Friday, January 15, 2021
In my ongoing work for the Tennessee Bar Association, I was alerted to a recent Delaware Chancery Court decision of note. The decision is embodied in a December 22, 2020 letter to counsel written by Chancellor Andre G. Bouchard in the case captioned In re WeWork Litigation (Consol. Civil Action No. 2020-0258-AGB). It offers an illustration of the attorney-client privilege challenges that may exist in business associations that operate within networks consisting of affiliated or associated business firms.
The In re WeWork Litigation letter opinion involves a document production dispute. The controversy relates to communications engaged in by discovery custodians employed at Sprint, Inc. but working on behalf of SoftBank Group Corp. Specifically, the Sprint employees assisted SoftBank with document discovery relating to its involvement with The We Company (“WeWork”), a plaintiff in the case. (Sprint is not involved in any substantive way in the litigation. However, at times relevant to the chancellor's opinion, SoftBank owned 84% of Sprint.) The controversy centers around the conduct of Sprint CEO Michael Combes and a Sprint employee, Christina Sternberg. Each provided SoftBank’s chief operating officer with document discovery assistance. As Chancellor Bouchard aptly noted, these Sprint employees “wore multiple hats.” (This comment in the letter opinion reminded me of the U.S. Supreme Court opinion in United States v. Bestfoods, in which the court quotes from Lusk v. Foxmeyer Health Corp., 129 F.3d 773, 779 (5th Cir. 1997): "directors and officers holding positions with a parent and its subsidiary can and do ‘change hats’ to represent the two corporations separately, despite their common ownership.")
Of particular relevance to the dispute, Combes and Sternberg engaged in document production matters with SoftBank’s legal counsel and used their Sprint email accounts in that activity. In response to plaintiffs' discovery requests, SoftBank determined to withhold from production 89 documents that were conveyed to or from Combes’s and Sternberg’s Sprint email accounts. SoftBank's argument was that the communications were privileged. The chancellor’s opinion addresses a motion to compel production of those 89 documents.
Chancellor Bouchard granted the motion to compel production of the documents, finding that Combes and Sternberg did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy when using the Sprint email accounts. As a result, the documents could not constitute “confidential communications” under Delaware Rule of Evidence 502. Importantly, both Combes and Sternberg were afforded--and could have used--other email accounts (affiliated with WeWork or SoftBank, respectively) in their discovery work for SoftBank.
I noted in my summary of this opinion for the Tennessee Bar Association that the case "offers important cautions to businesses desiring to ensure that communications and transmitted documents can be kept in confidence." It is telling in this regard that proprietary email accounts were afforded to Combes and Sternberg to best ensure confidential treatment of their discovery communications, yet no attempt was made to monitor the relevant use of those email accounts as a matter of document control and discovery policy. Accordingly, I noted that it seems prudent, in light of Chancellor Bouchard’s decision, to suggest that business firms and their legal counsel review operative existing document custody and retention guidance (in the form of compliance policies and the like) to evaluate whether they include appropriate control mechanisms geared to best ensuring the confidential treatment of privileged communications and documents. As the facts of the In re WeWork Litigation opinion indicate, this may be especially important for businesses that operate within a networked system of firms.
Sunday, December 27, 2020
In my previous post on the "Study on Directors' Duties and Sustainable Corporate Governance" ("Study on Directors' Duties") that Ernst & Young prepared for the European Commission (Commission), I focused on the transformative power of corporate governance. I said that stakeholder capitalism would have a practical value if supported by corporate governance rules based on appropriate standards such as the ones provided by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Some of my pointers for the Commission were the creation of a regulatory framework that enables the representation and protection of stakeholders, the representation of “stakewatchers,” that is, non-governmental organizations and other pressure groups through the attribution of voting and veto rights and their members’ nomination to the management board (similar to German co-determination). I also suggested expanding directors' fiduciary duties to include the protection of stakeholders’ interests, accountability of corporate managers, consultation rights, and additional disclosure requirements.
In my last guest post in this series dedicated to the Study on Directors’ Duties, I ask the following questions. Do investors have a moral duty to internalize externalities such as climate change and income inequality, for example? Do firm ownership and investor commitment matter? Should investors’ money be “moral” money?
In their study Corporate Purpose in Public and Private Firms, Claudine Gartenberg and George Serafeim utilize Rebecca Henderson’s and Eric Van den Steen’s definition of corporate purpose, that is, “a concrete goal or objective for the firm that reaches beyond profit maximization.” In their paper, Gartenberg and Serafeim analyzed data from approximately 1.5 million employees across 1,108 established public and private companies in the US. In their words:
[W]e find that employee beliefs about their firm’s purpose is weaker in public companies. This difference is most pronounced within the salaried middle and hourly ranks, rather than senior executives. Among private firms, purpose is lower in private equity owned firms. Among public companies, purpose is lower for firms with high hedge fund ownership and higher for firms with long-term investors. We interpret our findings as evidence that higher owner commitment is associated with a stronger sense of purpose among employees within the firm.
With institutional investors on the rise, these findings are important because they redirect our attention from the board of directors’ short-termism discussion to shareholders' nature, composition, ownership, and long-term commitment. When it comes to owner commitment, Gartenberg and Serafeim say:
Owner commitment could lead to a stronger sense of purpose for multiple reasons. First, to the extent that commitment translates to an ability to think about the long-term and avoid short-term pressures, this would enable a firm to focus on its purpose rather than on solely short-term performance metrics. Second, committed owners may invest to gain and evaluate more soft information about firms, which in turn may allow managers to invest in productive but hard to verify projects that otherwise would not be approved by less committed owners (e.g., Grossman and Hart, 1986). Third, committed owners might mitigate free rider problems inside the firm, allowing employees to make firm-specific investments with greater confidence that they will not be subject to holdup by firm principals (Alchian and Demsetz 1972; Williamson 1985), which in turn could enhance the sense of purpose inside the organization. A similar argument could hold for customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders, who could see a strong sense of corporate purpose from owner commitment as a credible signal that enables the development of trust or ‘relational contracts’ (Gibbons and Henderson 2012; Gartenberg et al. 2019).
Gertenberg’s and Serafeim’s paper also discloses other findings. They found that firms are more likely to hire outside CEOs when less committed investors control the firms. Additionally, those firms are more likely to pay higher executive compensation levels, particularly relative to what they pay employees. Those firms also engage more frequently in mergers and acquisitions and other corporate restructuring processes. A simple explanation for this would be that such firms have higher agency costs since their ownership is more dispersed.
If we understand the company’s ownership structure, we know the purpose of the company. Therefore, there must be an underlying mechanism to better understand the company’s ownership structure because it will help us understand the company's purpose better.
Besides, Gertenberg’s and Serafeim’s findings spell out that financial performance and corporate ownership positively impact corporate culture, employees' satisfaction, and employee work meaningfulness. Putting it differently, the corporate culture, employees' satisfaction, and employee work meaningfulness can be standards for evaluating the impact of corporate ownership, governance, and leadership.
Now that the focus is on investors, what can they do to change corporate behavior and consequently impact stakeholders like employees? They can be actively engaged through proxy voting. In their paper Shareholder Value(s): Index Fund ESG Activism and the New Millennial Corporate Governance, Barzuza, Curtis, and Webber explain that index funds often are considered ineffective stewards. The authors also explain how index funds have claimed an active role by challenging management and voting against directors to promote board diversity and sustainability.
Still, institutional investors manage their companies’ portfolios depending on the market, which is heavily impacted by systemic shocks we know will eventually occur. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us how volatile markets are and our current economic model is.
Corporate laws of most European Union (EU) countries determine that the board of directors must act in the company's interest (e.g., Unternehmensinteresse in Germany, l'intérêt social in France, interesse sociale in Italy, etc.). Defining what the interest of the company is has shown to be a rather tricky endeavor. Gelter explains that, in all cases, one side of the debate claims that the company's interest is different from the interest of shareholders. In the US, the purpose of the company is commingled with the idea of shareholder wealth maximization.
To overcome the tension between prioritizing shareholders' wealth maximization and corporate purpose that considers shareholders' and stakeholders' interests, the Commission should take into account the following dimensions in developing policies in corporate law and corporate governance.
- Investors’ ownership and their impact on intangibles like employees’ satisfaction and employee work meaningfulness.
- Governance structure and how it relates to the company’s ownership structure.
- Governance structure and how it integrates stakeholders’ interests in the decision-making process.
- Board diversity and recruitment.
- Institutional investors’ financial resilience.
Finally, investors should demand CEOs and boards of directors show how they are changing the game and moving the needle toward a more sustainable and resilient conception of the corporation. Why? Because ownership matters and commitment too.
December 27, 2020 in Agency, Business Associations, Comparative Law, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Financial Markets, Law and Economics, M&A, Private Equity, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (0)
Sunday, December 20, 2020
In my first post on the "Study on Directors' Duties and Sustainable Corporate Governance" ("Study on Directors' Duties") prepared by Ernst & Young for the European Commission, I said that corporate boards are free to apply a purposive approach to profit generation. I added that:
[a]pplying such a purposive approach will depend on moral leadership, CEOs' and corporate boards' long-term vision, clear measurement of the companies' interests and communication of those interests to shareholders, and rethinking executive compensation to encourage board members to take on other priorities than shareholder value maximization. Corporate governance has a significant transformative role to play in this context.
This week, I focus on corporate governance’s enabling power. Therefore, “T” is for transformative corporate governance. Market-led developments can and do precede and inspire legal rules. Corporate governance rules are not an exception in this regard. To illustrate these rules’ transformative potential, I dwell on the ongoing debate around stakeholder capitalism.
First question. What is stakeholder capitalism? In a recent debate with Lucian Bebchuk about the topic, Alex Edmans explained that “stakeholder capitalism seeks to create shareholder welfare only through creating stakeholder welfare.” The definition suggests that the way to create value for both shareholders and stakeholders alike is by increasing the size of the pie.
In his book, Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach, R. Edward Freeman defines “stakeholder” as “any group or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement of the organisation’s objectives.” (1984: p. 46). The Study on Directors’ Duties is concerned with the negative impact of corporate short-termism on stakeholders such as the environment, the society, the economy, and the extent to which corporate short-termism may impair the protection of human rights and the attainment of the sustainable development goals (SDGs). I am not going to discuss whether there is a causal link between short-termism and sustainability. In my previous post, I say that we need to take a step back to determine short-termism and whether it is as harmful as it sounds. Instead, I am interested in finding an answer to the following question. Has stakeholder capitalism practical value?
Edmans points out that “in a world of uncertainty, stakeholder capitalism is practically more useful.” It is more challenging to put a tag on various things in a world of uncertainty, and the market misvalues intangibles. Therefore, in this context, stakeholder capitalism would be a better decisional tool that improves shareholder value and profitability and shareholders' welfare.
Still, how do we measure CEO’s and directors’ accountability toward shareholders and the corporation for the choices they make? Can CEOs and directors be blamed for not caring about social causes? Is stakeholder capitalism, or as Lucian Bebchuk calls it “stakeholderism,” the right way to force managers to make the right decisions for the shareholders and the corporation?
While Edmans stays firmly behind stakeholder capitalism because he considers it has practical value in increasing shareholder wealth while increasing shareholders’ welfare, Bebchuk maintains that “stakeholderism” is “illusory” and costly both for shareholders and stakeholders. Clearly, they disagree.
However, both Edmans and Bebchuk agree on this – we need a normative framework that goes beyond private ordering and prevents companies from subjecting stakeholders to externalities such as climate change, inequality, poverty, and other adverse economic effects.
Corporate managers respond to incentives such as executive compensation, financial reporting, and shareholders' ownership. The challenge is to understand what type of corporate governance rules are more likely to nudge CEOs and managers to value other interests than shareholder wealth maximization. Would a set of principles suffice, or do we need a regulatory framework?
Freeman's definition of a stakeholder is telling because it allows us to think of corporations and governments as stakeholders for sustainable development. I am also inspired by the distinction that Yves Fassin makes in his article The Stakeholder Model Refined, between stakeholders (e.g., consumers), stakewatchers (e.g., non-governmental organizations) and stakekeepers (e.g., regulators). I suggest that the way to ensure stakeholder capitalism’s practical value is to create corporate governance rules based on appropriate standards. The SDGs afford the propriety of those standards.
Within this regulatory setting, corporate governance will fulfill its transformative potential by enabling, for example, the representation and protection of stakeholders, the representation of “stakewatchers” through the attribution of voting and veto rights and nomination to the management board (similar to German co-determination by which stakeholders like employees are appointed to the supervisory board). Corporate governance will show its transformative potential by enabling the expansion of directors' fiduciary duties to include the protection of stakeholders’ interests, accountability of corporate managers, consultation rights, and additional disclosure requirements.
The authors Onyeka K. Osuji and Ugochi C. Amajuoyi contributed an interesting piece, titled Sustainable Consumption, Consumer Protection and Sustainable Development: Unbundling Institutional Septet for Developing Economies to the book Corporate Social Responsibility in Developing and Emerging Markets: Institutions, Actors and Sustainable Development. The book was edited by Onyeka K. Osuji, Franklin N. Ngwu, and Dima Jamali. The piece addresses the stakeholder model from the emerging economies perspective. It goes to show how interconnected we are.
Sunday, December 13, 2020
This is my second post in a series of blog posts on the "Study on Directors' Duties and Sustainable Corporate Governance ("Study on Directors' Duties") prepared by Ernst & Young for the European Commission.
In 2015, the world gathered at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit for the adoption of the Post-2015 development agenda. That Summit was convened as a high-level plenary meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. At this meeting, Resolution A/70/L.1, Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, was adopted by the General Assembly. In 2016, the Paris Agreement was signed. In my last post, I called both the United Nations 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement trendsetters because they kicked-off a global discussion on sustainable development at so many levels, including at the financial level.
During the 2015 United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, I recall that the Civil Society representatives called for a UN resolution on sustainable capital markets to tackle the absence of concrete actions regarding global financial sustainability following the 2008 Great Recession.
At the end of 2016, the European Commission (Commission) created the High-Level Expert Group on Sustainable Finance (HLEG). In early 2018, the HLEG published its report. Shortly after, in 2018, the European Union (EU) published the Action Plan: Financing Sustainable Growth (EU's Action Plan) based on the HLEG’s report. I want to focus for a bit on Action 10 of the EU's Action Plan: Fostering Sustainable Corporate Governance and Attenuating Short-Termism in Capital Markets. Action 10 sets forth the following:
1.To promote corporate governance that is more conducive to sustainable investments, by Q2 2019, the Commission will carry out analytical and consultative work with relevant stakeholders to assess: (i) the possible need to require corporate boards to develop and disclose a sustainability strategy, including appropriate due diligence throughout the supply chain, and measurable sustainability targets; and (ii) the possible need to clarify the rules according to which directors are expected to act in the company's long-term interest.
2.The Commission invites the ESAs to collect evidence of undue short-term pressure from capital markets on corporations and consider, if necessary, further steps based on such evidence by Q1 2019. More specifically, the Commission invites ESMA to collect information on undue short-termism in capital markets, including: (i) portfolio turnover and equity holding periods by asset managers; (ii) whether there are any practices in capital markets that generate undue short-term pressure in the real economy.
Under the EU's Action Plan, in 2019, the Commission called the three European Supervisory Authorities (ESAs) to collect evidence of undue short-term pressure from the financial sector on corporations. These supervisory authorities include the European Banking Authority (EBA), the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA), and the European Insurance and Occupational Pension Authority (EIOPA). The reports from EBA, ESMA, and EIOPA reviewed the relevant financial literature and identified potential short-term pressures on corporations.
In 2019, the European Commission Directorate-General Justice and Consumers organized a conference on "Sustainable Corporate Governance" that reunited policy-makers to discuss policy developments on corporate governance within Action 10 of the EU's Action Plan.
The Study on Directors' Duties builds on Action 10. As it reads in the Study:
[T]he need for urgent action to attenuate short-termism and promote sustainable corporate governance is clearly identified in the Action Plan on Financing Sustainable Growth, 137 put forward by the European Commission in 2018. The Action Plan recognises that, despite the efforts made by several European companies, pressures from capital markets lead company directors and executives to fail to consider long-term sustainability risks and opportunities and be overly focused on short-term financial performance. Action 10 of the Action Plan is therefore aimed at "fostering sustainable corporate governance and attenuating short-termism in capital markets." The present study implements Action 10, together with other studies aimed at investigating complementary aspects of short-termism,138 which shows European Commission's commitment to explore this complex problem from different angles and find an integrated response.
Before moving forward, it is pressing to define short-termism. In this context, obtaining empirical evidence to infer causation is important for policy advice. When it comes to defining short-termism, in a recent Policy Workshop on Directors' Duties and Sustainable Corporate Governance, Zach Sautner defined short-termism as a reflection of actions (e.g., investment, payouts) that focus on short-term gains at the expense of the long-term value of the corporation. The concept of short-termism encompasses a certain form of value destruction, an undue focus on short-term earnings or stock price, and a notion of market inefficiency. Suppose a CEO favors short-term earnings or makes decisions (e.g., buybacks) to the detriment of the corporation's long-term value. Then, if the market is efficient, it should signal that something is not right.
Still, I cannot avoid asking: is short-termism the right problem that needs fixing? The discussion around short-termism is puzzling because there is a vehement academic debate whether there even exists short-termism or whether it is as harmful as it sounds. For example, in their paper, Long-Term Bias, Michal Barzuza & Eric Talley explain how corporate managers can become hostages of long-term bias, which can be as damaging for investors as short-termism.
If short-termism and its effects are as negative as they sound, what kind of incentives do managers have to overcome it? Corporate managers act based on incentives such as executive compensation, financial reporting, and shareholders' ownership. Is this bad news for those who firmly stand behind stakeholders who can be undoubtedly impacted by the corporation's performance?
The bottom line is this. We need a clearer perspective on short-termism. Suppose one says that excessive payouts are not the problem. They are the symptom. However, even this bold statement needs to be taken with a grain of salt. It is difficult to assess if payouts (e.g., dividends, buybacks) are excessive if we do not know if there is a short-termism problem.
Sunday, December 6, 2020
The post below is the first in Lécia Vicente's December series that I heralded in my post on Friday. Due to a Typepad login issue, I am posting for her today. We hope to get the issue corrected for her post for next week.
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My series of blog posts cover the recent "Study on Directors' Duties and Sustainable Corporate Governance" ("Study on Directors' Duties") prepared by Ernst & Young for the European Commission. This study promises to set the tone of the EU's policymaking in the fields of corporate law and corporate governance. The study explains that the "evidence collected over 1992-2018 period shows there is a trend for publicly listed companies within the EU to focus on short-term benefits of shareholders rather than on the long-term interests of the company." The main objective of the study is to identify the causes of this short-termism in corporate governance and determine European Union (EU) level solutions that permit the achievement of the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the objectives of the Paris Agreement.
Both the United Nations 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement are trendsetters, for they have elevated the discussion on sustainable development and climate change mitigation to the global level. That discussion has been captured not only by governments and international environmental institutions but also by corporations. Several questions come to mind.
What is sustainability? This one is critical considering that the global level discussion is often monotone, with the blatant disregard of countries' idiosyncrasies, the different historical contexts, regulatory frameworks, and political will to implement reforms. The UN defined sustainability as the ability of humanity "to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
The other question that comes to mind is: what is development? Is GDP the right benchmark, or should we be focusing on other factors? There is disagreement among economists on the merit of using GDP as a development measure. Some economists like Abhijit Banerjee & Esther Duflo say, "it makes no sense to get too emotionally involved with individual GDP numbers." Those numbers do not give us the whole picture of a country's development.
The Study on Directors' Duties maintains as a general objective the development of more sustainable corporate governance and corporate directors' accountability for the company's sustainable value creation. This general objective would be specifically implemented either through soft law (non-legislative measures) or hard law (legislative measures) that redesign the role of directors (this includes the creation of a new board position, the Chief Value Officer) and directors' fiduciary duties. This takes me to a third question.
What is the purpose of the company? In other words, what is it that directors should be prioritizing? In a recent blog post, Steve Bainbridge says
I don't "disagree with the assertion that the law does not mandate that a corporation have as its purpose shareholder wealth maximization" but only because I don't think it's useful to ask the question of "what purpose does the law mandate the corporation pursue?
[…] Purpose is always associated with the intellect. In order to have a purpose or aim, it is necessary to come to a decision; and that is the function of the intellect. But just as the corporation has neither a soul to damn nor a body to kick, the corporation has no intellect.
Bainbridge prefers "to operationalize this discussion as a question of the fiduciary duties of corporate officers and directors rather than as a corporate purpose."
Tuesday, December 1, 2020
In September of 2015, I did a Westlaw search, which returned 4575 cases referring to a "limited liability corporation," rather than the proper "limited liability company" or LLC. That search followed one that I had done on May 2011, and the 2015 search showed a jump of 1802 new cases. Today's search returned 5,211 such cases, an increase of 636 cases in five and a half years. That's still more than 100 cases per year, but it's a reduction of about half the rate we were seeing between 2011 and 2015. (I concede this is not especially scientific, but it's still instructive.)
It appears, then, that we're making progress, but two steps forward, one step back. Even Jeopardy -- Jeopardy! -- recently got this wrong. I thank Professor Samantha Prince at Penn State Dickinson Law for bringing this to my attention, upsetting as it is.
In addition, a recent tax court opinion followed suit: "All limited liability corporations, or LLCs, mentioned in this opinion are entities treated as partnerships for federal tax purposes." Padda v. Comm'r of Internal Revenue, T.C.M. (RIA) 2020-154, at n.3 (T.C. 2020) (emphasis added).
So, there's clearly a lot of work left to do, but I remain hopeful that we're trending in the right direction. LLCs are still not corporations, and we need to keep reminding folks. Stay vigilant, good people!
Friday, November 27, 2020
In his forthcoming article, “Shareholder Wealth Maximization: A Schelling Point,” my MC-Law colleague, Professor Martin Edwards, offers a new contribution to the long-standing debate concerning shareholder wealth maximization and corporate purpose. (See, e.g., here, here, here, and here.) Professor Edwards is not simply offering a rehearsal of the principled justifications for shareholder wealth maximization as the preeminent corporate purpose. Instead, he proposes a descriptive explanation for why it happened to become the received norm. Though Professor Edwards notes that reformers have offered compelling arguments for why shareholder wealth maximization may be suboptimal, he suggests that, as a Schelling point, it continues to function as a value-creating equilibrium term in the corporate bargain. The article will appear in Volume 74 of the St. John’s Law Review (forthcoming, 2021). Here’s the abstract:
Legal scholars have long debated the nature, meaning, efficacy, and even the very existence of the shareholder wealth maximization norm. Those who model the corporation in terms of its economic efficiency tend to defend it, while those skeptical of it have made a formidable case that corporate governance might be better if managers and directors focused more on worker wealth, environmental sustainability, and various other matters of social importance. If nothing else, the shareholder wealth maximization norm has been a persistent feature of corporate law and governance. This Article proposes that one reason for the norm’s persistence is that shareholder wealth maximization is a Schelling point. A Schelling point is a contextually intuitive way for bargainers to coordinate simply by both acting consistently how each would expect the other to act.
A Schelling point emerges as the solution in bargains where there is more than one value-creating outcome. Confronted with these multiple equilibria, the bargainers often choose the one that is the most contextually unique or intuitive, even if that solution is not optimal. Shareholder wealth maximization is the Schelling point for public investment in corporations because it is a simple and intuitive way to construct the bargain between the managers and directors on one side and the shareholders on the other. When the corporate bargain consists of the shareholders exchanging their capital for nothing more than the surplus value of the corporation, the most intuitive solution to the bargain is a tacit agreement to maximize that surplus value. Like any Schelling point, shareholder wealth maximization may not always be optimal, but it is reliably useful.
I look forward to seeing this in print!
Monday, October 12, 2020
On Friday night, I finished five days of group oral midterm exam appointments with my Business Associations students. (I wrote a law review article on these group oral midterms five years ago, in case you are interested in background and general information.) It is an exhausting week: twenty-one 90-minute meetings with groups of three students based on a specific set of facts. And this year, of course, the examinations were hosted on Zoom, like everything else. Especially given social distancing, mask-wearing, and the overall hybrid instructional method for the course (about which I wrote here), I admit that I headed into the week a bit concerned about how it all would go . . . .
The examination is conducted as a simulated meeting of lawyers in the same law office--three junior lawyers assisting in preparing a senior colleague for a meeting with a new client. The student teams are graded on their identification and use of the applicable substantive law. I was pleased to find that the teams scored at least as well overall and individually as they typically do. That was a major relief. I had truly wondered whether students would be less well prepared in light of the mixed class format and the general distractions of the pandemic. The students were, however, well prepared. It was clear each student had achieved individual mastery of a good chunk of the course substance. It also was clear that, in preparing for and taking the examination as a group, the students had expanded their base of knowledge. Several teams were so well versed that they were able to point out--in a collegial manner--an error in one of my teaching materials, which I since have corrected.
But what really wowed me were the intangibles. Each team was earnest and focused during the entire examination meeting. I was awed by the dedication and diligence of my students in executing on a group oral examination in this unusual and stressful pandemic. Moreover, team members uniformly treated each other with respect, courtesy, patience, and compassion. In the end, it was one of the best teaching experiences I have had in over twenty years as a law professor. I could not be more grateful for the work that my students put into studying for and carrying through on the examination, and I am highly motivated to work with them to cover the remaining material in the course (more on corporations!) in the weeks to come.
Although I undoubtedly need additional time to reflect on the exams more deeply (and I am committed to undertake that deeper reflection before I share more comprehensive observations at the Association of American Law Schools Annual Meeting in January), I am extremely pleased with the overall results of these virtual group oral examinations in meeting my teaching and learning objectives for the course. Icing on the cake? Two students (on separate examination teams) thanked me for the exam before leaving the examination Zoom meeting, and a third student, in communicating with me on another matter over the weekend, noted in passing: "I actually enjoyed the midterm and thought it worked really well on zoom and was a great format to get to know the material and other students especially with the circumstances this semester!" If the examination format was able to overcome some of the social and mental isolation so many of us have been feeling over the course of the semester, that certainly is a surprise bonus. As we all know, we learn from our students every day . . . .
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that one team went out of its way to show that its members were "in role" for the examination as a simulation exercise. They created their own custom law firm logo Zoom background (based on the firm name--my name plus that of my intellectual property law colleague, Gary Pulsinelli--set forth at the top of the memo I sent to them that included the facts for use in the examination). It was a hoot! I have included a screenshot below. This definitely put a smile on my face!
Monday, September 28, 2020
Photo Credit: Pixabay
With almost six weeks of hybrid Business Associations classes now under my belt (and many more to go), I wanted to share a bit more about my experience teaching in the hybrid classroom. This follows and builds on my post from the beginning of the semester offering initial impressions (based on my Professional MBA teaching experience). As I noted in that post, technology can differ from classroom to classroom. As a result, my observations here (which are based on a hybrid course with an in-class projection system featuring a camera and document camera and an online component hosted on Zoom), may not hold in other teaching environments. Hopefully, however, some of what I have to say here may be useful to some of you . . . .
Teaching a hybrid course is a bit like managing a three-ring circus. Ring #1 is your in-class student population, #2 is your online students population, and #3 is your technology. It is a lot to pay attention to. I find it more than a bit exhausting.
I have 63 students in total in Business Associations this fall. That is a bit low but within a normal range for that course in the fall semester. Six of the students are "synchronous online only"; the remaining 57 rotate into and out of class--roughly half attending in person Mondays and every other Friday and the remainder attending in person on Wednesday and alternate Fridays. I have a "producer" teaching assistant who participates online to (1) monitor the chat for me, (2) encourage student camera usage and microphone muting, and (3) help handle breakout room monitoring. She also has helped to identify issues with sound--in particular when online folks are having trouble hearing their me or in-person colleagues.
My biggest gaffs so far include the following:
- Clicking on "Leave Meeting" instead of closing the chat box as I was about to begin class and, as a result, kicking all of my online students out of class;
- "Pinning" (highlighting) the video footage of the wrong student named Morgan for projection on the in-class screen (thinking I had called on her--but there are two women named Morgan in the class) and not realizing the mistake because the video of the other Morgan was so dark; and
- Calling for tech help when the in-room camera was not capturing/showing video (my Zoom square was black--showing no video), when, in fact, the issue was that my Zoom video had defaulted to the document camera (which was not then deployed).
Notwithstanding these issues, based on the first writing assignment in the course and questions during my office hours, students in the course are learning! Business Associations is hard to learn (and teach) in a traditional classroom environment. The hybrid classroom is not ideal for many reasons--including without limitation the fractured attention span created by the three-ring-circus. I truly feared that the combined experience of teaching Business Associations in a hybrid environment would be overwhelming for students. But by speaking loudly, repeating student questions and comments, reaching out visually to students in both environments as directly as possible, and keeping technology usage simple and targeted, I seem to be communicating relevant information effectively, and as a group, we seem to be staying engaged with each other. Fingers crossed all of that continues . . . .
I would be missing an important aspect of all of this if I did not mention my biggest pandemic teaching silver lining so far: feeling the love of my students--seeing them come to class in person, complying with numerous restrictions on their lives. and hearing from them in a positive way. The number of students who have reached out in genuine ways to thank me for working hard on their behalf to produce class has been so gratifying. This past week, I even had a student from last year reach out to check in on me. The patience, flexibility, and compassion of my students has been remarkable.
So, I am surviving, and even striving to thrive. It is like learning how to teach all over again some days. But the students make it all worthwhile. 🧡
Monday, September 7, 2020
I have written here in the past about laboring on Labor Day. Most recently. I wrote about the relationship between work and mindfulness in this space last year. But it seems I also have picked up this theme here (in 2018) and here (at the end of my Labor Day post in 2017). Being the routine "Monday blogger" for the BLPB does give me the opportunity to focus on our Monday holidays!
This year, however, Labor Day--like so many other days in 2020--is markedly different in one aspect: I am required to teach today. When I logged in to the campus app on my phone this morning to do my routine daily health screening, I was greeted by this (in clicking through from the main event schedule page):
This is the first day in my 20 years of teaching, and maybe in my 35 years of post-law school work, that I have been required to work on Labor Day. My daughter, a Starbucks night shift manager, is required to work every year on Labor Day. But this is new to me . . . .
Of course, the ongoing pandemic is the reason for this change. By compacting the semester, we are endeavoring to keep folks who are attending class in person here on campus in a more constrained environment until the holidays (at which time we will release everyone to their families and friends until the new semester begins in January). Our campus website offers the following by way of a top-level explanation of the adjustments to the ordinary, customary academic calendar:
Thank you, COVID-19, for yet one more "first" in this year of many unprecedented things (including the 2019 novel coronavirus itself).
I have tried to make the best of teaching on the holiday, especially given the great weather we are having here in East Tennessee right now. I taught both of my classes today in the outfit I would have worn if I had been at home (as shown above at the top of the post and below, in both cases in my Corporate Finance class this morning--photo credits to Kaleb Byars and Landon Foody and mask design and sewing credit to my sister, Susan) and encouraged my in-person Business Associations students (almost half of my hybrid class) to come to school in the clothes they would typically wear to a Labor Day BBQ. I also brought in a special treat for my Corporate Finance students (what could be better at 8:30 am than equity instruments and donuts?) and sent my online Business Associations students into breakout rooms to connect over one of our assigned cases with a smaller group of their classmates while the in-person students wrestled with a case of their own. There was sparse but constructive attendance at Zoom office hours after class. In the end, it all has worked out fine. Not a bad day.
Wishing a happy Labor Day 2020 to all. Whether you are working today (at home or at a workplace outside the home) or taking the day off, stay safe and well. Personally, I look forward to Labor Day hamburgers tonight!
Monday, July 6, 2020
The title of this post is the title of a panel discussion I organized for the 2019 Business Law Prof Blog symposium, held back in September of last year. (Readers may recall that I posted on this session back at the time, under the same title.) The panel experience was indescribably satisfying for me. It represented one of those moments in life where one just feels so lucky . . . .
Why? Because it fulfilled a dream, of sorts, that I have had for quite a while. Here's the story.
About ten years ago, I ended up in a conversation with two of my beloved Tennessee Law colleagues while we were grabbing afternoon beverages. One of these colleagues is a tax geek; the other is a property guy. Somehow, we got into a discussion about mergers and acquisitions. I was asked how I would define a merger as a matter of corporate law, and part of my answer (that mergers are magic) got these two folks all riled up (in a professional, academic, nerdy way). The conversation included some passionate exchanges. It was an exhilerating experience.
I have remembered that exchange for all of these years, vowing to myself that some day, I would work on publishing what was said. When the opportunity arose to hold a panel discussion to recreate our water-cooler chat at the symposium last fall, I jumped at the chance. I was tickled pink that my two colleagues consented to join me in the recreation exercise. They are good sports, wise lawyers, and excellent teachers.
My objective in convening the panel was two-fold.
First, I thought that students would find the conversation illuminating. "Aha," they might justifiably say. "Now I know why I am confused about what a merger is. It's because the term means different things to different lawyers, all of whom may have a role in advising on a business combination transaction. I have to understand the perspective from which the question is being asked, and the purpose of answering the question, before I can definitively say what a merger is." Overall, I was convinced that a recreation of the conversation through a panel discussion could be a solid teaching tool.
But that's not all. Faculty also can earn from our dialogue. It helped me in my teaching to know how my tax colleague (who teaches transactional tax planning and business taxation) and my property colleague (who teaches property and secured transactions) define the concept of a merger and what each had to say about his definition as it operates in practice. I like to think my two colleagues similarly benefitted from an understanding of my definition of a merger (even if neither believes in statutory magic) . . . .
Now, you and your students also can benefit from the panel. Although it is not quite as good as hearing us all talk about mergers and acquisitions in person (which one can do here), Transactions: The Tennessee Journal of Business Law, recently published an edited transcript of the panel discussion as part of the symposium proceedings. It also is titled "What is a Merger Anyway?" And you can find it here. (The entire volume of the journal that includes the symposium proceedings can be found here. Your friends from the BLPB are the featured authors!) I am sure that your joy in reading it cannot match my joy in contributing to the project, but I hope you find joy in reading it nonetheless.
Wednesday, June 24, 2020
Tomorrow (6/25/20) at 9am EST, Colin Mayer (Oxford) will debate Lucian Bebchuk (Harvard) on the topic of stakeholder v. shareholder capitalism.
Oxford is streaming the debate for free here.
Monday, June 15, 2020
Recently, I listened to the NPR Hidden Brain’s podcast titled “Playing Favorites: When Kindness Toward Some Means Callousness Toward Others.”
This podcast hit on topics that I have been thinking about a good bit lately---namely selfishness, giving, poverty, family, favoritism, and a culture of “us against them.” This post only has the slightest connection to business, so I will include the rest of the post under the break.
Wednesday, June 10, 2020
Friend of the blog Bernard Sharfman has a new post up on the Oxford Business Law Blog, responding to Martin Lipton’s recent "On the Purpose of the Corporation" posts. Bernie's full post can be found here, and I've excerpted some portions (slightly out of order) below. I appreciate that the post highlights that a big part of the shareholder v. stakeholder debate is about whose rights are determined by contract v. fiduciary duties.
[T]he Lipton, Savitt, and Cain definition of corporate purpose is missing both an objective and a strategy on how it will create social value....
I am disappointed with this definition, a definition that ignores the social value created by for-profit businesses, namely the goods and services they produce; ignores that this social value is being produced for the financial benefit of its shareholders; and uses the pretense that uninformed institutional investors are partners in the management of a company....
[T]hey make no mention of the social value created by the corporation through the successful management of its stakeholder relationships, the goods and services it provides. How can a definition of corporate purpose not mention this? It’s as if a corporation should be ashamed of why it exists....
Pfizer, as a for-profit corporation, ... has the legal obligation of looking out for the interests of its shareholders. This is the only stakeholder group that the board owes fiduciary duties to, who can sue the board for a breach of those duties, who can approve major corporate decisions, and who can initiate and implement a proxy contest to remove board members. Thus, shareholder wealth maximization is the objective of Pfizer’s social value creation....
[A] collective action problem in shareholder voting leads to uninformed institutional investors, resource-constrained investor stewardship teams and proxy advisors that cannot solve this problem, and the current lack of enforcement of an investment adviser’s fiduciary duties does not solve the additional problem of institutional investor bias in shareholder voting.
Tuesday, May 26, 2020
Yesterday, I posted the AALS Section on Business Associations Call for Papers for the New Voices in Business Law program. Today, I am posting the section's general call for papers, which focuses on a very salient topic: Corporate Boards in the Age of COVID-19. There certainly is a lot that we can say about that from the advisory, compliance, and litigation (prevention and management) angles.
+ + +
Call for Papers for the
Section on Business Associations Program on
Corporate Boards in the Age of COVID-19
2021 AALS Annual Meeting
The AALS Section on Business Associations is pleased to announce a Call for Papers for its program at the 2021 AALS Annual Meeting in San Francisco, California. The topic is Corporate Boards in the Age of COVID-19. Up to three presenters will be selected for the section’s program.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put corporate boards under tremendous stress. In the midst of unprecedented financial and operational challenges, boards must comply with legal obligations that are often complex, uncertain, and contested. This panel will explore the impact of COVID-19 on the corporate board. How should boards exercise their oversight and disclosure responsibilities during these times? Should boards reevaluate the corporate purpose, especially considering the increased vulnerability of employees and other stakeholders? Should boards rethink their dividends and stock buyback policies? And, as market instability continues, how should boards approach planned transactions and use defensive mechanisms? We hope to facilitate a robust conversation that connects corporate law theory to the immediate challenges facing corporate boards.
Please submit an abstract or a draft of an unpublished paper to Jessica Ericsson, email@example.com, on or before August 3, 2020. Authors should include their name and contact information in their submission email but remove all identifying information from their submission.
Papers will be selected after review by members of the Executive Committee of the Section. Authors of selected papers will be notified by August 28, 2020. Presenters will be responsible for paying their registration fee, hotel, and travel expenses.
Please direct any questions to Jessica Erickson, University of Richmond School of Law, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tuesday, March 31, 2020
The Social Enterprise Alliance (SEA) previously defined "social enterprise" as businesses that (1) Directly address social need; (2) Commercial activity [not donations] drives revenue; and (3) Common good is the primary purpose. SEA's definition has evolved to be more inclusive, now recognizing three different models based on -- (1) opportunity employment, (2) transformative products/services, or (3) donations. While the first definition could be criticized for being too narrow (Ben & Jerry's would not qualify because their product does not directly address a "social need"), SEA's new definition is likely too broad because it seems to cover all donating businesses.
Personally, I am most fond of social enterprises that produce products/services that lead directly to human flourishing.
For Lent, I gave up Facebook/Twitter/Instagram. While these products have their uses, on the whole they tend distract me from what is truly important. Perhaps social media has improved since the advent of Covid-19, and I admit to feeling somewhat out of the loop. But I also feel much more at peace, and may not return to those forms of social media after Easter, or, if I do, I hope it will be on a much more limited basis.
In contrast, Strava is one form of social media that has been a constant positive in my life. Strava, for those who don't know, is a free app to log all kinds of physical exercise. I credit Strava (and my friends on Strava) with keeping me accountable to exercise 4+ times a week for the past 4+ years. The community on Strava is unlike any social media I have seen or heard of elsewhere. People are relentlessly encouraging, and the focus is on fitness not controversy. Also, as a Strava friend recently posted -- "love Strava because it’s the only social media platform with almost 100% factually accurate information and statistics. (Besides minor GPS errors and the occasional ‘wrong activity type’)." Strava has truly created a product that likely improves the lives of nearly all of its users.
Anyway, no sponsorship for me for this post, but I do hope to see more readers on Strava!
Friday, March 20, 2020
CNN recently ran a story entitled - the pandemic risks bringing out the worst in humanity.
Rather than focus on the negative, I decided to collect some of the positive business responses to COVID-19. This is probably just a small sampling of the positive responses. I may update this list from time to time; please feel free to add more in the comments or email me. [Updated with some suggestions from my business ethics students and to include some of the highlights from this excellent, more extensive list that a reader e-mailed.]
- Alibaba co-founder is donating masks and test kits to the US.
- AT&T provides free wireless to school districts and 60 days free service to new customers
- Bank of America allows borrowers to pause mortgage payments
- Comcast is offering free internet to low-income customers for two months and opening up WiFi hotspots and waiving disconnect/late fees.
- Dallas Mavericks are paying their hourly workers despite the NBA season being suspended.
- Delta waives change fees.
- Disney paying workers and donating food
- General Motors to support production of ventilators
- Goldman Sachs, Capital One, and American Express waived interest payments
- Google is offering free virtual tours of 1200+ museums & building a triage website (currently just for Bay area)NextDoor adds help maps and groups.
- Kellogg offering $4M in food relief
- Major League Baseball Pledges $30M to Ballpark Workers
- Publix offering special shopping hours for senior citizens. (Kroger, Giant, Target, Whole Foods and Dollar General are also doing this)
- Starbucks is offering free therapy sessions for its employees
- Taco Bell will continue to pay workers during the pandemic
- Tesla's CEO (Elon Musk) donating ventilators
- U-Haul is offering 30 days of free storage for college students
- Many distilleries and breweries make hand sanitizer (here, here, and here). (As is Louis Vuitton)
- Many online learning platforms are providing free materials.
- Many fitness studios are streaming free classes online (here, here, and here)
- Many musicians live streaming music for free.
- Many companies are offering more flexible working conditions and paid sick leave (beyond what is being required)
- And here is another list. 50 Ways Companies are Giving Back.
Also related to COVID-19, I just came across this article about David Lat (founder of "Above the Law"). David is an acquaintance of mine and many of our readers. According to the article, David has COVID-19 and has been dealt a particularly harsh case. David is an incredibly kind person, with a beautiful family, and his case has made me take the virus even more seriously.
Sunday, January 26, 2020
As a new dean in a new city, I have had the opportunity to meet hundreds of impressive lawyers in Omaha. I have been incredibly impressed by the sophisticated practices at the very law firms I have visited. For "midsized" firms, there are lawyers doing incredible work here that is the same work being done on the coasts, including some amazing M & A work.
But here in Omaha, just like every city around the country, law firms have "corporate" practices. But really, those are business law practices or transactional practices. Almost every corporation of significant size also owns some LLCs (limited liability companies) and perhaps other entities. And certainly these firms, especially those working with real estate companies, will work with LLCs and other pass through entities.
So, consistent with my prior posts on this subject, I urge lawyers and firms to acknowledge the full scope of what we do. It's not just corporate. It's so much more. And that's a good thing. I just ask that we embrace business practice or transactional practice to try to include all we do.
Monday, January 13, 2020
Each time I teach Advanced Business Associations, I try to engage students on the first day in an exercise that leverages their existing knowledge of business associations law but also introduces new angles and nomenclature. I assign a reading (this year, on shareholder wealth maximization) and ask each student to write up a brief definition of the concepts of “policy” and “theory” as they may apply to and operate in business associations law. I then ask them to relate their definitions to the reading.
So, the core question before the house in that course on the first day of classes last week effectively was the following: is shareholder wealth maximization legal doctrine, policy, theory, or something else? We had a wide-ranging discussion on the question, working off three propositions I put on the board. The class session enabled me to review some concepts from the foundational Business Associations course while also discussing the role of theory and policy in law and lawyering, getting some creative mental juices flowing, and teaching a bit of the new vocabulary they will need for the course.
I decided that it could be beneficial to share with my students the views of others on our effective core question from class last week. So, today, I ask you:
Shareholder wealth maximization: doctrine, theory, policy, or something else?
Offer your answers in the comments or send me a private message. You can pick more than one category, of course, in classifying shareholder wealth maximization. In other words, the categories are not intended to be mutually exclusive. A brief explanation for your response would be helpful. I will not attribute the answers I pass on, unless you want me to. I hope this post will stimulate some interesting responses, but I also know that law professors are busy with the start of the new semester. It may go without saying, but (especially in these circumstances) a short response is appreciated as much as a long one.
Monday, January 6, 2020
Business Associations is a tough course to teach, whether it is taught in a three-credit-hour or four-credit-hour format. I have written before (here, here, and here) about the challenges of teaching fiduciary duties in this course. And I recently posted here and here about the characterization of a classic oversight conundrum as a matter of corporate fiduciary duty law in Delaware.
I just recently finished grading my Business Associations exams from last semester. They were a good lot overall, but they evidenced several somewhat common errors that seemed to beg for broad dissemination to the class. So, I sent them all a message inviting them to come in and review their exams and highlighting certain things for their attention of a more general nature.
Today, I offer you that general counsel that I gave to my Business Associations students based on that review of their written final exams. It is set forth below, absent my introductory and closing remarks. As you'll see, some of it relates to substantive law, and some of it relates to exam or other skills. Perhaps this is of use to those of you who just taught or are about to teach the course. Maybe some students will read it and learn from it. Regardless, here it is.
- Agency rules and management rules in business associations law are often confused. Agency rules express the authority of a person to act on behalf of the firm in transactions with third parties--those who enter into transactions with the firm. For example, by default under the RUPA, each partner in a RUPA partnership is an agent of the partnership that can bind the partnership to contracts with others. Management rules, by contrast address the governance and control authority of a particular firm constituent within the governance structure of the firm. Thus, agency rules relate to authority that is outward-facing (pertaining to transactional parties) and management rules relate to authority that is inward-facing (pertaining to internal constituents of the firm). For example, by default under the RUPA, each partner has an equal right to manage the partnership.
- Similarly, the concept of "limited liability" is commonly understood to refer to the limited liability of a firm owner for the firm's obligations. For example, under the RUPA, each partner is jointly and severally liable for the obligations of the partnership, whereas under corporate law, shareholders are not personally liable for the corporation's obligations to third parties. Exculpation, which eliminates the monetary liability of directors in the corporate context, relates to corporate governance claims--legal actions for breach of the fiduciary duty of care. This is internal governance litigation that does not relate to corporate obligations to third parties. So, while exculpation does limit (eliminate) a director's personal liability for a breach of the duty of care, it is not part of what people generally refer to as "limited liability" in a corporate context.
- Fiduciary duties are typically understood to instill or increase trust in relationships. Accordingly, they are commonly employed to provide a benefit in circumstances involving untrustworthy business associates. Yet a number of you seemed to think they were an undue burden to business venturers in circumstances where trust may be lacking (i.e., where fiduciary duties should be useful). You will need to make a solid argument to most folks to justify that the detriments outweigh the benefits.
- If an exam or assignment question asks for you to talk about why one set of rules is better than another in addressing a specific scenario, make sure you contrast examples from the two sets of rules, applying each to the relevant facts.
- Read questions carefully and closely. When a question asks for you to reference or rely on statutory default rules,ensure that your response references or relies on statutory default rules--not on ways on which those rules can be or have been agreed around through private ordering. When a question asks for information or an evaluation or rules relating to member-managed LLCs, ensure you directly address member-managed LLCs in lieu of (or at least before) commenting on manager-managed LLCs or the flexibility of moving back and forth between member-managed and manager-managed LLCs.
- Don't forget to cite to an appropriate source for rules on which you rely in your legal analysis.
- Keeping track of and managing time is important to the bar exam and other in-class timed exercises. If you ran out of time in responding to the prompts on this exam, evaluate why. I can help, if need be. But understanding how and why your time management skills may have failed you can be important.
Feel free to add your observations or advice of a similar (or different) nature in the comments. I am teaching Advanced Business Associations this semester, so I can work on some of these things during that course. In any event, I wish you all a happy and healthy semester and year, whatever you may be teaching or doing.