Wednesday, March 26, 2014
A little more than six weeks ago The Lego Movie hit theaters. Without getting into too much detail for those of you who have not yet seen the movie or who will never get around to seeing the movie, in essence it’s about an ordinary guy who’s mistakenly identified as an extraordinary “MasterBuilder”. He is recruited to fight against a Lego villain (President Business-we can call him P.B.) who is intent on gluing everything together. The anti-PB crusaders like having the freedom to dismantle, break, and re-make their Lego creations and shudder at the thought of having everything permanently fixed in place. PB, on the other hand, is intent on perma-gluing the Lego bricks together because he likes the certainty and control of knowing where everything is, and he is wary of innovation or change. Hence, his admonition- “EVERYTHING MUST STAY IN PLACE.”
Now as I watched this battle unfold between President Business’ pro-gluing supporters on one hand, and the pro-change supporters on the other, I could not help but see some similarities between the Lego people’s contested views on the purpose of Legos and our society’s contested views on the purpose of corporations. In The Lego Movie it is a contest between staying in place and the freedom to innovate and create, while in the corporate purpose debate it is a contest between profit maximization/shareholder primacy and ANYTHING ELSE THAT DARES TO SAY ANYTHING OTHER THAN SHAREHOLDER PRIMACY (e.g., creating shared value; stakeholder theory; team production).
While shareholder primacy has both normative and pragmatic appeal, one cannot help but wonder whether this traditional conceptualization of corporations is open to being re-made, or must it be immovable and “stay in place”. In other words, if we accept that our world today is markedly different from the one that existed when shareholder primacy came into vogue, are we selling ourselves short by clinging to a mantra that may no longer be ideal or that may need to be revamped?
Consider a new report by McKinsey [Dr. Maximilian Martin of Impact Economy], titled “Impact Economy, Driving Innovation through Corporate Impact Venturing – A Primer on Business Transformation”. In essence, the report finds that pursuing a profit-as-usual model with “CSR” as a tangential activity is “fast coming to an end.” According to the report, this is because “[a] new paradigm is emerging in its place that is responding to structural changes in the operating environments of business.” The McKinsey [Impact Economy] report points to four “megatrends” that are nudging corporations towards a more transformative and holistic view of their role and purpose – what McKinsey [Impact Economy] terms “sustainable value creation.” These four trends are: (i) significant opportunities at the Base of the Pyramid (BoP); (ii) a $540 billion market for “Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability Consumption”; (iii) the growth in markets “resulting from green growth and the circular economy”; and (iv) the “modernization of the welfare state.” The conclusion reached by the report is that “companies are well advised to grasp the changing tectonics of value creation and tackle markets accordingly if they want to remain competitive in the long run.”
This new McKinsey [Impact Economy] report is of course not alone in making the case for a more expansive view of corporate purpose (for example, the Aspen Business & Society Program’s report on long-term value creation, or Michael Porter’s work on creating shared value). But what does it take to move the needle? In the Lego Movie, it took President Business and the head of the pro-change supporters realizing that their views were really not that far apart. Maybe that too is the winning answer for the corporate purpose debate – those corporations who are successful in responding to the aforementioned mega trends and other societal needs stand to be the ones who provide the most value creation for society and their shareholders.
UPDATE 4/15/14: The original version of this post improperly identified McKinsey as the source of the “Impact Economy, Driving Innovation through Corporate Impact Venturing – A Primer on Business Transformation” report. The post has been corrected to reflect the fact that the report was written by Dr. Maximilian Martin of Impact Economy.
Tuesday, March 18, 2014
Ed Whelan at National Review Online (h/t: Prof. Bainbridge) asks, in light of a recent Fourth Circuit opinion, “Will those who (wrongly) think that for-profit corporations are incapable of exercising religion for purposes of RFRA object as vigorously to the concept that for-profit corporations can have a racial identity for purposes of Title VI? If not, why not?”
I have been following the Hobby Lobby case with interest, though I am just delving into its depths now. After starting through the various amicus briefs, my initial reaction is that the law has not evolved to where it needs to be with respect to protecting those engaging in the widespread use of entities. I, as is often the case, my intitial reaction is that the answer to Mr. Whelan’s question is somewhere in the middle: I think for-profit corporations are capable of exercising religion under RFRA, but in this case I don’t see the necessary substantial burden, at least when balanced with an individual’s right to make such decisions, to carry the day. (Reasonable minds can disagree on this, but that’s my take).
Taking a broader look, though, view entities should be able to take on the race, gender, or religion of its primary shareholders (or members) in proper circumstances to protect against discrimination. The Fourth Circuit opinion states: “We hold that a corporation can acquire a racial identity and establish standing to seek a remedy for alleged race discrimination under Title VI.” Seven other circuit courts “have concluded that corporations have standing to assert race discrimination claims.” This seems proper, because a minority-owned company might be denied a contract or be treated differently in the execution of a contract because of the race of the primary shareholders. It would be improper to deny protections for the shareholders/members just because they chose to avail themselves of entity protections to conduct their business.
The same should be true in cases of religion and gender. Suppose, for example, an all-female construction company were denied a bid because the city seeking the project thinks construction is “man’s work to be done by men.” Similarly, protections should be available if a Catholic-owned company were to lose a bid because the county seeking the bid was run by people who didn’t “trust Catholics to finish anything on time.” (Disclosure: I was raised Catholic, and while I most certainly don’t speak for any other Catholics, my comfort level leads me to use Catholics in such examples.)
Thus, an entity should be able to take on the race, gender, or religion of the shareholders/members to fight cases where the same discrimination against an individual would stand. Obviously, then, having a member of a certain race, gender, or religion as a shareholder, member, director, or employee would not be sufficient to make the claim. The entity would also have to demonstrate: (1) that the alleged discrimination was predicated on race, gender, or religion, and (2) the entity (and not just certain individuals) was identified with the group against whom the discrimination was targeted.
In the Hobby Lobby case, then, under this rubric I think the claim would fail because the entity would not be able to demonstrate they have satisfied the first test. Regardless of what one thinks of the healthcare law, the law was not designed to discriminate against certain religions (or race or gender). The law also does not mandate any individual course of action, but merely requires that access be provided to certain healthcare options. (That is, it mandates access, not use.)
This is not the current state of the law, of course. Still, it seems to me that the proper way forward is to recognize that entities can often take on identities of those running them, but that protections should only be available where the entity’s identity was targeted for harm because of that identity, and not an arguable result of another non-identity-based decision.
Thursday, March 6, 2014
Some law professors may remember when Justices Roberts and Kennedy opined on the value legal scholarship. Justice Roberts indicated in an interview that law professors spend too much time writing long law review articles about “obscure” topics. Justice Kennedy discussed the value he derives from reading blog posts by professors who write about certs granted and opinions issued. I have no doubt that most law students don’t look at law review articles unless they absolutely have to and I know that when I was a practicing lawyer both as outside counsel and as in house counsel, I almost never relied upon them. If I was dealing with a cutting-edge issue, I looked to bar journals, blog posts and case law unless I had to review legislative history.
As a new academic, I enjoy reading law review articles regularly and I read blog posts all the time. I know that outside counsel read blogs too, in part because now they’re also blogging and because sometimes counsel will email me to ask about a blog post. I encourage my students to follow bloggers and to learn the skill because one day they may need to blog for their own firms or for their employers.
Blogging provides a number of benefits for me. First, I can get ideas out in minutes rather than months via the student-edited law review process. This allows me to get feedback on works/ideas in progress. Second, it forces me to read other people’s scholarship or musings on topics that are outside of my research areas. Third, reading blogs often provides me with current and sophisticated material for my business associations and civil procedure courses. At times I assign posts from bloggers that are debating a hot topic (Hobby Lobby for example). When we discuss the Basic v. Levinson case I can look to the many blog posts discussing the Halliburton case to provide current perspective.
But as I quickly learned, not everyone in the academy is a fan of blogging. Most schools do not count it as scholarship, although some consider it service. Anyone who considers blogging should understand her school’s culture. For me the benefits outweigh the detriment. Like Justice Kennedy, I’m a fan of professors who blog. In no particular order, here are the mostly non-law firm blogs I check somewhat regularly (apologies in advance if I left some out):
http://www.theconglomerate.org/ (thanks again for giving me first opportunity to blog a few months into my academic career!)
http://law.wvu.edu/the_business_of_human_rights (currently on a short hiatus)
I would welcome any suggestions of must-reads.
March 6, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Marcia L. Narine, Merger & Acquisitions, Securities Regulation, Social Enterprise, Teaching, Unincorporated Entities, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (2)
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
West Virginia University has a new LLM program in Energy & Sustainable Development Law. At the moment, the program is open only to those with a U.S. law degree. The degree program capitalizes on a wide and deep range of expertise at WVU Law in a one of the nation's most energy-rich states. (Full bias disclosure: I direct the program.)
All students in the program are required to take both the Energy Law Survey and the Environmental Protection Law course. This is because we firmly believe that all lawyers connected to the energy sector need to have a firm grasp on both energy law issues and envirnonmental law issues. Both courses touch on each other's area, but having both courses as a base will lead to better prepared professionals, whether the graduate wants to work for industry, an NGO, or a regulator.
We also require some form of experiential learning, a portfolio of written work, and a Research Paper or Field-Work Project. Full details of the program are here. For this venue, and in my area of interest, I will note our business offerings. I teach my Energy Business: Law & Strategy course, details here, in addition to my Business Organizations course and the Energy Law Survey. We also have great variety of courses in energy law, environmental law, and sustainable development law.
In addition, we have a fellowship opportunity in the Land Use and Sustainable Development Clinic. This fellowship is a part-time (at least twenty hours per week), two-year position from August 2014 through July 2016. The Fellow will receive an annual stipend of $20,000 and tuition remission for the LL.M. program. The Fellow would take 6-7 credits per semester allowing time for part-time work at the Clinic. Details available here.
In a world where the Future of Business is the Future of Energy, this program is one option to consider.
Thursday, February 20, 2014
Our BLPB group has had a number of email discussions recently about the use of social media including blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter for professional purposes. My home institution has discussed the same topic and even held a “training” session on technology in and outside of the classroom. Because I am a heavy user, I volunteered to blog about how I use social media as a lawyer and academic in the hopes of spurring discussion or at least encouraging others to take a dip in the vast pool of social media.
Although I have been on Facebook for years, I don’t use that professionally at all. I also don’t allow my students to friend me, although I do know a number of professors who do. I often see lawyer friends discussing their clients or cases in a way that borders on violations of the rules of professional conduct, and I made sure to discuss those pitfalls when I was teaching PR last year.
I have also used LinkedIn for several years, mainly for professional purposes to see what others in my profession (at the time compliance and privacy work) were thinking about. I still belong to a number of LinkedIn groups and have found that academics from other countries tend to use LinkedIn more than US professors. I have received a number of invitations to collaborate on research just from posts on LinkedIn. I also encourage all of my law students to join LinkedIn not only for networking purposes, but also so that they can attract recruiters, who now use LinkedIn almost as often as they use headhunters. When I blog, I link my posts to LinkedIn, which in turn automatically posts to Twitter.
I admit that I did not like Twitter at first. I now have three Twitter accounts- follow me at @mlnarine. I started using Twitter when I was a deputy general counsel and compliance officer and I followed law firms and every government agency that was online that regulated my industry. The government agencies were very early to the Twitter game and I once learned about a delay in the rollout of a regulation via Twitter a full week before my outside counsel who was working on the project informed me.
I also use the hashtag system (#) to see what others are saying on topics that hold my interest such as #csr (corporate social responsibility and unfortunately also customer service rep), #socent for social enterprise, #corpgov for corporate governance, and #Dodd-Frank and #climatechange (self explanatory).
I make an effort to tweet daily and am now an expert in trying to say something useful in 140 characters or less (being on yearbook staff in high school and counting characters for headlines made this a breeze for me). I re-tweet other tweets that I believe may be of interest to my followers or links to articles, and often gain new followers based on what I have chosen to tweet, largely because of my use of hashtags. In fact, after a marathon tweeting session following the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals oral argument before the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, I received four calls from the press for interviews, a nice, unexpected benefit of trying to educate my followers. Often when I attend conferences, such as last week’s ABA meeting or the UN’s Business and Human Rights Forum, the organizers develop a hashtag so that those who cannot attend in person can follow the proceedings through tweets and the attachments to those tweets.
The best part of twitter is that I met fellow blogger, Haskell Murray because of one his tweets and that led to an invitation to speak at a conference. Haskell has published a useful list of business law professors on Twitter so if you’re not on his list, let us know and we will update it.
Next week I will post about the benefits or perils of blogging, especially for someone new to academia.
February 20, 2014 in Business Associations, Anne Tucker, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Ethics, Haskell Murray, Marcia L. Narine, Social Enterprise, Stefan J. Padfield, Teaching, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, February 10, 2014
The SEC is taking some flak from crowdfunding proponents for its crowdfunding rules. Sherwood Neiss, one of the early proponents of a crowdfunding exemption, has taken the SEC to task, as has Representative Sam Graves, the chair of the House Committee on Small Business. See also this article.
These critics point out, correctly, that the crowdfunding exemption is too expensive and restrictive. The problem is that the critics are aiming at the wrong target. I’m no SEC apologist; I have criticized its approach to small business and the structure of its exemptions on a number of occasions. But, in this case, it’s not the SEC that deserves the blame. It’s Congress.
Almost everything the critics are concerned about originates in the statute itself, not in the SEC’s attempt to implement the statute. I pointed out the many problems with the JOBS Act’s crowdfunding exemption almost 18 months ago. The unnecessary cost, complexity, and liability issues the critics are currently complaining about are statutory problems.
Yes, the SEC has some discretion to change some of the objectionable provisions, but one should hardly expect the SEC, with no experience whatsoever with crowdfunding, to overrule the express requirements adopted by Congress. If anything, as I have pointed out here and here, the SEC is to be commended for cleaning up some of the problems created by the statute.
The crowdfunding exemption is terribly flawed, but it’s not the SEC’s fault. If you’re looking for someone to blame, Congress is the place to start, particularly the Senate, which is responsible for the substitute language that became the final crowdfunding bill. The crowdfunding exemption needs to be fixed, but it’s Congress that will have to fix it.
Friday, February 7, 2014
On April 24, 2014, the University of Saint Thomas (Minnesota) will host a conference on social enterprise. The conference will be interdisciplinary, engaging experts in Catholic studies, entrepreneurship, law, management, and public policy.
The first session will address issues surrounding using business as an agent for social change, with a focus on social entrepreneurship and benefit corporations. The first session will run from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. in the Atrium at the University of St. Thomas, School of Law and is approved for 2.0 hours of CLE credit (Minnesota). Speakers are listed below:
- Elizabeth K. Babson, Attorney with Drinker, Biddle and Reath LLP and a co-author of the Benefit Corporation White Paper
- Lyman P. Q. Johnson, LeJeune Distinguished Chair in Law, University of St. Thomas, School of Law, and Robert O. Bentley Professor of Law at Washington and Lee University
- John F. McVea, Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship, University of St. Thomas, Opus College of Business
- J. Haskell Murray, Assistant Professor of Management and Business Law, Belmont University
- Michael J. Naughton, Director, John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought, University of St. Thomas, Center for Catholic Studies
- Elizabeth R. Schiltz (moderator), Thomas J. Abood Research Scholar, and Co-Director of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law and Public Policy, University of St. Thomas, School of Law
The second session will run from 5:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m. in the Opus Hall of the Opus College of Business, will include dinner, and the discussion will focus on PoveryCure (a video series by Michael M. Miller of the Acton Institute).
The sponsors from the University of St. Thomas include:
- Center for Catholic Studies
- John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought
- Joseph and Edith Habiger Institute for Catholic Leadership
- Opus College of Business
- School of Law
- Schulze School of Entrepreneurship
- Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law and Public Policy
- Veritas Institute
Advanced registration is required, but the conference is free of charge and open to the public. Register here.
Sunday, January 26, 2014
Go here for the January 16, 2014 testimony of Mercer E. Bullard before the Committee on Small Business, United States House of Representatives, on the SEC's Crowdfunding Proposal. Here is a brief excerpt (comment deadline is February 3):
The overriding issue for crowdfunding is likely to be how the narrative of investors frequently losing their entire investment plays out. If investors are perceived as losing only a small part of their portfolios because of business failures rather than fraud, or if their crowdfunding losses are set off by gains in other investments through diversification, the crowdfunding market could weather large losses and thrive. However, if fraudsters are easily able to scam investors under the cover of a crowdfunding offering, or stale financial statements routinely turn out to have hidden more recent, undisclosed financial declines, or there are investors who can’t afford the losses they incur, resulting in stories of personal financial distress – then crowdfunding markets will never become a credible tool for raising capital.
Thursday, January 23, 2014
Even before I read the book The Happy Lawyer by my former colleagues Nancy Levit and Doug Linder, I loved every legal job I ever had from judicial law clerk to BigLaw associate (twice), to deputy general counsel. I am still a happy lawyer after twenty-two years in the profession. I am clearly an anomaly among my attorney friends, most of whom looked at me with envy when I said that I was leaving practice to pursue academia. One friend, a partner in a South Florida firm quipped, “litigation has to be one of the only professions where your client hates you, your opposing counsel hates you, and the judge probably thinks you’re an idiot. When the outcome is positive, the client loves you until they see the bill.” No wonder lawyers aren’t happy.
But the situation for lawyers is more serious than a few clients grumbling about high bills. Earlier this week CNN reported that lawyers are the 4th most unhappy professionals behind dentists, pharmacists, and physicians, and are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers. According to the article, 40% of law students report that they have suffered from depression before graduation. That acknowledgement of a diagnosis of depression or indeed seeking any help for mental illness or substance abuse can adversely affect the graduate’s chances for admission to the bar.
Eight states, including my home state of Florida, have added a mental health component to the continuing legal education requirement, in part to address a rise in attorney suicides. No one can pinpoint the cause for the increase in unhappiness. Perhaps it’s the recession, which led to layoffs at every level and which will forever alter the legal landscape. Perhaps, like doctors, pharmacists and dentists, lawyers tend to be type A personalities who thrive on perfection and success and drive themselves harder than others.
I read the CNN article while was on a tour in Switzerland two days ago. I thought I wanted to live the life of the Swiss with their low taxes, 3.1% unemployment rate, high income and great medical and social insurance programs, when the tour guide stunned us by acknowledging that Switzerland has the third highest suicide rate in the world. “It’s the relentless pressure to succeed and the tremendous competition here,” he explained. It seems as though the Swiss have something in common with American lawyers.
I was actually in Switzerland for the 4th annual kickoff of the innovative LawWithoutWalls program founded by University of Miami Professor Michele DeStefano. The program requires law and business students from around the world to work on teams to develop a project of worth addressing a problem facing the legal profession or legal education. I serve as an academic mentor with entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, in house counsel, practitioner mentors and lawyers from sponsor Eversheds. The students learn about the commoditization of legal services from the very firms that are disrupting the profession, Axiom and LegalZoom, who have representatives serving as mentors or thought leaders. They watch actual pitches on legal innovations to venture capitalists. They learn about doing a business plan for their projects of worth from entrepreneurs, and they use that knowledge when they present their project in a Shark Tank-like presentation in April. The next few months of their lives as part of this program will help the students learn skills and make contacts for an ever-evolving global legal market. Hopefully, they will be better equipped to handle what’s out there than the students who take their career cues from the television show Suits.
But what about the practicing lawyers? Not everyone wants to or can make the leap to academia. There are few LawWithoutWalls programs for veteran, burned-out lawyers. Many attorneys will continue to suffer from soul-crushing anxiety, depression or boredom. I don’t have the answer but look out for the follow-up to Levit and Linder’s book entitled The Good Lawyer: Seeking Quality in the Practice of Law due out this summer.
Aaron George at Under30CEO has a nice post on the top five legal mistakes made by startups. Not much new to those of us who are lawyers, but it's a nice summary of some of the mistakes startups can make.
I could quibble with his list. I think selling securities without complying with securities law ought to be there somewhere, and I think his No. 5--not hiring a lawyer--ought to be No. 1. But his list does include some of the common legal mistakes made by budding entrepreneurs.
Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Freedom Industries -- the company apparently responsible for contaminating the Elk River (and, along with it, 300,000 West Virginia residents’ drinking water) – has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The company wasted little time filing for reorganization, and the process already has some people on edge.
From a public relations perspective, this kind of cases does not serve the concepts of Business Organizations especially well. The use of limited liability vehicles is sanctioned by law, and such use has been credited with creating all kinds of opportunities for growth through pooled resources that would not otherwise occur without the grant of limited liability. I happen to think that’s true. (See, e.g., Corporate Moral Agency and the Role of the Corporation in Society, p. 176, By David Ronnegard)
Still, one of the issues is that figuring out who owned Freedom Industries took some sleuthing (reporter's findings here). It appears the structure is as follows:
Freedom Industries’ Chapter 11 documents list its sole owner as Chemstream Holdings, which is owned by J. Clifford Forrest. Forrest also owned the Pennsylvania company, Rosebud Mining, which is located at the same address Chemstream Holdings lists for its headquarters. The
Reports note that the chapter 11 filing also states that two entities have offered to lend up to $5 million to fund Freedom Industries’ reorganization. The two entities are VF Funding and Mountaineer Funding, the latter of which is a West Virginia LLC formed by its sole owner: J. Clifford Forrest.
The idea that the owner of the company that owns the company that owned the chemicals that harmed the water in West Virginia is now seeking to create a new company to loan money to the company that owned the chemicals is note sitting very well with many of those harmed by the chemical leak.
Some of those harmed by the chemical spill are objecting to the proposed reorganization structure. As reported here, West Virginia American Water (WVAW), the utility providing the tainted water (and the subject of it own lawsuits because of it), claims the water company will be “the largest creditor by far in this bankruptcy case.” As such, WVAW has asked (PDF here) the bankruptcy judge to slow down the reorganization so that the utility and other creditors an opportunity get a better sense of the ownership structure and how the creditors (and possible creditors) will be treated.
This case probably looks even worse because it keeps coming back to a single person, and not a group of investors. Again, one company – Chemstream Holdings, Inc. is owned by one person -- J. Clifford Forrest, who then is the sole owner of a company seeking to loan money to the embattled company.
Keeping with that theme, after a little sleuthing of my own, I found that although the initial reports were of VF Funding and Mounatineer Funding LLC offering to loan $5 million to Freedom Industries, it seems to have gotten even more convoluted. There is yet another company in the mix – WV Funding LLC (pdf), which was formed on January 17, 2014, and on the same date the entity filed to be the Debtor in Possession of Freedom Industries (pdf). WV Funding LLC was organized by same Wheeling attorney who formed Mountaineer Funding LLC for Forrest. The sole listed member of WV Funding LLC? Mountaineer Funding LLC (pdf). Related documents here.
All of this, at least at this point, seems permissible. Still, at some point, it really does start to look like someone is trying to pull a fast one. And even a staunch defender of the corporation and uncorporation has a hard time arguing otherwise. At a minimum, and even though there are good counterarguments (like Steve Bainbridge makes here in a different context), such behavior starts to make an expansive view of enterprise liability a lot more attractive.