Friday, June 10, 2022

Why Transactional Lawyers Need to Educate Themselves on Compliance

Prior to joining academia, I served as a compliance officer for a Fortune 500 company and I continue to consult on compliance matters today. It's an ever changing field, which is why I'm glad so many students take my Compliance, Corporate Governance, and Sustainability course in the Fall. I tell them that if they do transactional or commercial litigation work, compliance issues will inevitably arise. Here are some examples: 

  • In M&A deals, someone must look at the target's  bribery, money laundering, privacy, employment law, environmental, and other risks
  • Companies have to complete several disclosures. How do you navigate the rules that conflict or overlap?
  • What do institutional investors really care about? What's material when it relates to ESG issues?
  • What training does the board need to ensure that they meet their fiduciary duties?
  • How do you deal with cyberattacks and what are the legal and ethical issues related to paying ransomware?
  • How do geopolitical factors affect the compliance program?
  • Who can be liable for a compliance failure?
  • What happens when people cut corners in a supply chain and how can that affect the company's legal risk?
  • What does a Biden DOJ/SEC mean compared to the same offices under Trump?
  • Who is your client when representing an organization with compliance failures?
  • and so much more

I'm thrilled to be closing out the PLI Compliance and Ethics Essentials conference in New York with my co-panelist Ben Gruenstein of Cravath, Swaine, & Moore. It's no fun being the last set of presenters, but we do have the ethics credits, so please join us either in person or online on June 28th. Our areas of focus include:

  • Risk assessment, program assessment, and attorney-client privilege
  • Ethical obligations for lawyers and compliance officers
  • Which compliance program communications can (and should) be privileged?

In addition to discussing the assigned issues, I also plan to arm the compliance officers with more information about the recent trend(?) of Caremark cases getting past the motion to dismiss stage and compliance lessons learned from the Elon Musk/Twitter/Tesla saga. 

Here's the description of the conference, but again, even if you're not in compliance, you'll be a better transactional lawyer from learning this area of the law. 

Compliance and ethics programs are critically important to the success of any organization. Effective programs allow organizations to identify and mitigate legal risks. With an increasingly tough enforcement environment, and greater demands for transparency and accountability, an effective compliance program is no longer just “nice-to-have.” It’s essential. 

Whether you are new to the area or a seasoned compliance professional, PLI’s program will give you the tools you need to improve your organization’s compliance program.  We will review the principal elements of compliance programs and discuss best practices and recent developments for each.  Our distinguished faculty, drawn from major corporations, academia, law firms and the government, can help you improve your program, increase employee awareness and decrease legal risk.  Compliance and Ethics Essentials 2022 is highly interactive and includes case studies, practical tools and real-time benchmarking.

What You Will Learn 

  • Designing and conducting effective compliance risk assessments that enhance your program
  • Structuring your program for appropriate independence and authority
  • The evolving role of the board
  • ESG and your compliance program
  • Using data analytics to improve your program
  • Encouraging reporting and investigating allegations of wrongdoing
  • Best practices in compliance codes, communications, training and tools
  • Ethics for compliance professionals

Who Should Attend

If you are involved in any aspect of corporate compliance and ethics as in-house counsel, a compliance and ethics officer, human resources executive, outside counsel, or risk management consultant, this event should be on your annual calendar.

Special Feature: Special luncheon presentation with guest speaker

If you do come to the conference, I would love to grab a cup of coffee with you, so reach out.

June 10, 2022 in Compliance, Conferences, Consulting, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Lawyering, Legislation, M&A, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 14, 2020

Wokewashing and the Board

As an academic and consultant on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) matters, I’ve used a lot of loaded terms -- greenwashing, where companies tout an environmentally friendly record but act otherwise; pinkwashing, where companies commoditize breast cancer awareness or LGBTQ issues; and bluewashing, where companies rally around UN corporate social responsibility initiatives such as the UN Global Compact.

In light of recent events, I’ve added a new term to my arsenal—wokewashing. Wokewashing occurs when a company attempts to show solidarity with certain causes in order to gain public favor. Wokewashing isn’t a new term. It’s been around for years, but it gained more mainstream traction last year when Unilever’s CEO warned that companies were eroding public trust and industry credibility, stating:

 Woke-washing is beginning to infect our industry. It’s polluting purpose. It’s putting in peril the very thing which offers us the opportunity to help tackle many of the world’s issues. What’s more, it threatens to further destroy trust in our industry, when it’s already in short supply… There are too many examples of brands undermining purposeful marketing by launching campaigns which aren’t backing up what their brand says with what their brand does. Purpose-led brand communications is not just a matter of ‘make them cry, make them buy’. It’s about action in the world.

The Black Lives Matter and anti-racism movements have brought wokewashing front and center again. My colleague Stefan Padfield has written about the need for heightened scrutiny of politicized decisions and corporate responses to the BLM movement here, here, and here, and Ann Lipton has added to the discussion here. How does a board decide what to do when faced with pressure from stakeholders? How much is too much and how little is too little?

The students in my summer Regulatory Compliance, Corporate Governance, and Sustainability course were torn when they acted as board members deciding whether to make a public statement on Black Lives Matter and the murder of George Floyd. As fiduciaries of a consumer goods company, the “board members” felt that they had to say “something,” but in the days before class they had seen the explosion of current and former employees exposing  companies with strong social justice messaging by pointing to hypocrisy in their treatment of employees and stakeholders. They had witnessed the controversy over changing the name of the Redskins based on pressure from FedEx and other sponsors (and not the Native Americans and others who had asked for the change for years). They had heard about the name change of popular syrup, Aunt Jemima. I intentionally didn’t force my students to draft a statement. They merely had to decide whether to speak at all, and this was difficult when looking at the external realities. Most of the students voted to make some sort of statement even as every day on social media, another “woke” company had to defend itself in the court of public opinion. Others, like Nike, have received praise for taking a strong stand in the face of public pressure long before it was cool and profitable to be “woke.”

Now it’s time for companies to defend themselves in actual court (assuming plaintiffs can get past various procedural hurdles). Notwithstanding Facebook and Oracle’s Delaware forum selection bylaws, the same lawyers who filed the shareholder derivative action against Google after its extraordinary sexual harassment settlement have filed shareholder derivative suits in California against Facebook, Oracle, and Qualcomm. Among other things, these suits generally  allege breach of the Caremark duty, false statements in proxy materials purporting to have a commitment to diversity, breach of fiduciary duty relating to a diverse slate of candidates for board positions, and unjust enrichment. Plaintiffs have labeled these cases civil rights suits, targeting Facebook for allowing hate speech and discriminatory advertising, Qualcomm for underpaying women and minorities by $400 million, and Oracle for having no Black board members or executives. Oracle also faces a separate class action lawsuit based on unequal pay and gender.

Why these companies? According to the complaints, “[i]f Oracle simply disclosed that it does not want any Black individuals on its Board, it would be racist but honest…” and  “[a]t Facebook, apparently Zuckerberg wants Blacks to be seen but not heard.” Counsel Bottini explained, “when you actually go back and look at these proxy statements and what they’ve filed with the SEC, they’re actually lying to shareholders.”

I’m not going to discuss the merits of these cases. Instead, for great analysis, please see here written by attorneys at my old law firm Cleary Gottlieb. I’ll do some actual legal analysis during my CLE presentation at the University of Tennessee Transactions conference on October 16th.

Instead, I’m going to make this a little more personal. I’m used to being the only Black person and definitely the only Black woman in the room. It’s happened in school, at work, on academic panels, and in organizations. When I testified before Congress on a provision of Dodd-Frank, a Black Congressman who grilled me mercilessly during my testimony came up to me afterwards to tell me how rare it was to see a Black woman testify about anything, much less corporate issues. He expressed his pride. For these reasons, as a Black woman in the corporate world, I’m conflicted about these lawsuits. Do corporations need to do more? Absolutely. Is litigation the right mechanism? I don’t know.

What will actually change? Whether or not these cases ever get past motions to dismiss, the defendant companies are likely to take some action. They will add the obligatory Black board members and executives. They will donate to various “woke” causes. They will hire diversity consultants. Indeed, many of my colleagues who have done diversity, equity, and inclusion work for years are busier than they have ever been with speaking gigs and training engagements. But what will actually change in the long term for Black employees, consumers, suppliers, and communities?

When a person is hired or appointed as the “token,” especially after a lawsuit, colleagues often believe that the person is under or unqualified. The new hire or appointee starts under a cloud of suspicion and sometimes resentment. Many eventually resign or get pushed out. Ironically, I personally know several diversity officers who have left their positions with prestigious companies because they were hired as window dressing. Although I don’t know Morgan Stanley’s first Chief Diversity Officer, Marilyn Booker, her story is familiar to me, and she has now filed suit against her own company alleging racial bias.

So I’ll keep an eye on what these defendants and other companies do. Actions speak louder than words. I don’t think that shareholder derivative suits are necessarily the answer, but at least they may prompt more companies to have meaningful conversations that go beyond hashtag activism.

August 14, 2020 in Ann Lipton, Compliance, Consulting, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Delaware, Financial Markets, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Shareholders, Stefan J. Padfield | Permalink | Comments (0)