January 28, 2015
The Intracorporate Conspiracy Doctrine and CEO Turnover
Posted by Josephine Sandler Nelson

My previous blogposts (one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven) discussed why conspiracy prosecutions were the best method to penalize coordinated wrongdoing by agents within an organization. Using alternative doctrines to impose liability on behavior that would otherwise be recognized as an intracorporate conspiracy results in flawed incentives and disproportionate awards.

The fundamental problem with substituting responsible corporate officer doctrine and control person liability for reforming the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine is that these alternative doctrines represent exactly what Professor Martin objects to: actual imposition of blind “respondeat superior” liability. For example, under these doctrines, “in most federal courts, it is not necessary to show that the corporate official being charged had a culpable state of mind.” Instead, the issue before the court is merely whether the officer had control and responsibility for the alleged actions. Accordingly, it is not a defense to control person liability that the officer did not “knowingly participate in or independently commit a violation of the Act.”

But simply penalizing the officer who is in the wrong place at the wrong time does little to define and encourage best practices. Moreover, with these and other explosive hazards for corporate service, it should be no surprise that top executives are demanding and receiving ever-increasing compensation for often short-term positions. Since 2009, the year that the NSP case establishing “control person” liability was settled, the discrepancy in pay between top management and the average worker has been growing dramatically. In 2013, the CEO of J.C. Penny Co., for example, was exposed for making 1,795 times what the average U.S. department store employee made. From 2009 to 2013, as measured across Standard & Poor’s 500 Index (S&P 500) of companies, “the average multiple of CEO compensation to that of rank-and-file workers” has risen to 204, an increase of twenty percent.

It is true that the financial crisis did reduce executive compensation packages before 2009, and that there has been a historical trend towards the growth of executives’ salaries as a multiple of average workers’ salaries. For example, “[es]timates by academics and trade-union groups put the number at 20-to-1 in the 1950s, rising to 42-to-1 in 1980 and 120-to-1 by 2000.” But the jump in executives’ salaries from 2009 has been extraordinary. The new emphasis on vicarious liability for individuals under the responsible corporate officer doctrine since that date must be considered part of executives’ demands for such high compensation in exchange for their risky positions.

The average duration of a CEO’s time in office has diminished as well. In 2000, the average tenure of a departing S&P 500 CEO in the U.S. was ten years. By 2010, it was down to eight years. In 2011, merely a year later, the average tenure of a Fortune 500 CEO was barely 4.6 years. In 2013, that former CEO of J.C. Penny Co. served for only eighteen months.

With an eighteen-month tenure, how much can the chief executive of a large company discover about the wrongdoing that his or her new company is committing? Furthermore, how much can that person design and institute good preventative measures to guide his or her subordinates to avoid that harm? A blindly revolving door for CEOs does not help those interested in effectively reducing the wrongdoing of agents within the corporation. Incentives without intracorporate conspiracy immunity would be different because they would reward the agent who abandons a conspiracy. (More about this argument here, here, here, and here.)

My next blogpost will examine how substituting alternative doctrines for prosecuting intracorporate conspiracy affects incentives under Director’s and Officer’s (D&O) liability insurance.

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January 27, 2015
Frustration with the Intracorporate Conspiracy Doctrine Distorts Other Areas of Law
Posted by Josephine Sandler Nelson

My previous blogposts (one, two, three, four, five, and six) discussed why conspiracy prosecutions should be used to reach coordinated wrongdoing by agents within an organization. The intracorporate conspiracy doctrine has distorted agency law and inappropriately handicaps the ability of tort and criminal law to regulate the behavior of organizations and their agents.

My Intracorporate Conspiracy Trap article argues that the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine is not properly based in agency law, and that it should most certainly not be applied throughout tort law and criminal law. As a result of the immunity granted by the doctrine, harmful behavior is ordered and performed without consequences, and the victims of the behavior suffer without appropriate remedy. My Corporate Conspiracy Vacuum article argues that public and judicial frustration with the lack of accountability for corporate conspiracy has now warped the doctrines around it.

Courts have used a wide variety of doctrines to hold agents of enterprises responsible for their actions that should have prosecuted as intracorporate conspiracy. Some of these doctrines include:

piercing the corporate veil,

responsible corporate officer doctrine, and related control person liability,

denying the retroactive imposition of the corporate veil, and

reverse piercing of the corporate veil.

But the new applications of these alternative doctrines are producing distortions that make the doctrines less stable, less predictable, and less able to signal proper incentives to individuals within organizations.

An example of how piercing the corporate veil has been used to defeat intracorporate conspiracy immunity can be seen in the Morelia case. A previous blogpost discussed how the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine has defanged RICO prosecutions of agents and business entities. In Morelia, which was a civil RICO case, the federal district court, obviously outraged by defendants’ behavior in the case, explicitly permitted plaintiffs to pierce the corporate veil to avoid application of the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine. In a creative twist invented from whole cloth to link the two doctrines, the Morelia court overruled its magistrate judge’s recommendation to announce:

"Since the court has determined that plaintiffs have properly alleged that the corporate veil should be pierced, the individual defendants may be liable for corporate actions and any distinction created by the intra-corporate doctrine does not exist."

Regarding its test for piercing the corporate veil, the Morelia court further overruled its magistrate’s recommendation by focusing on plaintiffs’ arguments regarding undercapitalization, and its decision included only a single footnote about the disregard of corporate formalities.

The Morelia court is not alone in its frustration with the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine and in its attempt to link analysis under the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine with the stronger equitable tenets of piercing the corporate veil. More subtly, courts across the country have started to entangle the two doctrines’ requirements as intracorporate conspiracy immunity has become stronger and courts have increasingly had to rely on piercing the corporate veil as an ill-fitting alternative to permit conspiracy claims to proceed. Even large public companies should take note. No public company has ever been pierced, but a bankruptcy court recently reverse-pierced corporate veils of the Roman Catholic Church, which is far from a single-person “sham” corporation. My Corporate Conspiracy Vacuum article discusses additional examples and repercussions for incentives under each of these alternative doctrines.

My next blogpost will examine how frustration with intracorporate conspiracy immunity has led to volatility in responsible corporate officer doctrine and related control person liability. Ironically, executive immunity from conspiracy charges fuels counterproductive CEO turnover.

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January 26, 2015
The Silenced Connecticut Sex-Abuse Case
Posted by Josephine Sandler Nelson

My previous blogposts (one, two, three, four, and five) introduced why conspiracy prosecutions should be used to reach wrongdoing by agents within an organization. The 2012 prosecution of Monsignor Lynn for twelve years of transferring predator priests from parish to parish at the command and for the benefit of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was defeated by the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine. Moreover, this was not the first time that the Roman Catholic Church had used the doctrine to help its bureaucrats escape liability for suppressing sex abuse cases.

In 1997, employees of the Roman Catholic Church in Connecticut were alleged—very much like Lynn—to have covered up the sexual misconduct of a priest, enabling him to continue to abuse children entrusted to the Church’s care by virtue of his office. When sued for civil conspiracy by the victims, the employees’ defense was that they were acting in the best interest of the corporation.

The Connecticut court found that the test for whether an agent is acting within the scope of his duties “is not the wrongful nature of the conspirators’ action but whether the wrongful conduct was performed within the scope of the conspirators’ official duties.” If the wrongful conduct was performed within the scope of the conspirators’ official duties, the effect of applying the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine is to find that there was no conspiracy. Because covering up the priest’s sex abuse was in the best interest of the corporate organization, the court found that the employees were all acting on behalf of the corporation. The court never reached the issue of whether the employees’ actions rose to the level of a civil conspiracy. Under the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine, it was a tautology that no conspiracy could be possible.

This case is interesting not only because it documents the way that the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine protects enterprises from inquiry into conspiracies, but also because of the subsequent history of its allegations. The full extent of the Bridgeport Diocese’s wrongdoings—if current public knowledge is indeed complete—only came to light in December 2009, twelve years after the 1997 case. It took twelve years, the combined resources of four major newspapers, an act displaying public condemnation of the Roman Catholic Church by members of the state legislature, and finally a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to release the documents that could have become the basis of the intracorporate conspiracy claim in 1997. There is still no conspiracy suit or any criminal charge against the Diocese. Additional details about the case are available in my article The Intracorporate Conspiracy Trap. The article will be published soon in the Cardozo Law Review, and it is available in draft form here.

Astonishingly, none of the extensive news coverage about the sexual abuse cases in Bridgeport over those additional twelve years has connected these facts to the original 1997 case defeated by application of the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine. If the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine had not provided immunity, the case might have revealed the Diocese’s pattern of wrongdoing long beforehand and in a much more efficient way.

My next blogpost reveals additional dangers from the spread of the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine: frustration with the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine has started to distort other areas of law.

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January 23, 2015
How We Should Have Tried Monsignor Lynn
Posted by Josephine Sandler Nelson

My previous blogposts (one, two, three, and four) introduced why conspiracy prosecutions should be used to reach wrongdoing by agents within a business organization. The same legal analysis applies to religious organizations.

We should have been able to charge Monsignor Lynn and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that directed his actions to hide the sexual abuse by priests with criminal conspiracy. Instead, Pennsylvania charged Lynn with two things: child endangerment and conspiracy with the priests.

As international news outlets later reported, Lynn could not be guilty of child endangerment because the state’s statute could not apply to an administrative church official who did not directly supervise children.

Lynn could not be guilty of conspiracy with the priests because he did not share their “particular criminal intent.” As the jury understood, Lynn was not trying to help a predator priest get from parish to parish so that “he can continue to enjoy what he likes to do.” Lynn was trying to protect the reputation of his employer, the Archdiocese—if the priests benefitted, that was a side issue.

So why didn’t the prosecution charge Lynn and the Archdiocese with conspiracy? It was the Archdiocese that directly coordinated and profited from Lynn’s actions. The intracorporate conspiracy doctrine, as discussed before, would bar that prosecution. In Pennsylvania, it is “well-settled that a corporation cannot conspire with its subsidiary, its agents, or its employees.”

Finally, considering other options, Lynn could not have been charged with possible crimes such as obstruction of justice. Lynn was too good: Lynn and the Archdiocese were so successful at covering up the sexual abuse and silencing victims, there was no ongoing investigation to obstruct. “Aiding and abetting” the Archdiocese’s cover-up of the sex abuse would have been difficult to pursue (see more here) and is not allowed under RICO in the Third Circuit.

My next blogpost will demonstrate that the Monsignor Lynn case was also part of a pattern by the Roman Catholic Church in America to use the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine to hide the coordinated wrongdoing of its agents to cover-up sexual abuse by priests. Fifteen years before prosecutors attempted to try Monsignor Lynn, the silenced Connecticut sex-abuse case showed the Church how effective this defense could be.

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January 22, 2015
Sex Abuse, Priests, and Corporate Conspiracy
Posted by Josephine Sandler Nelson

My previous blogposts (one, two, and three) introduced the topic of how the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine prevents the prosecution of coordinated wrongdoing by individuals within organizations. This post illustrates the doctrine’s effect in the context of a specific organization—here a religious one: the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the systematic transfer of predator priests. This post is based on my article The Intracorporate Conspiracy Trap to be published soon in the Cardozo Law Review. The article is available in draft form here.

For twelve years, from 1992 to 2004, as Secretary for Clergy, Monsignor William Lynn’s job within the Philadelphia Archdiocese was to supervise priests, including the investigation of sex-abuse claims. In 1994, Monsignor Lynn compiled a list of thirty-five “predator” priests within the archdiocese. He compiled the list from secret church files containing hundreds of child sex-abuse complaints. On the stand, Lynn testified that he hoped that the list would help his superiors to address the growing sex-abuse crisis within the Archdiocese. But for twelve years Lynn merely re-assigned suspected priests, and he hid the abuse within the church. His superiors never acted on the list that Lynn gave them—in fact, they ordered all copies of the list destroyed—and Lynn never contacted outside authorities. As late as 2012, one of the “predator” priests on Lynn’s list was still serving in a parish.

All parties agree that Lynn’s actions in transferring priests who molested children allowed those priests to continue to abuse children, sheltered the priests from potential prosecution, and directly protected the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s reputation.

In fact, Lynn’s actions had been ordered by the archbishop on behalf of the Archdiocese. Lynn reported what he was doing to his superiors, who rewarded Lynn with twelve years of employment and a prominent position within the Archdiocese for doing his job as they saw it. Moreover, the archbishop himself inadvertently revealed the existence of the number thirty-five “predator” priests to the media, and he was the one who ordered all copies of the list to be shredded to keep it from being discovered in legal proceedings.

The instinct here is that this behavior—the transferring of predator priests to cover-up the sexual abuse of children—should have been illegal for Monsignor Lynn to pursue. But the Commonwealth could not prosecute Monsignor Lynn and the Archdiocese for conspiracy. Furthermore, immunity for Lynn’s behavior is now the rule in most state and federal jurisdictions around the country. As described in an earlier blogpost, the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine provides immunity to an enterprise and its agents from conspiracy prosecution, based on the legal fiction that an enterprise and its agents are a single actor incapable of the meeting of two minds to form a conspiracy.

My next blogpost will further investigate why this behavior was not illegal under our current system, and how we should have tried Monsignor Lynn.

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January 21, 2015
Where are the Prosecutions for Corporate Conspiracy?
Posted by Josephine Sandler Nelson

My first and second blogposts introduced why conspiracy prosecutions are particularly important for reaching the coordinated actions of individuals when the elements of wrong-doing may be delegated among members of the group.

So where are the prosecutions for corporate conspiracy??? The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970 (“RICO”, 18 U.S.C.A. §§ 1961 et seq.), no longer applies to most business organizations and their employees. In fact, business organizations working together with outside agents can form new protected “enterprises.

What’s going on here? In this area and many other parts of the law, we are witnessing the power of the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine. This doctrine provides immunity to an enterprise and its agents from conspiracy prosecution, based on the legal fiction that an enterprise and its agents are a single actor incapable of the meeting of two minds to form a conspiracy. According to the most recent American Law Reports survey, the doctrine “applies to corporations generally, including religious corporations and municipal corporations and other governmental bodies. The doctrine applies to all levels of corporate employees, including a corporation’s officers and directors and owners who are individuals.” Moreover, it now extends from antitrust throughout tort and criminal law.

What is the practical effect of this doctrine? The intracorporate conspiracy doctrine has distorted agency law and inappropriately handicaps the ability of tort and criminal law to regulate the behavior of organizations and their agents. Obedience to a principal (up to a point) should be rewarded in agency law. But the law should not immunize an agent who acts in the best interest of her employer to commit wrongdoing. Not only does the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine immunize such wrongdoing, but the more closely that an employer orders and supervises the employee’s illegal acts, the more the employer is protected from prosecution as well.

My next blogpost illustrates how the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine operates to defeat prosecutions for coordinated wrongdoing by agents within an organization. Let’s examine the case of Monsignor Lynn.

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January 20, 2015
Corporate Conspiracy Charges for the Financial Crisis
Posted by Josephine Sandler Nelson

In my previous blogpost, I granted the merit of defense counsel’s argument that the actions of discrete individual defendants—when the law is not permitted to consider the coordination of those actions—may not satisfy the elements of a prosecutable crime.

But what is the coordination of individuals for a wrongful common purpose? That’s a conspiracy. And, for exactly the reasons that defense counsel articulates, these types of crimes cannot be reached by other forms of prosecution. The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that conspiracy is its own animal. “[C]ollective criminal agreement—partnership in crime—presents a greater potential threat to the public than individual delicts.” When we consider the degree of coordination necessary to create the financial crisis, we are not talking about a single-defendant mugging in a back alley—we are talking about at least the multi-defendant sophistication of a bank robbery.

Conspiracy prosecutions for the financial crisis have some other important features. First, the statute of limitations would run from the last action of a member of the group, not the first action as would be typical of other prosecutions. This means that many crimes from the financial crisis could still be prosecuted (answering Judge Rakoff’s concern). Second, until whistle-blower protections are improved to the point that employees with conscientious objections to processes can be heard, traditional conspiracy law provides an affirmative defense to individuals who renounce the group conspiracy. By contrast, the lesson Wall Street seems to have learned from the J.P. Morgan case is not to allow employees to put objections into writing. Third, counter to objections that conspiracy prosecutions may be too similar to vicarious liability, prosecutors would have to prove that each member of the conspiracy did share the same common intent to commit wrongdoing. The employee shaking his head “no” while saying yes would not be a willing participant, but many other bankers were freely motivated by profit at the expense of client interest to cooperate with a bank’s program.

My next blogpost will ask: where are the prosecutions for corporate conspiracy?

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J.P. Morgan’s Witness and the Holes in Corporate Criminal Law
Posted by Josephine Sandler Nelson

It is a pleasure to be guest-blogging here at The Glom for the next two weeks. My name is Josephine Nelson, and I am an advisor for the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at Stanford’s business school. Coming from a business school, I focus on practical applications at the intersection of corporate law and criminal law. I am interested in how legal rules affect ethical decisions within business organizations. Many thanks to Dave Zaring, Gordon Smith, and the other members of The Glom for allowing me to share some work that I have been doing. For easy reading, my posts will deliberately be short and cumulative.

In this blogpost, I raise the question of what is broken in our system of rules and enforcement that allows employees within business organizations to escape prosecution for ethical misconduct.

Public frustration with the ability of white-collar criminals to escape prosecution has been boiling over. Judge Rakoff of the S.D.N.Y. penned an unusual public op-ed in which he objected that “not a single high-level executive has been successfully prosecuted in connection with the recent financial crisis.” Professor Garett’s new book documents that, between 2001 and 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) failed to charge any individuals at all for crimes in sixty-five percent of the 255 cases it prosecuted.

Meanwhile, the typical debate over why white-collar criminals are treated so differently than other criminal suspects misses an important dimension to this problem. Yes, the law should provide more support for whistle-blowers. Yes, we should put more resources towards regulation. But also, white-collar defense counsel makes an excellent point that there were no convictions of bankers in the financial crisis for good reason: Prosecutors have been under public pressure to bring cases against executives, but those executives must have individually committed crimes that rise to the level of a triable case.

And why don’t the actions of executives at Bank of America, Citigroup, and J.P. Morgan meet the definition of triable crimes? Let’s look at Alayne Fleischmann’s experience at J.P. Morgan. Fleischmann is the so-called “$9 Billion Witness,” the woman whose testimony was so incriminating that J.P. Morgan paid one of the largest fines in U.S. history to keep her from talking. Fleischmann, a former quality-control officer, describes a process of intimidation to approve poor-quality loans within the bank that included an “edict against e-mails, the sabotaging of the diligence process,… bullying, [and] written warnings that were ignored.” At one point, the pressure from superiors became so ridiculous that a diligence officer caved to a sales executive to approve a batch of loans while shaking his head “no” even while saying yes.

None of those actions in the workplace sounds good, but are they triable crimes??? The selling of mislabeled securities is a crime, but notice how many steps a single person would have to take to reach that standard. Could a prosecutor prove that a single manager had mislabeled those securities, bundled them together, and resold them? Management at the bank delegated onto other people elements of what would have to be proven for a crime to have taken place. So, although cumulatively a crime took place, it may be true that no single executive at the bank committed a triable crime.

How should the incentives have been different? My next blogpost will suggest the return of a traditional solution to penalizing coordinated crimes: conspiracy prosecutions for the financial crisis.

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January 01, 2015
Larry Ribstein was wrong
Posted by Usha Rodrigues

My thoughts around the end of the year inevitably turn to the late, great Larry Ribstein, whom we lost two years ago.  The first time I met Larry I was pretty scared of him.  He was a big deal (I wasn't); he knew a lot (I didn't); he was a blogger (I wasn't); and he was acidly opinionated (nope, not me).

We talked about BA, and he said, chidingly, "I'll bet you teach corporations and partnerships, and then have a week or 2 on LLCs crammed in at the end, right?"  

Me: yes?

Larry (aka "Mr. Unincorporation"): Even though most of your students will spend most of their careers dealing with LLCs, won't they.

Me (sheepish): You're right. 

But I thought at the time, and didn't have the guts to say, "I'm right, too, Larry!"  So I'm saying it now.  I don't leave LLCs til the end of the semester because I think they're unimportant.  It's because the cases are so damn thin.  It's still such a new form, I just don't see much there there.  Most of them wind up being trial courts who read the statute in completely stupid ways.  Blech.

So I teach corporations and partnerships emphasizing fiduciary duty, default vs. mandatory rules, and the importance of the code.  In fact, one semester I confess that I would ask a question and then intone, "Look to the code!" so often I felt like a Tolkien refugee.  By the time I get to the LLCs cases, which are pretty basic, the class is ready for my message: the LLC is a new form.  When dealing with something new, judges look both to the organizational statutes and to the organizational forms they know as they shape the law.  Plus the LLC is such an interesting mix between the corporate and partnership form, it just makes sense to get through them both before diving in.

So I think Larry was wrong on this one.  I know he'd disagree, but I also know he'd appreciate this blogpost telling he was wrong.  Which is a lot of what made him so great.

 

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October 13, 2014
The Marmon Group: A Mini-Berkshire?
Posted by Usha Rodrigues

As I blogged a few days ago, I've been reading Larry Cunningham's Berkshire Beyond Buffett: The Enduring Value of Values.  The thesis is that Berkshire Hathaway's value will endure beyond its founder, Warren Buffett, because of the larger values of the organization.  After making his case he argues (like a good lawyer) that a precedent and analogous case already exists: the Pritzger's Marmon Group.

You know you're a corporate law geek if the mere mention of the Marmon Group made you sit up and take notice.  The Marmon Group plays a role in 2 classic corporate law stories.   Larry mentions one: every student of corporate law should remember the Marmon Group as the bidder in the infamous corporate law case Smith v. Van Gorkom.  If you don't remember the 1985 Delaware Supreme Court case, you didn't have me as a Corporations professor.  Spoiler alert: the directors are found to have breached their fiduciary duty and are thus personally liable for potentially millions of dollars in damages.

What many casebooks omit--but not Klein, Ramseyer, Bainbridge, which I am happily using this term--is that the case settled for $23 million.  $10 million came from D&O insurance, and "almost $11 million came from the Pritzkers." The Pritzkers had no legal duty to pay for the directors' settlement--but they did it because they felt it was the right thing to do.

The Marmon Group's second corporate law claim to fame is as a player in Barbarians at the Gate, thhe father of corporate tick-tocks.  The Marmon Group backed one of the bidders, the First Boston Group.  There's this great scene where in a second round of the auction they need to raise more money.  First Boston makes a 45-minute presentation to a British sugar company, S& W Berisford, on a Saturday night.  First Boston hoped that Berisford could make a decision by Tuesday.  20 minutes later, the company committed $125 million. 

One of First Boston's advisors asks "Do these people have any idea what they're doing?... I mean, they're going to commit $125 million.  Why should they do it."

Handelsman stared at Finn as if it was the silliest question he'd ever heard.  "Jay [Pritzker] asked them to."

The common theme from these two stories? Sophisticated businesspeople regularly act for motivations other than money.  Again and again in Berkshire Beyond Buffett, either Berkshire itself or one of its subsidiaries demonstrates that money is not ultimately what drives them. Most notably, many of Berkshire's current subsidiaries turned down higher offers from other acquirers because they valued the reputation for hands-off management that Berkshire promises.

Here's a concrete example I used with my Corporations class when discussing conflicting interest transactions.  One of Berkshire's subsidiaries was operated by a devout Mormon whose stores were closed on Sundays.  He wanted to expand out of the state, but Buffett was skeptical.  He thought the model could work in highly religious Utah, but not beyond.  Here is Cunningham quoting Buffett:

Bill then insisted on a truly extraordinary proposition: He would personally buy the land and build the store--for about $9 million as it turned out--and would sell it to us at his cost if it proved to be successful.  On the other hand, if sales fell short of his expectations, we could exit the business without paying Bill a cent.

The store was "an instant success", and Berkshire wrote the Bill a $9 million check.  Bill refused to take a penny of interest.  It's a good example of insider transactions that benefit the firm.  It also suggests Larry might actually be right about Bershire's staying power.  I can't help thinking there is a lot of value in offering businessmen like this the combination of liquidity and autonomy Berkshire provides, insulating them from the  demands of Wall Street.

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October 09, 2014
Teaching corporate legal strategy
Posted by David Orozco

For our last guest post, Robert and I would like to share our experiences using the five pathways in the classroom to teach legal strategy to business students. Overall, applying this research in the classroom has been a rewarding experience that has challenged us to improve the framework’s conceptual foundation and demonstrate its relevance in the business world.

When we first experimented using the five pathways in our respective graduate business courses three years ago, we were unsure about how well it might be received. To our relief, the framework was well received from the start. In a recent end of year survey that I give to my MBA students, several of them mentioned that the framework was one of the learning highlights in their required business law course. Various students mentioned that the framework allowed them to view the law in a different way and also helped them appreciate the opportunities and benefits of engaging attorneys to help solve business problems. This is in contrast to the viewpoint, held by some managers, that law is an external, dense and static force that constrains business behavior as opposed to enabling value creation.

Robert and I introduce the framework early in our courses, and then apply it to examples and cases throughout the term. To drive home the framework’s applicability, we created a specific team-based homework assignment (Download HW 1) that asks students to choose a recent news story involving a business law issue that follows the prevention, value or transformation pathway, and to analyze the issue from a law and strategy perspective. The articles that students recently have chosen to analyze include stories about NFL contract negotiations, the FCC’s review of the Comcast Time Warner merger, and Airbnb’s legal fight against the New York Attorney General. These cases provide plenty of material for discussion in class, and serve as potential research topics.

Although the framework has yet to be applied in the context of a law course, we think it could potentially engage law students and attorneys who seek to understand how the law strategically relates to their clients’ business.

Ultimately, we’d like to see the framework applied in diverse learning environments, so we encourage you to make use of the framework and contact us if you have any questions or ideas about how to apply it. If you decide to use the five pathways in your classroom or company, we’d love to hear about your experiences.

We’d like to conclude by extending a warm thanks to The Conglomerate and its readers for allowing us this opportunity to share our ideas related to law and strategy. We’ve greatly enjoyed participating as guest bloggers in such a distinguished collaborative space.

Sincerely,

David and Robert

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October 01, 2014
The Five Pathways in Action
Posted by David Orozco

In this post, which follows our earlier discussion of legal strategy, we’ll offer examples of companies situated within each of the five pathways. As Robert and I mentioned in our article, most companies follow the compliance pathway. Such companies insource legal compliance through their in-house legal department, or they may choose to partner with an external compliance verification service. A firm such as ISN, for example, has built a business handling compliance issues for corporations and their subcontractors. According to the Society of Compliance and Corporate Ethics, compliance is a thriving industry due to the increased legal penalties and regulations that companies face in today’s heightened legal environment.

The avoidance pathway is less frequent, given the high stakes and liability attached to this type of strategy. General Motors may have engaged in avoidance if it misled regulators about its faulty ignition switches. Avoidance issues tend to be costly to deal with, given the loss of trust and enhanced penalties that arise from this behavior.

The more interesting and rare pathways involve prevention, value, and transformation. An interesting and controversial prevention legal strategy involves trademark policing, which, in its most egregious form, devolves into the unethical and legally dubious practice of trademark bullying. For example, Chik-fil-A employs an aggressive strategy that targets large and small companies alike and uses the threat of trademark litigation to prevent anyone from encroaching upon its trademarked brands and brand equity. Setting aside the overreaching and legally dubious aspects of this approach, some companies legitimately use a preventive legal strategy that involves cease and desist letters, litigation, and U.S. Patent and Trademark Office administrative oppositions to protect the value of their brands and advertising. The Chik-fil-A case serves as a useful reminder, however, that aggressive legal strategies may push the boundaries of ethical behavior, sound legal argument, and public opinion. 

Two recent examples illustrate how employing a legal strategy in the value pathway can generate positive and tangible financial returns. The first instance involves hedge funds investing in a corporate acquisition target and then filing suit in Delaware to challenge the valuation and seek an appraisal from the court. This legal strategy is referred to as appraisal arbitrage. Many of these cases either settle or result in substantially higher prices for the party seeking the appraisal.

Another value strategy that has been in the headlines recently involves tax inversions. Burger King’s recent decision to acquire Canada’s Tim Horton’s will yield business synergies, but it also exploits a legal maneuver allowed under current tax law permitting a company acquiring a foreign entity to reincorporate in the foreign jurisdiction. By reincorporating in Canada, Burger King will effectively lower its tax rate from 35% to 15%.

The last and rarest of legal strategies is transformation. This occurs when the top executives in a corporation integrate law as a core aspect of the firm’s business model to achieve sustainable competitive advantage. Few companies are able to achieve this strategic pathway, and it’s certainly not for everyone. One company that notoriously used law to achieve abnormally large market share and margins in the ticket processing industry was Ticketmaster. The ticket service provider used venue ticket licensing contracts that included several key provisions such as long term renewable exclusivity terms (up to 5 years), and more infamously, fee sharing provisions. Ticketmaster’s business model was, essentially, to take the bad rap for charging exorbitant convenience fees and sharing those fees with the venue, thus contractually locking them into a highly profitable and exclusive business system. It didn’t hurt that Ticketmaster’s pioneering CEO Fred Rosen was a Wall Street attorney turned impresario.

Another company that is showing signs of attempting to pursue a transformative legal strategy is Tesla Motors. Tesla’s recent announcement to offer open licensing terms for its battery and charging station patents illustrates a pioneering mentality that seeks to build a business ecosystem with other auto manufacturers. By doing so, Tesla has made a major legal bet that giving up patent exclusivity rights in the short term will yield long-term competitive advantage by helping to diffuse electric battery and recharging technology. The other legal strategy Tesla has pursued relates to its pioneering distribution model of direct sales to the consumer, bypassing the traditional dealership model established for conventional automobiles. To achieve this direct-to-customer model, Tesla has engaged state regulators to achieve exemptions from state dealership franchise laws. Tesla is clearly strategizing and innovating along many fronts that involve business, technology and law. It remains to be seen, however, whether these legal strategies will offer Tesla a long-term sustainable competitive advantage.

In our next and last post, we’ll discuss our experience teaching the five pathways of legal strategy to business students and how it has been a valuable resource in the classroom. 

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September 09, 2014
CFP: AALS Business Associations Section
Posted by Usha Rodrigues
The Future of the Corporate Board
AALS Annual Meeting, January 4, 2015
 
The AALS Section on Business Associations is pleased to announce that it is sponsoring a Call for Papers for its program on Sunday, January 4th at the AALS 2015 Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. 
The topic of the program and call for papers is “The Future of the Corporate Board.” 
How will boards adapt to recent changes and challenges in the business, legal, and social environment in which corporations operate?  The recent global financial crisis and the continuing need for many corporations to compete internationally mean that today’s boards face economic pressures that their predecessors did not.  This pressure is heightened by the rise of activist investors, many of whom aggressively push for changes to corporate management and governance. On the legal front, new regulations, such as Dodd-Frank, impose heightened compliance and other burdens on many companies and boards.  And on the social front, pressures for socially responsible corporate behavior and greater racial and gender diversity on boards continues.  Our program seeks to examine the ways in which boards have, and will in the future, respond to these challenges.    
Form and length of submission
Eligible law faculty are invited to submit manuscripts or abstracts that address any of the foregoing topics. Abstracts should be comprehensive enough to allow the review committee to meaningfully evaluate the aims and likely content of papers they propose. Papers may be accepted for publication but must not be published prior to the Annual Meeting.  Untenured faculty members are particularly encouraged to submit manuscripts or abstracts.  
The initial review of the papers will be blind.  Accordingly the author should submit a cover letter with the paper.  However, the paper itself, including the title page and footnotes must not contain any references identifying the author or the author’s school.  The submitting author is responsible for taking any steps necessary to redact self-identifying text or footnotes. 
Deadline and submission method
To be considered, papers must be submitted electronically to Kim Krawiec at krawiec@law.duke.edu.  The deadline for submission is SEPTEMBER 122014
Papers will be selected after review by members of the section’s Executive Committee.  The authors of the selected papers will be notified by September 28, 2014. 
The Call for Paper participants will be responsible for paying their annual meeting registration fee and travel expenses.
Eligibility
Full-time faculty members of AALS member law schools are eligible to submit papers.  The following are ineligible to submit: foreign, visiting (without a full-time position at an AALS member law school) and adjunct faculty members, graduate students, fellows, non-law school faculty, and faculty at fee-paid non-member schools. Papers co-authored with a person ineligible to submit on their own may be submitted by the eligible co-author.

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September 03, 2014
Autonomy At Berkshire Hathaway, A Guest Post From Larry Cunningham
Posted by David Zaring

Larry's book on Berkshire Beyond Buffett is due in a month, and we'll be reading it on the Glom. Here's a taste, prepared by Larry, and if you follow the link, you can see a full chapter of the book.

Berkshire corporate policy strikes a balance between autonomy and authority. Buffett issues written instructions every two years that reflect the balance. The missive states the mandates Berkshire places on subsidiary CEOs: (1) guard Berkshire’s reputation; (2) report bad news early; (3) confer about post-retirement benefit changes and large capital expenditures (including acquisitions, which are encouraged); (4) adopt a fifty-year time horizon; (5) refer any opportunities for a Berkshire acquisition to Omaha; and (6) submit written successor recommendations. Otherwise, Berkshire stresses that managers were chosen because of their excellence and are urged to act on that excellence.   

Berkshire defers as much as possible to subsidiary chief executives on operational matters with scarcely any central supervision. All quotidian decisions would qualify: GEICO’s advertising budget and underwriting standards; loan terms at Clayton Homes and environmental quality of Benjamin Moore paints; the product mix and pricing at Johns Manville, the furniture stores and jewelry shops. The same applies to decisions about hiring, merchandising, inventory, and receivables management, whether Acme Brick, Garan, or The Pampered Chef. Berkshire’s deference extends to subsidiary decisions on succession to senior positions, including chief executive officer, as seen in such cases as Dairy Queen and Justin Brands.

Munger has said Berkshire’s oversight is just short of abdication. In a wild example, Lou Vincenti, the chief executive at Berkshire’s Wesco Financial subsidiary since its acquisition in 1973, ran the company for several years while suffering from Alzheimer’s disease—without Buffett or Munger aware of the condition. “We loved him so much,” Munger said, “that even after we found out, we kept him in his job until the week that he went off to the Alzheimer’s home. He liked coming in, and he wasn’t doing us any harm.” The two lightened a grim situation, quipping that they wished to have more subsidiaries so earnest and reputable that they could be managed by people with such debilitating medical conditions.   

There are obvious exceptions to Berkshire’s tenet of autonomy. Large capital expenditures—or the chance of that—lead reinsurance executives to run outsize policies and risks by headquarters. Berkshire intervenes in extraordinary circumstances, for example, the costly deterioration in underwriting standards at Gen Re and threatened repudiation of a Berkshire commitment to distributors at Benjamin Moore. Mandatory or not, Berkshire was involved in R. C. Willey’s expansion outside of Utah and rightly asserts itself in costly capital allocation decisions like those concerning purchasing aviation simulators at FlightSafety or increasing the size of the core fleet at NetJets.

Ironically, gains from Berkshire’s hands-off management are highlighted by an occasion when Buffett made an exception. Buffett persuaded GEICO managers to launch a credit card business for its policyholders. Buffett hatched the idea after puzzling for years to imagine an additional product to offer its millions of loyal car insurance customers. GEICO’s management warned Buffett against the move, expressing concern that the likely result would be to get a high volume of business from its least creditworthy customers and little from its most reliable ones. By 2009, GEICO had lost more than $6 million in the credit card business and took another $44 million hit when it sold the portfolio of receivables at a discount to face value. The costly venture would not have been pursued had Berkshire stuck to its autonomy principle.

The more important—and more difficult—question is the price of autonomy.  Buffett has explained Berkshire’s preference for autonomy and assessment of the related costs: 

We tend to let our many subsidiaries operate on their own, without our supervising and monitoring them to any degree. That means we are sometimes late in spotting management problems and that [disagreeable] operating and capital decisions are occasionally made. . . . Most of our managers, however, use the independence we grant them magnificently, rewarding our confidence by maintaining an owner-oriented attitude that is invaluable and too seldom found in huge organizations. We would rather suffer the visible costs of a few bad decisions than incur the many invisible costs that come from decisions made too slowly—or not at all—because of a stifling bureaucracy.

Berkshire’s approach is so unusual that the occasional crises that result provoke public debate about which is better in corporate culture: Berkshire’s model of autonomy-and-trust or the more common approach of command-and-control. Few episodes have been more wrenching and instructive for Berkshire culture than when David L. Sokol, an esteemed senior executive with his hand in many Berkshire subsidiaries, was suspected of insider trading in an acquisition candidate’s stock.

(The above is an excerpt from Chapter 8, Autonomy, from Lawrence Cunningham’s upcoming book, Berkshire Beyond Buffett: The Enduring Value of Values; the full text of the chapter, which considers the case for Berkshire’s distinctive trust-based model of corporate governance, can be downloaded free here.)

[To read the full chapter, which can be downloaded for free, click here and hit download]

 

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August 09, 2014
Disruptive Legal Technologies: Benefit Corporations and the Crowdfunding of Firms
Posted by Eric Orts

Two recent developments in the law and practice of business include:  (1) the advent of benefit corporations (and kindred organizational forms) and (2) the application of crowdfunding practices to capital-raising for start-ups.  My thesis here is that these two innovations will become disruptive legal technologies.  In other words, benefit corporations and capital crowdfunding will change the landscape of business organization substantially.

A disruptive technology is one that changes the foundational context of business.  Think of the internet and the rise of Amazon, Google, etc.   Or consider the invention of laptops and the rise of Microsoft and the fall of the old IBM.  Automobiles displace horses, and telephones make the telegraph obsolete.  The Harvard economist Joseph Schumpeter coined a phrase for the phenomenon:  “creative destruction.”

Technologies can be further divided into two types:  physical technologies (e.g., new scientific inventions or mechanical innovations) and social technologies (such as law and accounting).   See Business Persons, p. 1 (citing Richard R. Nelson, Technology, Institutions, and Economic Growth (2005), pp. 153–65, 195–209).  The legal innovations of benefit corporations and capital crowdfunding count as major changes in social technologies.  (Perhaps the biggest legal technological invention remains the corporation itself.)

1.  Benefit corporations began as a nonprofit idea, hatched in my hometown of Philadelphia (actually Berwyn, Pennsylvania, but I’ll claim it as close enough).  A nonprofit organization called B Lab began to offer an independent brand to business firms (somewhat confusingly not limited to corporations) that agree to adopt a “social purpose” as well as the usual self-seeking goal of profit-making.  In addition, a “Certified B Corporation” must meet a transparency requirement of regular reporting on its “social” as well as financial progress.  Other similar efforts include the advent of “low-profit” limited liability companies or L3Cs, which attempt to combine nonprofit/social and profit objectives.  In my theory of business, I label these kind of firms “hybrid social enterprises.”  Business Persons, pp. 206-15.

A significant change occurred in the last few years with the passage of legislation that gave teeth to the benefit corporation idea.  Previously, the nonprofit label for a B Corp required a firm to declare adherence to a corporate constituency statute or to adopt a similar constituency by-law or other governing provision which signaled that a firm’s sense of its business objective extended beyond shareholders or other equity-owners alone.  (One of my first academic articles addressed the topic at an earlier stage.  See “Beyond Shareholders:  Interpreting Corporate Constituency Statutes.”  I also gave a recent video interview on the topic here.)  Beginning in 2010, a number of U.S. states passed formal statutes authorizing benefit corporations.  One recent count finds that twenty-seven states have now passed similar statutes.  California has allowed for an option of all corporations to “opt in” to a “flexible purpose corporation” statute which combines features of benefit corporations and constituency statutes.  Most notably, Delaware – the center of gravity of U.S. incorporations – adopted a benefit corporation statute in the summer of 2013. According to Alicia Plerhoples, fifty-five corporations opted in to the Delaware benefit corporation form within six months.  Better known companies that have chosen to operate as benefit corporations include Method Products in Delaware and Patagonia in California.

2. Crowdfunding firms.  Crowdfunding along the lines of Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns for the creation of new products have become commonplace.  And the amounts of capital raised have sometimes been eye-popping.  An article in Forbes relates the recent case of a robotics company raising $1.4 million in three weeks for a new project.  Nonprofit funding for the microfinance of small business ventures in developing countries seems also to be successful.  Kiva is probably the best known example.  (Disclosure:  my family has been an investor in various Kiva projects, and I’ve been surprised and encouraged by the fact that no loans have so far defaulted!)

However, a truly disruptive change in the capital funding of enterprises – perhaps including hybrid social enterprises – may be signaled by the Jumpstart Our Business Start-ups (JOBS) Act passed in 2012. Although it is limited at the moment in terms of the range of investors that may be tapped for crowdfunding (including a $1 million capital limit and sophisticated/wealthy investors requirement), a successful initial run may result in amendments that may begin to change the face of capital fundraising for firms.  Judging from some recent books at least, crowdfunding for new ventures seems to have arrived.  See Kevin Lawton and Dan Marom’s The Crowdfunding Revolution (2012) and Gary Spirer’s Crowdfunding:  The Next Big Thing (2013).

What if easier capital crowdfunding combined with benefit corporation structures?  Is it possible to imagine the construction of new securities markets that would raise capital for benefit corporations -- outside of traditional Wall Street markets where the norm of “shareholder value maximization” rules?  There are some reasons for doubt:  securities regulations change slowly (with the financial status quo more than willing to lobby against disruptive changes) and hopes for “do-good” business models may run into trouble if consumer markets don’t support them strongly.  But it’s at least possible to imagine a different world of business emerging with the energy and commitment of a generation of entrepreneurs who might care about more in their lives than making themselves rich.  Benefit corporations fueled by capital crowdfunding might lead a revolution:  or, less provocatively, may at least challenge traditional business models that for too long have assumed a narrow economic model of profit-maximizing self-interest.  James Surowiecki, in his recent column in The New Yorker, captures a more modest possibility:  “The rise of B corps is a reminder that the idea that corporations should be only lean, mean, profit-maximizing machines isn’t dictated by the inherent nature of capitalism, let alone by human nature.  As individuals, we try to make our work not just profitable but also meaningful. It may be time for more companies to do the same.”

So a combination of hybrid social enterprises and capital crowdfunding doesn’t need to displace all of the traditional modes of doing business to change the world.  If a significant number of entrepreneurs, employees, investors, and customers lock-in to these new social technologies, then they will indeed become “disruptive.”

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