Murray | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, April 7, 2017

Toughness and the Barkley Marathons

Barkley

Today’s topic does not have a direct connection to business law, but I do think toughness is important to students, professors, and lawyers. And the Barkleys Marathon is all about toughness, and maybe insanity. So indulge me. I have been thinking about the race, which happened this past weekend, all week. My wife said I wasn't allowed to talk about the Barkley Marathons anymore, so I am going to write about it here.

If you have not seen the documentary on Netflix entitled The Barkley Marathons: The Race that Eats its Young, watch it. See the documentary's trailers here and here. See more about the race here.

I will save you from this overlong, mostly unrelated post with a page break, but if you are interested, you can proceed and read below.

Continue reading

April 7, 2017 in Current Affairs, Haskell Murray, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Equal Pay Day Applied to M & A

The Washington Post reports

Back in 2015, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff admitted something many CEOs wouldn't: The company had found a pay gap between the men and women who worked for the cloud computing giant, and it was spending $3 million to fix it. Now after acquisitions and rampant growth at the company brought in 7,000 new employees in the past year, he's doing it again, announcing Tuesday that the company has spent another $3 million to adjust for a pay gap that affects 11 percent of its more than 25,000 employees.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Benioff said he believed the re-opened gap was largely because of the company's acquisitive streak -- it bought 14 companies in its last fiscal year, the largest in its history. When companies acquire others, Benioff said, "you buy their pay practices, and this pay practice -- of, basically, gender discrimination -- is quite dramatic through our industry and other industries," he said.

If one cares about equal pay, and I think people should (beyond just today), one needs to account for it in the purchase price of another entity.  This is a great reminder about the due diligence process. We need to think about all the things that matter to our clients (and ask them what those things are). The cost of implementing those things that matter, in addition to all the traditional things we worry about in an acquisition, should be accounted for if we want to maximize benefit for clients.   

April 4, 2017 in Compensation, Corporations, Current Affairs, Joshua P. Fershee | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 24, 2017

Impact Esq. and Kickstarter's 2016 Benefit Statement

Attorney Kyle Westaway has started a monthly e-mail that compiles information about social enterprise and impact investing law. You can subscribe here.

In the latest Impact Esq. newsletter, Kyle included a link to the Kickstarter’s 2016 Benefit Statement. Kyle wrote that he had “never seen [a benefit report] as strong as Kickstarter’s.” Personally, I am not sure I would go that far. I think Greyston Bakery’s Report and Patagonia’s Report are at least as good. I do think the Kickstarter report is relatively good, but the bar is incredibly low, as many benefit corporations are ignoring the statutory reporting requirement or doing a pathetically bad job at reporting.

While the Kickstarter report is more detailed than most, it still reads mostly like a PR piece to me. The vast majority of the report is listing cherry-picked, positive statistics. That said, Kickstarter did note a few areas for possible improvement, which is extremely rare in benefit report. Kickstarter stated that they could do more to promote “sustainability,” that they could do more to encourage staff to “take advantage of the paid time off we provide for volunteering,” and that they wanted to “encourage greater transparency from creators, better educate backers about the risks and rewards of this system, and further empower our Integrity team in their work to keep Kickstarter safe and trusted.” These “goals” for improvement are quite vague, and I would have liked to see more specific goals.

A few other things to note:

  • University of Pennsylvania produced a study, which was cited and used in the report. I think involving universities in the creation of these reports could be a good idea, though possible conflicts should be considered.
  • “Including both salary and equity, our CEO's total compensation equaled 5.52x the median total compensation of all non-CEO, non-founder employees in 2016. For context, a 2015 study examining the executive pay gap found that the average CEO earns 204 times that of the median worker for the same company.” I would be interested in how Kickstarter’s number compares to companies in their industry, especially direct competitors. I imagine the CEO/Employee compensation ratio is lower in the technology industry, where the market demands fairly high employee compensation, but even considering the industry, Kickstarter's ratio still seems quite low.
  • “Kickstarter overall team demographics: 53% women; 47% men. 70% White/Caucasian; 12% Asian; 12% two or more races; 4% Hispanic or Latino; 2% Black/African American.” This seems to be a good bit more diverse, especially as to gender, than other technology companies who have released similar data.
  • “Everyone who works at Kickstarter receives an annual Education Stipend to explore their interests outside the office. In 2016, our employees used their stipends towards blacksmithing classes, a bookmaking class, a synthesizer, pottery courses, an herbal medicine workshop, art supplies, improv classes, a neon light making seminar, and embroidery.” I didn’t see how much the education stipend was, but this seems like a good perk.
  • “We donated 5% of our after-tax profits to six organizations working to build a more creative and equitable world.” Profits are easier to manipulate than revenues; I’d like to see a revenue floor (as Patagonia does – donating the greater of 10% of profits and 1% of revenues). That said 5% of profits can be significant and does show some commitment to these causes.

March 24, 2017 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, CSR, Current Affairs, Haskell Murray, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)