Friday, May 22, 2015

The outsourcing of human rights enforcement to corporations- EU-style

I haven’t met Hollywood producer Edward Zwick, who brought the movie and the concept of Blood Diamonds to the world’s attention, but I have had the honor of meeting with medical rock star, and Nobel Prize nominee Dr. Denis Mukwege. Both Zwick and Mukwege had joined numerous NGOs in advocating for a mandatory conflict minerals law in the EU. I met the doctor when I visited Democratic Republic of Congo in 2011 on a fact finding trip for a nonprofit that focuses on maternal and infant health and mortality. Since Mukwege works with mass rape victims, my colleague and I were delighted to have dinner with him to discuss the nonprofit. I also wanted to get his reaction to the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals regulation, which was not yet in effect. I don’t remember him having as strong an opinion on the law as he does now, but I do remember that he adamantly wanted the US to do something to stop the bloodshed that he saw first hand every day.

The success of the Dodd-Frank law is debatable in terms of stemming the mass rape, use of child slaves, and violence against innocent civilians. Indeed, earlier this month, over 100 villagers were raped by armed militia. A 2014 Human Rights Watch report confirms that both rebels and the Congolese military continue to use rape as a weapon of war to deal with ethnic tensions. I know this issue well having co-authored a study on the use of sexual and gender-based violence in DRC with a medical anthropologist. With all due respect to Dr. Mukwege (who clearly know the situation better than I), that research on the causes of rape, but more important, my decade of experience in the supply chain industry have lead me to believe that the US Dodd-Frank law was misguided. The law aims to stem the violence by having US issuers perform due diligence on their supply chains. I have spoken to a number of companies that have told me that  it would have been easier for the US to just ban the use of minerals from Congo because the compliance challenges are too high. Thus it was no surprise that last year’s SEC filings were generally vague and uninformative. It remains to be seen whether the filings due in a few weeks will be any better.

To me Dodd-Frank is a convenient way for the US government to outsource human rights enforcement to multinational corporations. Due diligence and clean supply chains are good, necessary, and in my view nonnegotiable, but they are not nearly enough to deal with the horrors in Congo. Nonetheless, in a surprise move, the EU Parliament voted this week to go even farther than the US law. According to the Parliament’s press release:

Parliament voted by 400 votes to 285, with 7 abstentions, to overturn the Commission's proposal as well as the one adopted by the international trade committee and requested mandatory compliance for "all Union importers" sourcing in conflict areas. In addition, "downstream" companies, that is, the 880, 000 potentially affected EU firms that use tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold in manufacturing consumer products, will be obliged to provide information on the steps they take to identify and address risks in their supply chains for the minerals and metals concerned… The regulation applies to all conflict-affected high risk areas in the world, of which the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Great Lakes area are the most obvious example. The draft law defines 'conflict-affected and high-risk areas' as those in a state of armed conflict, with widespread violence, the collapse of civil infrastructure, fragile post-conflict areas and areas of weak or non-existent governance and security, characterised by "widespread and systematic violations of human rights".

(emphasis mine). I hope this proposed law works for the sake of the Congolese and all of those who live in conflict zones around the world. The EU member states have to sign off on it, so who knows what the final law will look like. Some criticize the law because the list of “conflict-affected areas” is constantly changing. Although that’s true, I don’t think that criticism should affect passage of the law. The bigger flaw in my view is that there are a number of natural resources from conflict-affected zones- palm oil comes to mind- that this regulation does not address. This law, like Dodd-Frank does both too much and not enough. In an upcoming book chapter, I propose that governments use procurement and other incentives and penalties related to executive compensation and clawbacks to drive human rights due diligence and third-party audits (sorry, I'm prohibited from posting a link to it but it's forthcoming from Cambridge University Press).

In the meantime, I will wait for the DC Circuit to rule on constitutional aspects of the Dodd-Frank bill. I will also be revising my most recent law review article on the defects of the disclosure regime to address the EU development. I will post the article next week from Havana, Cuba, where I will spend 10 days learning about the Cuban legal system and culture. Given my scholarship and the recent warming of relations between the US and Cuba, I may sneak a little research in as well, and in two weeks I will post my impressions on the challenges and opportunities that US companies will face in the Cuban market once the embargo is lifted. Adios!

May 22, 2015 in Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, International Business, Legislation, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Travel | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Call for Papers: Business and Human Rights


Business and Human Rights Junior Scholars Conference
                          
The Rutgers Center for Corporate Governance, The University of Washington School of Law, and the Business and Human Rights Journal (Cambridge University Press) announce the first Business and Human Rights Junior Scholars Conference, to be held September 18, 2015 at the Rutgers School of Law – Newark in Newark, New Jersey, just outside of New York City.  The Conference will pair approximately ten junior scholars writing at the intersection of business and human rights issues with senior scholars in the field.  Junior scholars will have an opportunity to present their papers and receive feedback from senior scholars.   Upon request, participants’ papers may be considered for publication in the Business and Human Rights Journal (BHRJ), published by Cambridge University Press.
 
All junior scholars will be tenure-track professors who are either untenured or have been tenured in the past three years.  The Conference is interdisciplinary; scholars from all disciplines are invited to apply, including law, business, human rights, and global affairs.  The papers must be unpublished at the time of presentation.
 
To apply, please submit an abstract of no more than 250 words to msantoro@business.rutgers.edu andarama@uw.edu with the subject line Business & Human Rights Conference Proposal.  Please include your name, affiliation, contact information, and curriculum vitae. 
 
The deadline for submission is June 15, 2015.  Scholars whose submissions are selected for the symposium will be notified no later than July 15, 2015. We encourage early submissions, as selections will be made on a rolling basis.
  
About the BHRJ
 
The BHRJ provides an authoritative platform for scholarly debate on all issues concerning the intersection of business and human rights in an open, critical and interdisciplinary manner. It seeks to advance the academic discussion on business and human rights as well as promote concern for human rights in business practice.
 
BHRJ strives for the broadest possible scope, authorship and readership. Its scope encompasses interface of any type of business enterprise with human rights, environmental rights, labour rights and the collective rights of vulnerable groups. The Editors welcome theoretical, empirical and policy / reform-oriented perspectives and encourage submissions from academics and practitioners in all global regions and all relevant disciplines.
 
A dialogue beyond academia is fostered as peer-reviewed articles are published alongside shorter ‘Developments in the Field’ items that include policy, legal and regulatory developments, as well as case studies and insight pieces.
 
 

May 21, 2015 in Call for Papers, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Marcia Narine | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Did a Slave Make Your Product and Do You Care? The California AG Thinks So

Last week, I looked lovingly at a picture of a Starbucks old-fashioned grilled cheese sandwich. It had 580 calories. I thought about getting the sandwich and then reconsidered and made another more “virtuous” choice. These calorie disclosures, while annoying, are effective for people like me. I see the disclosure, make a choice (sometimes the “wrong” one), and move on.

Regular readers of this blog know that I spend a lot of time thinking about human rights from a corporate governance perspective. I thought about that uneaten sandwich as I consulted with a client last week about the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act. The law went into effect in 2012 and requires retailers, sellers, and manufacturers that exceed $100 million in global revenue that do business in California to publicly disclose the degree to which they verify, audit, and certify their direct suppliers as it relates to human trafficking and slavery. Companies must also disclose whether or not they maintain internal accountability standards, and provide training on the issue in their direct supply chains. The disclosure must appear prominently on a company’s website, but apparently many companies, undeterred by the threat of injunctive action by the state Attorney General, have failed to comply. In April, the California Department of Justice sent letters to a number of companies stating in part: 

If your company has posted the required disclosures on its Internet website or, alternatively, takes the position that it is not required to comply with the Act, we request that – within 30 days of this letter’s date – you complete the form accessible at http://oag.ca.gov/sb657 and provide this office with (1) the web links (URLs) to both your company’s Transparency in Supply Chains Act disclosures and its homepage containing a link to the disclosures; and/or (2) information demonstrating your company is not covered by the Act.

There are no financial penalties for noncompliance. Rather, companies can face reputational damage and/or an order from the Attorney General to post something on their websites. A company complies even if that disclosure states that the company does no training, auditing, certification, monitoring or anything else related to human trafficking or slavery. The client I spoke to last week is very specialized and all of its customers are other businesses. Based on their business profiles, those “consumers” are not likely to make purchasing decisions based on human rights due diligence. I will be talking to another client in a few weeks on the California law. That client is business to consumer but its consumers specifically focus on low cost—that’s the competitive advantage for that client. Neither company-- the B2B nor the B2 (cost conscious)C-- is likely to lose significant, if any business merely because they don’t do extensive due diligence on their supply chains. Similarly, Apple, which has done a great job on due diligence for the conflict minerals law will not set records with the sale of the Apple Watch because of its human rights record. I bet that if I walked into an Apple Store and asked how many had seen or heard of Apple’s  state of the art conflict minerals disclosure, the answer would be less than 1% (and that would be high).

People buy products because they want them. The majority of people won’t bother to look for what’s in or behind the product, although that information is readily available through apps or websites. If that information stares the consumer in the face (thanks Starbucks), then the consumer may make a different choice. But that assumes that (1) the consumer cares and (2) there is an equally viable choice.

To be clear, I believe that companies must know what happens with their suppliers, and that there is no excuse for using trafficked or forced labor. But I don’t know that the use of disclosures is the way to go. Some boards will engage in the cost benefit analysis of reputational damage and likelihood of enforcement  vs cost of compliance rather than having a conversation about what kind of company they want to be. Many board members will logically ask themselves, “should we care if our customers don’t care?”

My most recent law review article covers this topic in detail. I’ll post it in the next couple of weeks because I need to revise it to cover the April development on the California law, and the EU’s vote on May 19 on their own version of the conflict minerals law. In the meantime, ignorance is bliss. I’m staying out of Starbucks and any other restaurant that posts calories- at least during the stressful time of grading exams.

May 14, 2015 in Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, International Business, Law Reviews, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Is a national bar exam on the way?

I currently teach two classes that are on the bar exam—civil procedure and business associations. Many of my BA students are terrified of numbers and don’t know much about business and therefore likely would not take the course if it were not required. I know this because they admit that they take certain classes only because they are required or because they will be tested on the bar, and not because they genuinely have an interest in learning the subject. I went to Harvard for law school and although I had an outstanding education, I learned almost nothing that helped me for the NY, NJ, or FL bars (hopefully that has changed). I owe all of my bar passages to bar review courses so naturally (naively?), I think that almost any student can learn everything they need to know for the bar in a few short months assuming that they had some basic foundation in law school and have good study habits.

The pressure to ensure that my students pass the bar exam definitely informs the way I teach. Though there has only been one round of civil procedure testing on the multistate, this semester I found myself ensuring that I covered certain areas and glossed over others, even though I know having litigated for 20 years, that some subjects are more relevant in real life. Similarly, in BA, I had to make sure that I covered what will be on the Florida bar, while still ensuring that my students understand Delaware law and some basic finance and accounting, which isn't on the Florida bar, but which they need to know.

New York recently announced that it would join other states in adopting the uniform bar examination effective July 2016. The other states using the UBE include Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. New York, as the largest adopter, hopes to inspire other states to do the same.

NY students would still have to take online courses and pass a 50-question test regarding specific NY laws, but the students would take the MBE, and MPT or multistate performance test. According to the National Conference of Bar Examiners, the two 90-minute MPT exercises are “designed to test an examinee’s ability to use fundamental lawyering skills in a realistic situation and complete a task that a beginning lawyer should be able to accomplish. The MPT is not a test of substantive knowledge. Rather, it is designed to evaluate certain fundamental skills lawyers are expected to demonstrate regardless of the area of law in which the skills arise.” The NY graduates will also no longer have to write on 6 NY-based essays, but will instead write the multistate essay examination. Students will have to write on topics including: Business Associations (Agency and Partnership; Corporations and Limited Liability Companies), Civil Procedure, Conflict of Laws, Constitutional Law, Contracts, Criminal Law and Procedure, Evidence, Family Law, Real Property, Torts, Trusts and Estates (Decedents' Estates; Trusts and Future Interests), and Uniform Commercial Code (Secured Transactions).

In adopting the change, New York officials explained, a “significant advantage of adopting the UBE is that passage of the test would produce a portable score that could be used by the bar applicant to gain admission in other UBE states, assuming the applicant satisfies any other jurisdiction-specific requirements. This portability is crucial in a legal marketplace that is increasingly mobile and requires more and more attorneys to engage in multi-jurisdictional practice.”

I think this is sound reasoning. Many of today’s graduates do not know where they will end up, and I personally know that the thought of taking yet another bar exam was a reason that I decided to stay in Florida when I was in private practice. But the better reason to move to the UBE is the testing of the practical skills that lawyers say recent graduates lack. It won’t solve the problem of the lack of legal work, but it will make it easier for students who want to try to find work in other states. I doubt that Florida, which wants to make it as difficult as possible for snowbirds to set up practice here, will ever adopt the UBE but it should. Many oppose the adoption because schools may not have the faculty or resources to prepare students for the new test. But I welcome the change. Despite the pressure to prep my students for the bar, I have ensured that my students work on drafting client memos, discovery plans, markups of poorly written documents, and even emails to partners and clients so that they can be ready for the world that awaits them. If Florida joins the UBE bandwagon, they will be ready for the MPT too.

 

May 7, 2015 in Business Associations, Corporations, Current Affairs, Jobs, Law School, Marcia Narine, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 1, 2015

The New White Collar Whistleblower: Compliance and Audit Professionals as Tipsters

I’ve been thinking a lot about whistleblowers lately. I serve as a “management” representative to the Department of Labor Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee and last week we presented the DOL with our recommendations for best practices for employers. We are charged with looking at almost two dozen whistleblower laws. I've previously blogged about whistleblower issues here.

Although we spend the bulk of our time on the WPAC discussing the very serious obstacles for those workers who want to report safety violations, at the last meeting we also discussed, among other things, the fact that I and others believed that there could be a rise in SOX claims from attorneys and auditors following the 2014 Lawson decision. In that case, the Supreme Court observed that: “Congress plainly recognized that outside professionals — accountants, law firms, contractors, agents, and the like — were complicit in, if not integral to, the shareholder fraud and subsequent cover-up [Enron] officers … perpetrated.” Thus, the Court ruled, those, including private contractors, who see the wrongdoing but may be too fearful of retaliation to report it should be entitled to SOX whistleblower protection.

We also discussed the SEC's April KBR decision, which is causing hundreds of companies to revise their codes of conduct, policies, NDAs, confidentiality and settlement agreements to ensure there is no language that explicitly or implicitly prevents employees from reporting wrongdoing to the government or seeking an award.

Two weeks ago, I spoke in front of a couple hundred internal auditors and certified fraud examiners about how various developments in whistleblower laws could affect their investigations, focusing mainly on Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank Whistleblower. I felt right at home because in my former life as a compliance officer and deputy general counsel, I spent a lot of time with internal and external auditors. Before I joined academia, I testified before Congress on what I thought could be some flaws in the law as written. Specifically, I had some concerns about the facts that: culpable individuals could receive awards; individuals did not have to consider reporting wrongdoing internally even if there was a credible, functioning compliance program; and that those with fiduciary responsibilities were also eligible for awards without reporting first (if possible), which could lead to conflicts of interest. The SEC did make some changes to Dodd-Frank. The agency now weighs the whistleblower’s participation in the firm’s internal compliance program as a factor that may increase the whistleblower’s eventual award and considers interference with internal compliance programs to be a factor that may decrease any award. It also indicated that compliance or internal audit professionals should report internally first and then wait 120 days before going external.

Before I launched into my legal update, I gave the audience some sobering statistics about financial professionals:

  • 23% have seen misconduct firsthand
  • 29% believe they may have to engage in illegal or unethical conduct to be successful
  • 24% would engage in insider trading if they could earn $10 million and get away with it 

I also shared the following awards with them:

  • $875,000 to two individuals for “tips and assistance” relating to fraud in the securities market;
  • $400,000 to a whistleblower who reported fraud to the SEC after the employee’s company failed to address internally certain securities law violations;
  • $300,000 to an employee who reported wrongdoing to the SEC after the company failed to take action when the employee reported it internally first;
  • $14 million- tip about an alleged Chicago-based scheme to defraud foreign investors seeking U.S. residency; and
  • More than $30 million to a tipster living in a foreign country, who would have received more if he hadn't delayed reporting

I also informed them about a number of legal developments that affect those that occupy a position of trust or confidence. These white-collar whistleblowers have received significant paydays recently. Last year the SEC paid  $300,000 to an employee who performed “audit or compliance functions.” I predicted more of these awards, and then to prove me right, just last week, the SEC awarded its second bounty to an audit or compliance professional, this time for approximately 1.4 million.

I asked the auditors to consider how this would affect their working with their peers and their clients, and how companies might react. Will companies redouble their efforts to encourage internal reporting? Although statistics are clear that whistleblowers prefer to report internally if they can and don’t report because they want financial gain, will these awards embolden compliance, audit, and legal personnel to report to the government? Will we see more employees with fiduciary duties coming forward to report wrongdoing? Does this conflict with any ethical duties imposed upon lawyers or compliance officers with legal backgrounds? SOX 307 describes up the ladder reporting requirements, but what happens to the attorney who chooses to go external? Will companies consider self-reporting to get more favorable deferred and nonprosecution agreements to pre-empt the potential whistleblower?

I don’t have answers for any of these questions, but companies and boards should at a minimum look at their internal compliance programs and ensure that their reporting mechanisms allow for reports from outside counsel and auditors. In the meantime, it’s now entirely possible that an auditor, compliance officer, or lawyer could be the next Sherron Watkins.

And by the way, if you were in Busan, South Korea last Wednesday, you may have heard me on the morning show talking about whistleblowers. Drop me a line and let me know how I sounded. 

May 1, 2015 in Case Law, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Legislation, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The EU's Conflict over Conflict Minerals

Regular readers know that I have blogged repeatedly about my opposition to the US Dodd-Frank conflict minerals rule, which aims to stop the flow of funds to rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Briefly, the US law does not prohibit the use of conflict minerals, but instead requires certain companies to obtain an independent private sector third-party audit of reports of the facilities used to process the conflict minerals; conduct a reasonable country of origin inquiry; and describe the steps the company used to mitigate the risk, in order to improve its due diligence process. The business world and SEC are awaiting a First Amendment ruling from the DC Circuit Court of Appeals on the “name and shame” portion of the law, which requires companies to indicate whether their products are DRC Conflict Free.” I have argued that it is a well-intentioned but likely ineffective corporate governance disclosure that depends on consumers to pressure corporations to change their behavior.

The proposed EU regulation establishes a voluntary process through which importers of certain minerals into the EU self-certify that they do not contribute to financing in “conflict-affected” or “high risk areas.” Unlike Dodd-Frank, it is not limited to Congo. Taking note of various stakeholder consultations and the US Dodd-Frank law, the EU had originally limited the scope to importers, and chose a voluntary mechanism to avoid any regional boycotts that hurt locals and did not stop armed conflict. Those importers who choose to certify would have to conduct due diligence in accordance with the OECD Guidance, and report their findings to the EU. The EU would then publish a list of “responsible smelters and refiners,” so that the public will hold importers and smelters accountable for conducting appropriate due diligence. The regulation also offers incentives, such as assistance with procurement contracts.

One of the problems with researching and writing on hot topics is that things change quickly. Two days after I submitted my most recent article to law reviews in March criticizing the use of disclosure to mitigate human rights impacts, the EU announced that it was considering a mandatory certification program for conflict minerals. That meant I had to change a whole section of my article. (I’ll blog on that article another time, but it will be out in the Winter issue of the Columbia Human Rights Law Review). Then just yesterday, in a reversal, the European Parliament’s International Trade Committee announced that it would stick with the original voluntary plan after all.The European Parliament votes on the proposal in May.

Reaction from the NGO community was swift. Global Witness explained: 

Today the European Parliament’s Committee on International Trade (INTA) wasted a ground-breaking opportunity to tackle the deadly trade in conflict minerals. […] Under this proposal, responsible sourcing by importers of tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold would be entirely optional. The Commission’s proposed voluntary self-certification scheme would be open to approximately 300-400 companies—just 0.05% of companies using and trading these minerals in the EU, and would have virtually no impact on companies’ sourcing behaviour. The law must be strengthened to make responsible sourcing a legal requirement for all companies that place these minerals on the European market–in any form. This would put the European Union at the forefront of global efforts to create more transparent, responsible and sustainable business practices. It would also better align Europe with existing international standards on responsible sourcing, and complement mandatory requirements in the US and in twelve African countries.

I’m all for due diligence in the supply chain and for forcing companies to minimize their human rights impacts. Corporations should do more than respect human rights-- they must pay when they cause harm. I plan to spend part of my summer researching and writing in Latin America about stronger human rights protections for indigenous peoples and the deleterious actions of some multinationals.

But a mandatory certification scheme on due diligence is not the answer because it won’t solve deep, intractable problems that require much more widespread reform. To be clear, I don't think the EU has the right solution either. Reasonable people can disagree, but perhaps the members of the EU Parliament should look to Dodd-Frank. SEC Chair Mary Jo White disclosed last month that the agency had spent 2.75 million dollars, including legal fees, and 17,000 hours writing and implementing the conflict minerals rule. A number of scholars and activists have argued that the law has in fact harmed the Congolese it meant to help and news reports have attempted to dispel some of the myths that led to the passage of the law.

So let’s see what happens in May when the EU looks at conflict minerals again. Let’s see what happens in June when the second wave of Dodd-Frank conflict minerals filings come in. As I indicated in my last blog post about Dodd-Frank referenced above, the first set of filings was particularly unhelpful. And let’s see what happens in December when parents start the holiday shopping—how many of them will check on the disclosures before buying electronics and toys for the members of their family? Most important, let's see if someone can actually tie the money and time spent on conflict minerals disclosure directly to lower rates of rape, child slavery, kidnapping, and forced labor-- the behaviors these laws intend to stop. 

April 16, 2015 in Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, International Business, Law Reviews, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Would the world be a better place if law students were shareholders?

It’s that time of year again where I have my business associations students pretend to be shareholders and draft proposals. I blogged about this topic last semester here. Most of this semester’s proposals related to environmental, social and governance factors. In the real world, a record 433 ESG proposals have been filed this year, and the breakdown as of mid-February was as follows according to As You Sow:

Environment/Climate Change- 27%

Political Activity- 26%

Human Rights/Labor-15%

Sustainability-12%

Diversity-9%

Animals-2%

Summaries of some of the student proposals are below (my apologies if my truncated descriptions make their proposals less clear): 

1) Netflix-follow the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the core standards of the International Labour Organization

2) Luxottica- separate Chair and CEO

3) DineEquity- issue quarterly reports on efforts to combat childhood obesity and the links to financial risks to the company

4) Starbucks- provide additional disclosure of risks related to declines in consumer spending and decreases in wages

5) Chipotle- issue executive compensation/pay disparity report

6) Citrix Systems-add board diversity

7) Dunkin Donuts- eliminate the use of Styrofoam cups

8) Campbell Soup- issue sustainability report

9) Shake Shack- issue sustainability report

10) Starbucks- separate Chair and CEO

11) Hyatt Hotels- institute a tobacco-free workplace

12) Burger King- eliminate GMO in food

13) McDonalds- provide more transparency on menu changes

14) Google-disclose more on political expenditures

15) WWE- institute funding cap

One proposal that generated some discussion in class today related to a consumer products company. As I skimmed the first two lines of the proposal to end animal testing last night, I realized that one of my friends was in-house counsel at the company. I immediately reached out to her telling her that my students noted that the company used to be ”cruelty-free,” but now tested on animals in China.  She responded that the Chinese government required animal testing on these products, and thus they were complying with applicable regulations. My students, however, believed that the company should, like their competitors, work with the Chinese government to change the law or should pull out of China.  Are my students naïve? Do companies actually have the kind of leverage to cause the Chinese government to change their laws? Or would companies fail their shareholders by pulling out of a market with a billion potential customers? This led to a robust debate, which unfortunately we could not finish.

I look forward to Tuesday’s class when we will continue these discussions and I will show them the sobering statistics of how often these proposals tend to fail. Hopefully we can also touch on the Third Circuit decision, which may be out on the Wal-Mart/Trinity Church shareholder proposal issue.These are certainly exciting times to be teaching about business associations and corporate governance.

April 9, 2015 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Law School, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Key Legal Documents for Startups and Entrepreneurs

Earlier this week I went to a really useful workshop conducted by the Venture Law Project and David Salmon entitled "Key Legal Docs Every Entrepreneur Needs." I decided to attend because I wanted to make sure that I’m on target with what I am teaching in Business Associations, and because I am on the pro bono list to assist small businesses. I am sure that the entrepreneurs learned quite a bit because I surely did, especially from the questions that the audience members asked. My best moment, though was when a speaker asked who knew the term "right of first refusal" and the only two people who raised their hands were yours truly and my former law student, who turned to me and gave me the thumbs up.

Their list of the “key” documents is below:

1)   Operating Agreement (for an LLC)- the checklist included identity, economics, capital structure, management, transfer restrictions, consent for approval of amendments, and miscellaneous.

2)   NDA- Salmon advised that asking for an NDA was often considered a “rookie mistake” and that venture capitalists will often refuse to sign them. I have heard this from a number of legal advisors over the past few years, and Ycombinator specifically says they won't sign one.

3)   Term Sheets- the seminar used an example for a Series AA Preferred Stock Financing, which addressed capitalization, proposed private placement, etc.

4)   Independent Contractor Agreement- the seminar creators also provided an IRS checklist.

5)   Consulting Agreement- this and some other documents came from  Orrick's start-up forms page and ycombinator. FYI, Cooley Goddard also has some forms and guidance.

6)   Employment Agreement- as a former employment lawyer, I would likely make a lot of tweaks to the document, and vey few people have employment contracts in any event. But it did have good information about equity grants.

7)   Convertible Promissory Note Purchase Agreement- here's where the audience members probably all said, "I need an attorney" and can't do this from some online form generator or service like Legal Zoom or Rocket Lawyer.

8)   Stock Purchase Agreement- the sample dealt with Series AA preferred stock.

9)   IRS 83(b) form- for those who worry that they may have to pay taxes on "phantom income" if the value of their stock rises.

10) A detailed checklist dealing with basic incorporation, personnel/employee matters, intellectual property, and tax/finance/administration with a list of whether the responsible party should be the founders, attorney, officers, insurance agent, accountant, or other outside personnel.

What’s missing in your view? The speakers warned repeatedly that business people should not cut and paste from these forms, but we know that many will. So my final question- how do we train future lawyers so that these form generators and workshops don't make attorneys obsolete to potential business clients?

 

April 2, 2015 in Business Associations, Corporate Finance, Corporations, Entrepreneurship, Law School, LLCs, M&A, Marcia Narine, Teaching, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Corporations, the State, and the Rule of Law- Call for Papers

Below is a call for papers and description of a weeklong project on business and human rights. If you are interested, please contact one of the organizers below. I plan to participate and may also be able to answer some questions.

Lat Crit Study Space Project in Guatemala

Corporations, the State, and the Rule of Law

We are excited to invite you to participate in an exciting Study Space Project in Guatemala. Study Space, a LatCrit, Inc. initiative, is a series of intensive workshops, held at diverse locations around the world. This 2015 Study Space project involves a 7 working day field visit to Guatemala between Saturday June 27 (arrival date) and Saturday July 4, 2015 (departure date).  We are reaching out to you because we believe that your interests, scholarship, and service record align well with the proposed focus of our trip.

This call for papers proposes a trip to Guatemala to study more closely the phenomena of failed nations viewed from the perspective of the relationship of the state of Guatemala with corporations. With the recent surge of Central American unaccompanied minors and children fleeing with their mothers, the United States has had to confront the human face of children and women whose claim to asylum or other immigration relief is rooted in the dire reality that the countries from which they flee cannot or will not protect them. Largely, these fleeing migrants are escaping violence perpetuated by private actors, at times gang members or even their own parents or spouses. Their stories of flight cannot be disengaged from the broader context in which the violence occurs. Theirs is also the story of failed nations, characterized by ineptitude, weakness, and even worse, indifference or at times even complicity.

This story of failed nations applies beyond the reign of private “rogues” whom everyone agrees are bad actors (i.e., gangs, drug traffickers, violent criminals). The other side of the coin, invisible in this new wave of Central American refugees, is a more nuanced story about the failing role of some of these Central American nations in regulating the acts of corporations, whether owned by the oligarchy or operated by transnational actors. Corporations are entities with great potential to promote and further the public good, such as through job creation and economic development. Corporations, however, can also be the cause of social ills, particularly when left unregulated or at times even supported by the state to pursue private interests that conflict with the public good. In Guatemala, examples of deeply problematic unregulated arenas abound-- from the lack of antitrust legislation to the absence of meaningful environmental protections to protect even the most precious of natural resources, such as water. There is also the misuse of public institutions and laws to shield corporations from their public and fiscal responsibility or to aid them in capitalizing on public goods, including minerals or land. Ironically, here, the state apparatus functions quite effectively to exert its authority in the execution of laws. The failure, however, rests in the illegitimacy of law, not in its execution.

Guatemala is a nation that is experiencing tremendous social upheaval from the acts of corporations on issues that include mining, water uses, deforestation, genetically modified seeds, free-trade zones, and maquiladoras, to name a few. Caught between the state and corporations are the communities most deeply affected by both the absence and the presence of law in ways that appear to conflict with the public interest. The questions that arise include how law can and should restore the balance between the promotion of investment and economic development with the protection of the public interest and the preservation of the public good. These inquiries also involve issues related to the protection of rights, whether of individuals or communities in the collective, including the right to self-determination, the right to food and water, or the right to dignified work.

The purpose of this trip is not to single out Guatemala for scrutiny. The reality is that the bilateral and multilateral relations that Guatemala is forced to sustain with other more powerful nations aggravate many of its pressing problems. Questions about Guatemala’s regulation of corporations must also address the relationship between the powerful transnational forces of globalization and the domestic laws of Guatemala, including those related to trade liberalization and intellectual property. This inquiry must also acknowledge how the absence of accountability of transnational corporations operating in Guatemala in the corporation’s own nation-state – including the power these corporations have to influence law-making-- should lead us to a discussion of shared responsibility and a proposal for solutions that are transnational and international in character.

Should you decide to participate, you would be encouraged and welcomed to suggest specific topics (and field visits) you would like to be included as part of this project. While we are still working on a precise itinerary (which you can help us shape), our projected goals right now are to visit with government officials, non-profits, community groups and the private sector with a special focus on labor and environment. The trip would include time in Guatemala City but also time in key rural sectors. For example, we are planning to visit a transnational mining site and the free-trade zone where maquiladoras are concentrated in Guatemala. As part of the trip, we will include orientations and debriefings with the group so we can share knowledge, impressions, and insights as the trip progresses. 

The cost of your participation (excluding flight) is $1,900.  This fee will cover housing, food, in-country transportation, conference space, and other fees that we will pay such as to translators, community groups assisting with logistics, and a modest fee to Luis Mogollón (a Guatemalan lawyer with significant law school academic program development experience in Guatemala) who will spend countless hours making this trip safe and enjoyable for all of us.  The flight to Guatemala from the United States should range between $600 to $800. 

Our aim is to publish essays from this project as a book in Spanish and English. We hope to have between 15-20 contributions. While ideally participants will speak Spanish, we can accommodate non-Spanish speakers (or those who only speak “un poquito”) and will hire interpreters to work with you during the trip to Guatemala.  Keep in mind that you may need to conduct some research in Spanish (at least for primary sources) depending on the focus on your project. We also hope to present papers about this project at several conferences upon the completion of our project, including at LatCrit, Inc. and ideally in Guatemala.

The organizing Committee is comprised of Raquel Aldana, Associate Dean for Faculty Scholarship at Pacific McGeorge School of Law; Steven Bender, Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development at Seattle University School of Law; José R. Juárez, Professor of Law and Director of the Spanish for Lawyers Program at the University of Denver, Sturm College of Law; Beth Lyon, Director of the Farmworker Legal Aid Clinic and Professor of Law at Villanova University School of Law; Mario Mancilla, Technical Assistant of the Secretariat of Environmental Matters, CAFTA-DR; Luis Mogollón, Adjunct Professor and Consultant of the Inter-American Program from Pacific McGeorge; Rachael Salcido, Professor of Law at Pacific McGeorge School of Law; and Enrique Sánchez-Usera, Chair of the Inter-Disciplinary Studies at the University of Rafael Landívar Law School.

Please do not hesitate to contact any of us with questions. We do hope you decide to join us in this great project.

 

 

March 26, 2015 in Business Associations, Call for Papers, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, International Business, Law Reviews, Marcia Narine, Travel | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 20, 2015

Wolf Packs, Corporate Cocaine, and Activist Hedge Funds- Sharfman adds his view

Bernard Sharfman has posted a new article entitled “Activist Hedge Funds in a World of Board Independence: Long-Term Value Creators or Destroyers?" In the paper he makes the argument that hedge fund activism contributes to long-term value creation if it can be assumed that the typical board of a public company has an adequate amount of independence to act as an arbitrator between executive management and the activist hedge fund. He also discusses these funds’ focus on disinvestment and attempts to challenge those in the Marty Lipton camp, who view these funds less charitably. In fact, Lipton recently called 2014 “the year of the wolf pack.” The debate on the merits of activist hedge funds has been heating up. Last month Forbes magazine outlined “The Seven Deadly Sins of Activist Hedge Funds,” including their promotion of share buybacks, aka “corporate cocaine.” Forbes was responding to a more favorable view of these funds by The Economist in its February 7, 2015 cover story.

Whether you agree with Sharfman or Lipton, the article is clearly timely and worth a read. The abstract is below:

Numerous empirical studies have shown that hedge fund activism has led to enhanced returns to investors and increased firm performance. Nevertheless, leading figures in the corporate governance world have taken issue with these studies and have argued that hedge fund activism leads to long-term value destruction.

In this article, it is argued that an activist hedge fund creates long-term value by sending affirming signals to the board of directors (Board) that its executive management team may be making inefficient decisions and providing recommendations on how the company should proceed in light of these inefficiencies. These recommendations require the Board to review and question the direction executive management is taking the company and then choosing which path the company should take, the one recommended by executive management, the one recommended by the activist hedge fund or a combination of both. Critical to this argument is the existence of a Board that can act as an independent arbitrator in deciding whose recommendations should be followed.

In addition, an explanation is given for why activist hedge funds do not provide recommendations that involve long-term investment. There are two reasons for this. First, the cognitive limitations and skill sets of those individuals who participate as activist hedge funds. Second, and most importantly, the stock market signals provided by value investors voting with their feet are telling the rest of the stock market that a particular public company is poorly managed and that it either needs to be replaced or given less assets to manage. These are the kind of signals and information that activist hedge funds are responding to when buying significant amounts of company stock and then making their recommendations for change. Therefore, it is not surprising that the recommendations of activist hedge funds will focus on trying to reduce the amount of assets under current management.

 

 

 

 

 

March 20, 2015 in Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, M&A, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 13, 2015

Teaching Students to Deal with Ambiguity and Complexity

One of my pet peeves when I was in practice was working with junior lawyers or student interns who refused to take a position on anything when I asked for research. Perhaps because of the way law schools teach students, they tended to answer almost every question with “on the one hand but on the other hand.” This particularly frustrated me during my in house counsel years when I was juggling demands from internal clients in over a dozen countries and just wanted to know an answer, or at least a recommendation. Over at Legal Skills Prof Blog and PrawfsBlawg, they lay part of the blame on issue spotting exams. I use issue spotting essay exams, so perhaps I am perpetuating the problem, but I find that students have a love-hate relationship with ambiguity. They like to be ambiguous in essays but hate ambiguity in multiple choice questions.

I just finished administering multiple choice exams to my civil procedure and business associations students. Typically, I use essays for midterms and a combination of testing techniques for the final exam. I’m not a fan of multiple choice because I believe that students can get lucky. On my final exams I use some standard multiple choice but I also use a hybrid style where students have to pick the correct answer and then write one sentence about why each other choice was wrong. It's a pain to grade, but I get an idea as to how much they really understand. But with a combined 130 exams for midterms, I decided to go with the straight multiple choice. In addition to making life easier for me with grading, it will help prepare the students for the bar exam.

I chose to ask particularly complex multiple choice questions. The civil procedure students didn’t just have to answer about personal jurisdiction. Most answers combined at least two other topics or federal rules, in some instances with at least one part that could be incorrect. The BA exam was similar. After both exams a number of students complained that the questions were too ambiguous and they would have preferred essays. Ironically, many of the students who were most concerned about the nature of the questions did very well on the exam, which leads me to believe that some of them lack the confidence in their own analytical abilities.

I think students prefer essays because of the freedom to do the “this/that” or “throw everything on the wall and see what sticks” type of "analysis." With the multiple choice questions that I used, the students had to do a much deeper level of analysis to choose the right answer- or to determine that none of the answers fit- which they hate. Often the concepts were restated in a way that probably wasn’t in their notes or the book. Those who memorized suffered the most.

Yesterday, I reminded my students that the law is ambiguous. Lawyers must think on multiple levels very quickly to answer what may seem like a simple question. In the alternative, often students overthink issues when the answer is more obvious.

If you have any thoughts on how to get students more comfortable with deeper levels of analysis and navigating through ambiguity, please post comments below or email me at mnarine@stu.edu.

 

March 13, 2015 in Business Associations, Law School, Marcia Narine, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, March 6, 2015

Preparing today's students for the legal market

It’s always nice to be validated. Day two into torturing my business associations students with basic accounting and corporate finance, I was able to post the results of a recent study about what they were learning and why. "Torture" is a strong word-- I try to break up the lessons by showing up to the minute video clips about companies that they know to illustrate how their concepts apply to real life settings. But for some students it remains a foreign language no matter how many background YouTube videos I suggest, or how interesting the debate is about McDonalds and Shake Shack on CNBC.

My alma mater Harvard Law School surveyed a number of BigLaw graduates about the essential skills and coursework for both transactional and litigation practitioners. As I explained in an earlier post, most of my students will likely practice solo or in small firms. But I have always believed that the skills sets are inherently the same regardless of the size of the practice or resources of the client. My future litigators need to know what documents to ask for in discovery and what questions to ask during the deposition of a financial expert. My family law and trust and estates hopefuls must understand the basics of a business structure if they wish to advise on certain assets. My criminal law aficionados may have to defend or prosecute criminal enterprises that are as sophisticated as any multinational corporation. Those who want to be legislative aides or go into government must understand how to close loopholes in regulations.

What are the top courses students should take? The abstract is below:

We report the results of an online survey, conducted on behalf of Harvard Law School, of 124 practicing attorneys at major law firms. The survey had two main objectives: (1) to assist students in selecting courses by providing them with data about the relative importance of courses; and (2) to provide faculty with information about how to improve the curriculum and best advise students. The most salient result is that students were strongly advised to study accounting and financial statement analysis, as well as corporate finance. These subject areas were viewed as particularly valuable, not only for corporate/transactional lawyers, but also for litigators. Intriguingly, non-traditional courses and skills, such as business strategy and teamwork, are seen as more important than many traditional courses and skills.

Did you take these courses? Has your school started adding more of this type of coursework and does your faculty see the value? Do you agree with the results of this survey? Let me know in the comments or email me at mnarine@stu.edu.

March 6, 2015 in Business Associations, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Jobs, Law School, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Markets and Boycotts Part 2

Last week, I posted about Walmart’s ballyhooed wage hike and asked whether boycotts and activism actually work. Apparently, the President was so impressed that he called the company’s CEO to thank him. Some Walmart workers, however, aren’t as pleased because without more hours, they still can’t make ends meet. Nonetheless, TJX, the parent company of retailers TJ Maxx and Home Goods announced yesterday that its employees would also receive a pay raise. Is this altruism? Have the retail giants caved to pressure?

As some commented on the blog last week and to me privately, it’s more likely that these megaretailers have implemented these “pro-employee” moves to reduce turnover, raise morale, and most important compete in a tightening job market. But one LinkedIn commenter from Australia believes that boycotts in general can work, stating:

My experience with having organised boycotts is that they work, but they take time. They create the conditions for public awareness of corporate activities, and put pressure on the company to change. They are effectively the 'bad cop' of civil society pressure. Consequently, they do not work on their own, requiring also the 'good cop' - civil society organisations and market conditions that allow the subject of the boycott to shift behaviour. Market conditions include a broader 'meta boycott' in which companies needing access to supply chains must change because supply chains have changed, only accepting product that is acceptable to CSOs (the 'good' CSOs, who have certification programmes, and other initiatives for the company to opt for. If you are looking for a case study of these conditions, I suggest you follow the Tasmanian forest industry debate in Australia. Here, an entire industry was worn down after years of boycotts, market campaigns, and demands from purchasers for FSC certified product only. The fascinating addendum to this case study is the state government (and the Federal government, unsuccessfully), are still advocating behaviours that not even the companies want. They want to sign the 'peace deal' and the government(s) are trying to prolong the 'war' - for political, election-related issues. All this indicates that boycotts do not work in isolation, and if they do they are less likely to work. 

Investors too are putting pressure on companies. Just yesterday, a group of 60 investors with four trillion in assets under management called for companies to do more for workers' human rights, including wages. Because I study business and human rights with a special emphasis on labor issues, I will wait to see what happens with all of this pressure. I will also monitor the share price, shareholder proposals, and whether there is any evidence that consumers reward Walmart and TJX for their better treatment of workers.  

February 26, 2015 in Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, February 20, 2015

Did Wal-Mart Prove Me Wrong? Do Boycotts Work?

I have just finished a draft of an article arguing that disclosures don’t work because consumers and investors don’t read them, can’t understand them, don't take any real action when they do pay attention to them, and fail to change corporate behavior when they do threaten boycott. I specifically pointed out the relative lack of success of consumer protests over the years. I also noted that Wal-Mart continues to get bad press for how it treats its employees despite the fact the Norwegian Pension Fund divested hundreds of millions of dollars due to the company’s labor practices, prompting other governments and cities to follow. My thesis—it takes a lot more than divestment and threats of boycott to change company behavior. But perhaps I’m wrong. Yesterday, Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon announced a significant wage increase declaring:

We’re strengthening investments in our people to engage and inspire them to deliver superior customer experiences… We will earn the trust of all Walmart stakeholders by operating great retail businesses, ensuring world-class compliance, and doing good in the world through social and environmental programs in our communities.

The letter to Wal-Mart associates is here. I don’t know which was more striking, the $1 billion dollar move to $9 and then eventually $10 per hour or the fact that he used the word “stakeholders.” Wal-Mart also announced changes that would affect health insurance and shift scheduling, but the main headline concerned the wage hike. Main Street may be happy but Wall Street was not, and the stock price fell after the announcement. Others pointed out that the pay raise is still not enough to pull workers out of poverty.

Does this move mean that boycotts and advocacy really do work and that we will see more of them? Do I have to edit my article or will this be an anomaly? Will other big retailers or fast food chains follow? Will socially responsible investors reinvest in Wal-Mart? Is Wal-Mart trying to pre-empt government regulation on the minimum wage? Is Wal-Mart signaling to regulators in foreign countries that it cares about workers so should be allowed to operate there more freely? 

I will be teaching a course in transnational business and international human rights in the Fall and Wal-Mart will be a case study. A few years ago, I used the company’s CSR report in my corporate governance, compliance, and social responsibility seminar.  I asked the students to consider why Wal-Mart’s report looked and felt so different from Target’s, which essentially has many of the same labor issues. I wanted them to think about the marketing behind CSR from a reputational and regulatory perspective. I posited that Wal-Mart’s CSR report was written for regulators. Two weeks later, the company announced its massive and still ongoing bribery investigation. I’m happy for the workers but a bit curious as to what caused the company to make this announcement now. In the meantime, I will be watching the reaction from advocates, the markets, and other companies closely.  

February 20, 2015 in Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, International Business, Marcia Narine, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, February 12, 2015

“We Just Can’t Get Enough of Business Associations”

My seventy business associations students work in law firms on group projects. Law students, unlike business students, don’t particularly like group work at first, even though it requires them to use the skills they will need most as lawyers—the abilities to negotiate, influence, listen, and compromise. Today, as they were doing their group work on buy-sell agreements for an LLC, I started drafting today’s blog post in which I intended to comment on co-blogger Joan Heminway’s post earlier this week about our presentation at Emory on teaching transactional law.

While I was drafting the post, I saw, ironically, an article featuring Professor Michelle Harner, the author of the very exercise that my students were working on. The article discussed various law school programs that were attempting to instill business skills in today’s law students. Most of the schools were training “practice ready” lawyers for big law firms and corporations. I have a different goal. My students will be like most US law school graduates and will work in firms of ten lawyers or less. If they do transactional work, it will likely be for small businesses.  Accordingly, despite my BigLaw and in-house background, I try to focus a lot of the class discussion and group work on what they will see in their real world.

I realized midway through the time allotted in today’s class that the students were spending so much time parsing through the Delaware LLC statute and arguing about proposed changes to the operating agreement in the exercise that they would never finish in time. I announced to the class that they could leave 10 minutes early because they would need to spend at least another hour over the next day finishing their work. Instead most of the class stayed well past the end of class time arguing about provisions, thinking about negotiation tactics with the various members of the LLC, and figuring out which rules were mandatory and which were default. When I told them that they actually needed to vacate the room so another class could enter, a student said, “we just can’t get enough of business associations.” While this comment was meant to be a joke, I couldn’t help but be gratified by the passion that the students displayed while doing this in-class project.  I have always believed that students learn best by doing something related to the statutes rather than reading the dry words crafted by legislators.  My civil procedure students have told me that they feel “advanced” now that they have drafted complaints, answers, and client memos about Rule 15 amendments.

I am certainly no expert on how to engage law students, but I do recommend reading the article that Joan posted, and indeed the whole journal (15 Transactions: Tenn. J. Bus. L. 547 (2014). Finally, please share any ideas you have on keeping students interested in the classroom and prepared for the clients that await them. 

 

February 12, 2015 in Business Associations, Business School, Conferences, Corporations, Delaware, Joan Heminway, Law School, LLCs, Marcia Narine, Negotiation, Teaching, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, February 9, 2015

Hot Off the Press: Heminway and Narine on Teaching Business Law!

With Marcia's blessing, I am promoting a recently published transcript of a conference panel on which she and I presented last spring.  The title of the published transcript?  "Representing Entities: The Value of Teaching Students How to Draft Board Resolutions and Other Similar Documentation."  Here's the top line from the SSRN abstract:

This edited transcript comprises a panel presentation and related Q&A at "Educating the Transactional Lawyer of Tomorrow," Emory University School of Law's biennial transactional law conference held June 6-7, 2014. The transcript includes Professor Heminway's talk and a separate presentation by Professor Marcia Narine on "How to Make Transactional Law Less Terrifying and a Bit More Interesting." The panel, "Transactional Drafting: Beyond Contracts," features approaches to teaching transactional business law courses. 

Enjoy!

February 9, 2015 in Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Joan Heminway, Marcia Narine | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The SEC's Inaction on No Action

Many corporate governance professionals have been scratching their heads lately. In November, a federal judge in Delaware ruled that Wal-Mart had wrongfully excluded a shareholder proposal by Trinity Wall Street Church regarding the sale of guns and other products. Specifically, the proposal requested amendment of one of the Board Committee Charters to:

27. Provid[e] oversight concerning the formulation and implementation of, and the public reporting of the formulation and implementation of, policies and standards that determine whether or not the Company [i.e., Wal-Mart] should sell a product that:

1) especially endangers public safety and wellbeing;

2) has the substantial potential to impair the reputation of the Company; and/or

3) would reasonably be considered by many offensive to the family and community values integral to the Company's promotion of its brand. 

Wal-Mart filed with the SEC under Rule 14a-8 indicating that it planned to exclude the proposal under the ordinary business operations exclusion. The SEC agreed that there was a basis for exclusion under 14a-8(i)(7), but the District Court thought otherwise because the proposal related to a “sufficiently significant social policy.” In mid-January Wal-Mart appealed to the Third Circuit arguing among other things that the district court should have deferred to the SEC’s precedents and guidance over the past forty years on these issues.

In an unrelated but relevant matter in December 2014, the SEC issued a no action letter to Whole Foods stating:

You represent that matters to be voted on at the upcoming stockholders' meeting include a proposal sponsored by Whole Foods Market to amend Whole Foods Market's bylaws to allow any shareholder owning 9% or more of Whole Foods Market's common stock for five years to nominate candidates for election to the board and require Whole Foods Market to list such nominees with the board's nominees in Whole Foods Market's proxy statement. You indicate that the proposal and the proposal sponsored by Whole Foods Market directly conflict. You also indicate that inclusion of both proposals would present alternative and conflicting decisions for the stockholders and would create the potential for inconsistent and ambiguous results. Accordingly, we will not recommend enforcement action to the Commission if Whole Foods Market omits the proposal from its proxy materials in reliance on rule 14a-8(i)(9).

In a startling turn of events, the SEC withdrew its no action letter on January 16, 2015 after a January 9th letter from the Council of Institutional Investors questioning the reasoning in the Whole Foods and similar no action letters. The withdrawal of the no action letter came on the same day as the release an official SEC statement declining “to express a view on the application of Rule 14a-8(i)(9) during the current proxy season” due to questions about the scope and application of the rule.

Yesterday, the Center for Capital Market Competitiveness (“CCMC”), an arm of the Chamber of Commerce, sent its own letter to Chair White lamenting the current state of affairs. An excerpt is below:

This announcement, a contradictory departure from a decision made just weeks earlier, benefits neither issuers nor investors and introduces an additional layer of uncertainty into an already complicated set of rules. The CCMC believes this reversal underscores why corporate governance policies must provide certainty for all stakeholders, not just to advance the goals of a small minority of special interest activists….[t]he January 16 announcement places many issuers in an untenable position, and presents them with a series of questions for which there may be no good answers. For those issuers wishing to present their own alternative proposal to shareholders for consideration, do they exclude a shareholder proposal in favor of their own and face the heightened risk of litigation with the proponent or the Commission? Do they risk shareholder confusion by including both their own proposal and a competing one from a proponent? Do they incur the added expense and distraction to management of seeking declaratory relief in federal district court? Are shareholders deprived of their right to include a proposal that is omitted because of the absence of SEC action? Far from encouraging private ordering, the recent announcement will only serve to stymie it.

The CCMC also recommends a review of the entire 14a-8 process because, as the letter claims,  “it is well-known that the shareholder proposal process has been dominated by a small group of special interest activists, including groups affiliated with organized labor, certain religious orders, social and public policy advocates, and a handful of serial activists. These special interests use the shareholder proposal process to pursue their own idiosyncratic agendas, often far removed from the mainstream, as evidenced by the overall low approval rates of many shareholder proposals that are put to a vote. Indeed, mainstream institutional investors account for only one percent of shareholder proposals at the Fortune 250.” 

Reasonable people may disagree on how the CCMC characterizes the motives behind the shareholder proposals, but there can be no disagreement that the current SEC silence doesn't serve any constituency. Steve Bainbridge also has an informative post on this topic. Proxy season is coming up and shareholders and companies alike are awaiting a decision from the Third Circuit in the Wal-Mart action that could dramatically alter the landscape for shareholder proposals, possibly flooding the courts with expensive, protracted litigation. The timing couldn’t be worse for the SEC’s lack of action on no action letters.

 

 

 

 

February 5, 2015 in Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Delaware, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Proposal to Fix the Dodd-Frank Conflict Minerals Rule

I oppose the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals rule, which requires companies to conduct due diligence and report on their sourcing of certain minerals from the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo and surrounding countries. As I have written before repeatedly on this blog, a law review article, and an amicus brief, it is a flawed “name and shame law” that assumes that consumers and investors will change their purchasing decisions based upon a corporate disclosure, which they may not read, understand, or care about. The name and shame portion of the law was struck down on First Amendment grounds, and the business lobby, the SEC, and the NGO community are eagerly awaiting a decision by the full DC Circuit Court of Appeals.

A disclosure law that does not take into account the true causes for the violence that has killed millions is not the most effective way to have a meaningful impact for the Congolese people. The Democratic Republic of Congo needs outside governments to provide more aid on security sector, criminal justice, education, and judicial reform at the very least. Indeed, the Congolese government is still trying to defeat the rebels that this law was meant to weaken (see here for example). I have strong feelings about the law as a former supply chain professional and an advisory board member of an NGO that operates in eastern DRC.

I am currently working on an article about the defects in disclosure laws that attempt to address human rights impacts, and the conflict minerals rule is one of them. In that context, I was excited to read a recent draft article entitled The Conflict Minerals Experiment by Professor Jeff Schwartz. Although I don't agree with his conclusion that the best way to fix the law is, among other things, to employ a disclose or explain approach and greater transparency (which I also discuss in my article), I do agree that reform and not necessarily repeal is in order. Schwartz’ article is particularly useful because he provides empirical evidence of the relative uselessness of the first round of corporate disclosures. I look forward to citing it in my upcoming piece. The abstract is below:

In Section 1502 of Dodd-Frank, Congress instructed the SEC to draft rules that would require public companies to report annually on whether their products contain certain Congolese minerals. This unprecedented legislation and the SEC rulemaking that followed have inspired an impassioned and ongoing debate between those who view these efforts as a costly blunder and those who view them as a measured response to human-rights abuses committed by the armed groups that control many mines in the Congo. 

This Article for the first time brings empirical evidence to bear on this controversy. I present data on the inaugural disclosures that companies submitted to the SEC. Based on a quantitative and qualitative analysis of these submissions, I argue that Congress’s hope of supply-chain transparency goes unfulfilled, but amendments to the rules could yield useful information without increasing compliance costs. The SEC filings expose key loopholes in the regulatory structure and illustrate the importance of fledgling institutional initiatives that trace and verify corporate supply chains. This Article’s proposal would eliminate the loopholes and refocus the transparency mandate on disclosure of the supply-chain information that has come to exist thanks to these institutional efforts.

 

January 29, 2015 in Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, International Business, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Disruption in Dublin

I have just returned from Dublin, which may be one of my new favorite cities. For the fifth year in a row, I have had the pleasure of participating as a mentor in the LawWithoutWalls (“LWOW”) program run by University of Miami with sponsorship from the Eversheds law firm. LWOW describes itself as follows:

LawWithoutWalls, devised and led by Michele DeStefano, is a part-virtual, global, multi-disciplinary collaboratory that focuses on tackling the cutting edge issues at the intersection of law, business, technology, and innovation.  LawWithoutWalls mission is to accelerate innovation in legal education and practice at the same time.  We collaborate with 30 law and business schools and over 450 academics, students, technologists, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, business professionals, and lawyers from around the world. We seek to change how today’s lawyers approach their practice and how tomorrow’s lawyers are educated and, in so doing, sharpen the skills needed to meet the challenges posed by the economic pressures, technologization, and globalization of the international legal market. We seek to create the future of law, today. Utilizing a blend of virtual and in-person techniques, LawWithoutWalls offers six initiatives: LWOW Student Offerings,LWOW LiveLWOW INC., and LWOW Xed.  

 I first joined the program as a practitioner mentor and have now served as an academic mentor for two years. Each team has students from law or business school who develop a project of worth addressing a problem in legal education or the legal profession. Mentors include an academic, a practitioner, an entrepreneur, and an LWOW alum.

In the LWOW Live version, the students and mentors meet for the first time in a foreign city (hence the trip to Dublin) and then never see each other in person again until the Conposium, a Shark-Tank like competition in April at the University of Miami, where they present their solution to a venture capitalist, academic, and practitioner in front of a live and virtual audience.

Over the period of a few months the students and mentors, who are all in different cities, work together and meet virtually. Students also attend mandatory weekly thought leader sessions. Past topics have included developments in legal practice around the world and the necessity of a business plan. For many law students, this brings what they learned in Professional Responsibility and Business Associations classes to life. At the Dublin kickoff, audience members watched actual live pitches to venture capitalists from three startups, learned about emotional intelligence and networking from internationally-renowned experts, and started brainstorming on mini projects of worth.

This year, I am coaching a virtual LWOW Compliance team working on a problem submitted by the Ethics Resource Center. My students attend school in London and Hamburg but hail from India and Singapore. My co-mentors include attorneys from Dentons and Holland and Knight. The winner of the LWOW Compliance competition will present their solution to the Ethics Resource Center in front of hundreds of compliance officers. In past years, I have had students in LWOW Live from Brazil, Israel, China, the US, South Africa, and Spain and mentees who served as in-house counsel or who were themselves start-up entrepreneurs or investors. Representatives from the firms that are disrupting the legal profession such as Legal Zoom serve as mentors to teams as well. In the past students have read books by Richard Susskind, who provides a somewhat pessimistic view of the future of the legal profession, but a view that students and mentors should hear.

As I sat through the conference, I remembered some of the takeaways from the AALS sessions in Washington in early January. The theme of that conference was “Legal Education at the Crossroads.” Speakers explained that firms and clients are telling the schools that they need graduates with skills and experience in project management, technology, international exposure, business acumen, emotional intelligence, leadership, and working in teams. Law schools on average don’t stress those skills but LWOW does. Just today, LWOW’s team members were described as "lawyers with solutions." I agree and I’m proud to be involved in shaping those solutions.

 

January 22, 2015 in Books, Business School, Conferences, Entrepreneurship, Ethics, International Business, Law School, Marcia Narine, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Top 25 tweets for business lawyers from AALS

Greetings from Dublin. Between the Guinness tour, the champagne afternoon tea, and the jet lag, I don’t have the mental energy to do the blog I planned to write with a deep analysis of the AALS conference in DC. I live tweeted for several days and here my top 25 tweets from the conference. I have also added some that I re-tweeted from sessions I did not attend. I apologize for any misspellings and for the potentially misleading title of this post:

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Next week I will write about the reason I'm in Dublin.

January 15, 2015 in Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Delaware, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Travel | Permalink | Comments (0)