March 22, 2013
Discretion
Posted by Gordon Smith

One of my colleagues said that my latest article (written with one of my excellent students, Jordan Lee) sounds like an R-rated movie. The title is Discretion, and here is the abstract:

Discretion is an important feature of all contractual relationships. In this Article, we rely on incomplete contract theory to motivate our study of discretion, with particular attention to fiduciary relationships. We make two contributions to the substantial literature on fiduciary law. First, we describe the role of fiduciary law as “boundary enforcement,” and we urge courts to honor the appropriate exercise of discretion by fiduciaries, even when the beneficiary or the judge might perceive a preferable action after the fact. Second, we answer the question, how should a court define the boundaries of fiduciary discretion? We observe that courts often define these boundaries by reference to industry customs and social norms. We also defend this as the most sensible and coherent approach to boundary enforcement.

I wrote an article about a decade ago called "The Critical Resource Theory of Fiduciary Duty" that still gets downloaded and cited a fair amount, at least for a fiduciary duty article. It is about the structure of fiduciary relationships, and I wanted to do a follow on article about how courts know when someone has breached a fiduciary duty. I actually had a fairly long draft of an article that was just horrible, and I never published it, but I kept thinking about and teaching about this problem. Earlier this year, I had a brainstorm about the subject, and the result is this new article. 

By the way, interest in fiduciary law seems to have exploded in the past decade. Some of that interest stems from Tamar Frankel's book and the accompanying conference at Boston University. Some of the interest stems from the fact that fiduciary law is interesting in many countries outside the United States, where much of the best writing on this subject is found (see Paul Miller, for example). I look forward to a new surge in interest this summer, as Andrew Gold and Paul Miller have organized an excellent conference on The Philosophical Foundations of Fiduciary Law, to be held in Chicago. I am writing a paper entitled "True Loyalty" for that conference and very much looking forward to reading the other contributions.

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March 05, 2013
A CEO's Farewell Memo, Annotated By Venture Capitalists
Posted by David Zaring

Andrew Mason, the CEO of Groupon, wrote a pretty nice exit letter when the board fired him.  But the annotation by Marc Andreesen and Bo Horowitz is also illuminating, if you like that tech start-up kind of thing.

HT: Felix Salmon

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January 08, 2013
Business Ethics Teaching Conference
Posted by Gordon Smith
Cynthia Williams and I are organizing a a Business Ethics Teaching Conference at Aspen Grove, a BYU center in the mountains by Provo, Utah on February 21-22. As with our last teaching conference in 2010, this one will be participatory, with an interdisciplinary focus on business ethics and how issues of ethics and social responsibilities can be incorporated into the basic business course. While space is limited, we are looking for junior professors (including fellows or visiting assistant professors) who have a strong interest in business ethics and might want to attend. Please contact me as soon as possible.

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December 18, 2012
AALS Section Meetings: Business Associations
Posted by Gordon Smith

Our own Christine Hurt will be featured in the Business Associations section ...

Business Associations and Governance in Emerging Economies

    Moderator: Brett H. McDonnell, University of Minnesota Law School

    Speakers:

    Virginia Harper Ho, University of Kansas School of Law

    Nicholas C. Howson, The University of Michigan Law School

    Christine Hurt, University of Illinois College of Law

    Kellye Y. Testy, University of Washington School of Law

    Commentator: Jodie Kirshner, University Lecturer, University of Cambridge F aculty of Law, Cambridge, United Kingdom

    Emerging economies such as China, India, and Brazil play an increasingly important role in the world economy. Companies based in these economies face their own particular set of challenges in corporate governance. In some ways these problems are the same as those faced in developed economies, and in some ways they are quite different. The challenges, and solutions to those challenges, also vary among emerging economies. Panelists will discuss those challenges and how participants in emerging economies are meeting them. Some panelists are drawn from a Call for Papers; other panelists will comment upon those papers and use them as a launching point for a general discussion of corporate governance in emerging economies.

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September 25, 2012
Hiring Announcement - Wharton
Posted by David Zaring

My department is hiring at the junior and senior level, and, although we're casting the net broadly, is very interested in the subjects in which the readers of this blog are interested. So if you think you'd be interested, please do apply!  The announcement is below.  We want your application!

FACULTY POSITIONS IN BUSINESS LAW AND BUSINESS ETHICS

The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania invites applications for tenured and tenure-track positions in its Department of Legal Studies and Business Ethics.  The Department has seventeen full-time faculty who teach a wide variety of business-oriented courses in law and ethics in the undergraduate, MBA, and Ph.D. programs and whose research is regularly published in leading journals.  The Wharton School has one of the largest and best-published business school faculties in the world. 

Applicants should have either a J.D. or a Ph.D. from an accredited institution (an expected completion date no later than July 1, 2014 is acceptable) and a demonstrated commitment to scholarship in business law, business ethics, or a combination of the two fields.  Specific areas of potential focus for hiring include corporate governance, financial regulation, health law/bioethics, securities regulation, and social impact/sustainability.  In addition, the Wharton School has particular strengths in its global reach and perspective, as well as an interdisciplinary approach to business issues (embracing ten academic departments and over twenty research centers). 

Please submit electronically your letter of introduction, c.v., and one selected article or writing sample in PDF format via the following website by December 15, 2012: http://lgst.wharton.upenn.edu.  Decisions for interviews will be made on a rolling basis, so candidates are encouraged to apply early.

The University of Pennsylvania is an equal opportunity, affirmative action employer.  Women and minority candidates are strongly encouraged to apply.

 

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September 07, 2012
Weekend Reading: A Transactional Genealogy of Scandal
Posted by Erik Gerding

As in a bad horror movie (or a great Rolling Stones song), observers of the current crisis may have been disquieted that one of the central characters in this disaster also played a central role in the Enron era. Is it coincidence that special purpose entities (SPEs) were at the core of both the Enron transactions and many of the structured finance deals that fell part in the Panic of 2007-2008?

Bill Bratton (Penn) and Adam Levitin (Georgetown) think not. Bratton and Levin have a really fine new paper out, A Transactional Genealogy of Scandal, that not only draws deep connections between these two episodes, but also traces back the lineage of collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) back to Michael Millken. The paper provides a masterful guided tour of the history of CDOs from the S&L/junk bond era to the innovations of J.P. Morgan through to the Goldman ABACUS deals and the freeze of the asset-backed commercial paper market .

Their account argues that the development of the SPE is the apotheosis of the firm as “nexus of contracts.” These shell companies, after all, are nothing but contracts. This feature, according to Bratton & Levin, allows SPEs to become ideal tools either for deceiving investors or arbitraging financial regulations.

Here is their abstract:

Three scandals have fundamentally reshaped business regulation over the past thirty years: the securities fraud prosecution of Michael Milken in 1988, the Enron implosion of 2001, and the Goldman Sachs “Abacus” enforcement action of 2010. The scandals have always been seen as unrelated. This Article highlights a previously unnoticed transactional affinity tying these scandals together — a deal structure known as the synthetic collateralized debt obligation (“CDO”) involving the use of a special purpose entity (“SPE”). The SPE is a new and widely used form of corporate alter ego designed to undertake transactions for its creator’s accounting and regulatory benefit.

The SPE remains mysterious and poorly understood, despite its use in framing transactions involving trillions of dollars and its prominence in foundational scandals. The traditional corporate alter ego was a subsidiary or affiliate with equity control. The SPE eschews equity control in favor of control through pre-set instructions emanating from transactional documents. In theory, these instructions are complete or very close thereto, making SPEs a real world manifestation of the “nexus of contracts” firm of economic and legal theory. In practice, however, formal designations of separateness do not always stand up under the strain of economic reality.

When coupled with financial disaster, the use of an SPE alter ego can turn even a minor compliance problem into scandal because of the mismatch between the traditional legal model of the firm and the SPE’s economic reality. The standard legal model looks to equity ownership to determine the boundaries of the firm: equity is inside the firm, while contract is outside. Regulatory regimes make inter-firm connections by tracking equity ownership. SPEs escape regulation by funneling inter-firm connections through contracts, rather than equity ownership.

The integration of SPEs into regulatory systems requires a ground-up rethinking of traditional legal models of the firm. A theory is emerging, not from corporate law or financial economics but from accounting principles. Accounting has responded to these scandals by abandoning the equity touchstone in favor of an analysis in which contractual allocations of risk, reward, and control operate as functional equivalents of equity ownership, and approach that redraws the boundaries of the firm. Transaction engineers need to come to terms with this new functional model as it could herald unexpected liability, as Goldman Sachs learned with its Abacus CDO.

The paper should be on the reading list of scholars in securities and financial institution regulation. The historical account also provides a rich source of material for corporate law scholars engaged in the Theory of the Firm literature.

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August 16, 2012
CSR: The Chick-fil-A Controversy and a Masters Forum on Corporate Social Responsibility
Posted by Erik Gerding

We have decided to convene a late summer forum of the Conglomerate Masters -- our roster of distinguished corporate and financial law professors -- to discuss the current state of corporate social responsibility.  In particular, we wanted to address the controversy over Chick-fil-A's corporate stance against same sex marriage and to use this Economist blog post as a jumping off-point. 

The Economist blogger contends that Chick-fil-A's culture is in fact a prime example of a firm embracing corporate social responsibility (or "CSR") - albeit not with the politics that one traditionally associates with that movement.  The blogger concludes that the Chick-fil-A example demonstrates that matters of social policy should best be left to democratic institutions.  He or she writes:

Matters of moral truth aside, what's the difference between buying a little social justice with your coffee and buying a little Christian traditionalism with your chicken? There is no difference. Which speaks to my proposition that CSR, when married to norms of ethical consumption, will inevitably incite bouts of culture-war strife. CSR with honest moral content, as opposed to anodyne public-relations campaigns about "values", is a recipe for the politicisation of production and sales. But if we also promote politicised consumption, we're asking consumers to punish companies whose ideas about social responsibility clash with our own. Or, to put it another way, CSR that takes moral disagreement and diversity seriously—that really isn't a way of using corporations as instruments for the enactment of progressive social change that voters can't be convinced to support—asks companies with controversial ideas about social responsibility to screw over their owners and creditors and employees for...what? 

It is a provocative argument.  Although one wonders if the author would have made this same series of arguments in the 1960s: would the author have encouraged civil rights protesters to abandon lunch-counter sit-ins and lobby state legislators instead?

Still, the Chick-fil-A example raises some disquieting questions for CSR, which our Masters may address.  These include:

Is corporate law the most effective or legitimate tool for social change?  If we are worried about environmental degradation, is the solution to broaden the stakeholders to whom a corporation must answer?  Or shouldn't we look instead to environmental law?

Is CSR viewpoint neutral?  When covering CSR in a Corporations course, I ask students whether social activists who are lobbying a corporation to change what they see as immoral employment practices, should be able to put their views to a shareholder vote?  Then I ask whether the answer would or should change based on whether the activists are looking to end racial or gender discrimination or whether they are lobbying a company to stop offering benefits to partners in same sex couples.

At the same time, the current state of legal affairs raises some disquieting questions for opponents of CSR too.  The conclusion in the Economist blog -- leave social policy to democratic institutions and public law -- has a long lineage.  It harkens back to Milton Friedman's arguments that corporations and the states do and should exist in separate spheres; if citizens want to change corporate policy, the argument goes, they should act through the political process and push through public regulation.

But, the separate spheres argument looks more and more outdated, as corporations influence and permeate the sphere of government.  Do arguments to leave regulating the public dimension of corporate behavior out of corporate law and governance -- and leave it to traditional legislative and regulatory bodies -- appear naive in a post-Citizens United (and post-public choice)world?

Also, do these same questions for proponents and critics of CSR apply in equal measure to the growing field of social entrepreneurship?  Can entrepreneurs do well while doing good?  Should we expect them too?  Is social entrepreneurship a workable, stable, and viewpoint neutral concept?  If so, what does it entail?  Does/should CSR apply equally to small businesses and startups as to global corporations?

We look forward to hearing from our Masters...

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August 14, 2012
Does The Mittelstand Even Exist?
Posted by David Zaring

The Times has a not that newsy profile of the Mittelstand, today, Germany's vaunted SME sector, and one that counts for 60 percent of its employment.  The big reveal is that the Mittelstand likes the euro, though that calculation is largely on the basis of interviews at one obscure (every Mittelstand company is obscure, that's rather the point) shut-off valve manufacturer.

If you hang out at business schools, the Mittelstand is a useful corrective to everything you think you're supposed to know about finance.  German companies eschew debt, we are told, rely on banks instead of capital markets for funding, and retain their employees at all costs.  Basically the opposite of the private equity playbook.  And yet ... look at the awesome German economy!  It has implications for corporate law, too, given that Mittelstand firms are likely to be closely held, with representation for workers and banks if it isn't just a family thing.  Maybe that's what Delaware ought to be offering!

But I think this obsession with the Mittelstand may be branding more than anything else. Take that 60% employment number.  In the US, though, small businesses account for half, and 65% of all new jobs.  And some Mittelstand firms probably count as large businesses in the American definition (500 employees is the cutoff).  Nor is Germany radically more industrialized than the US, though that's what the Mittelstand is supposed to be.  28% of the country's employees are in manufacturing.  The we-just-do-service United States proportion?  22%

Wiser heads than mine accept the Mittelstand as different - the interest in SME-usable research is an excellent way to fund a project in not just German, but European universities more generally.  But surely some perspective is in order.  It's easy to overstate modest differences, and while I'll be happy to conclude that the German model well and truly is unique, I'd like to see a few more differences between that approach and ours before doing so.

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April 30, 2012
AALS Section on Business Associations: 2013 Call for Papers
Posted by Gordon Smith

The AALS Section on Business Associations will meet during the AALS Annual Meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana, from 3:30-5.15 pm on January 5, 2013.

The topic for this year’s session is:  Business Associations and Governance in Emerging Economies.   

Panelists will be chosen on the basis of submissions made in response to this Call for Papers.  In addition, distinguished scholars will provide comments on the chosen papers.  The topic is intended to be broad.  Papers may deal with just one emerging economy, or may compare several or many emerging economies as well as other economies.  Papers may cover any issues relevant to the governance of corporations or other kinds of business associations.  The Executive Committee welcomes submissions on a broad range of issues related to this year’s topic, including empirical and theoretical perspectives.  The Committee specifically encourages submissions from junior scholars.

If you are interested in presenting a paper, please submit a summary of no more than three double-spaced pages, preferably by e-mail, before Friday, June 29, 2012.  In addition to the summary, you also may submit a complete draft of your paper.  Direct your submission to:

Professor Brett McDonnell
University of Minnesota Law School
229 19th Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55405
bhm@umn.edu

Papers will be selected after review by members of the Executive Committee of the Section on Business Associations, including:

Jayne Barnard (William & Mary)                       Robert Bartlett (Berkeley)
Daniel Greenwood (Hofstra)                           Joan Heminway (Tennessee, Chair Elect)
Kim Krawiec (Duke)                                      Don Langevoort (Georgetown)
Brett McDonnell (Minnesota, Chair)                 Tamara Piety (Tulsa)
Usha Rodrigues (Georgia)                              Hillary Sale (Washington U., Past Chair)
Guhan Subramanian (Harvard)                        Cheryl Wade (St. John’s)

Authors of accepted papers will be notified by September 7, 2012.  Please feel free to pass this Call for Papers along to any colleagues who may be interested.

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December 16, 2011
Educating Today’s Law Students to Be Tomorrow’s Counselors and Gatekeepers
Posted by Marcia Narine

Law schools are under attack. Depending upon the source, between 20-50% of corporate counsel won’t pay for junior associate work at big firms. Practicing lawyers, academics, law students and members of the general public have weighed in publicly and vehemently about the perceived failure of America’s law schools to prepare students for the real world.

Admittedly, before I joined academia a few months ago, I held some of the same views about lack of preparedness. Having worked with law students and new graduates as outside and in house counsel, I was often unimpressed with the level of skills of these well-meaning, very bright new graduates. I didn’t expect them to know the details of every law, but I did want them to know how to research effectively, write clearly, and be able to influence the clients and me.  The first two requirements aren’t too much to expect, and schools have greatly improved here.  But many young attorneys still leave school without the ability to balance different points of view, articulate a position in plain English, and influence others.

To be fair, unlike MBAs, most law students don’t have a lot of work experience, and generally, very little experience in a legal environment before they graduate.  Assuming they know the substantive area of the law, they don’t have any context as to what may be relevant to their clients. 

How can law schools help?

First, regardless of the area in which a student believes s/he wants to specialize, schools should require them to take business associations, tax, and a basic finance or accounting course.  No lawyer can be effective without understanding business, whether s/he wants to focus on mom and pop clients, estate planning, family law, nonprofit, government or corporate law. More important, students have no idea where they will end up after graduation or ten years later.  Trying to learn finance when they already have a job wastes the graduate’s and the employer’s time.

Of course, many law schools already require tax and business organizations courses, but how many of those schools also show students an actual proxy statement or simulate a shareholder’s meeting to provide some real world flavor? Do students really understand what it means to be a fiducuiary?

Second and on a related point, in the core courses, students may not need to draft interrogatories in a basic civil procedure course, but they should at least read a complaint and a motion for summary judgment, and perhaps spend some time making the arguments to their brethren in the classroom on a current case on a docket. No one can learn effectively by simply reading appellate cases. Why not have  students redraft contract clauses? When I co-taught professional responsibility this semester, students simulated client conversations, examined do-it-yourself legal service websites for violations of state law, and wrote client letters so that the work came alive.

When possible, schools should also re-evaluate their core requirements to see if they can add more clinicals (which are admittedly expensive) or labs for negotiation, client consultation or transactional drafting (like my employer UMKC offers). I’m not convinced that law school needs to last for three years, but I am convinced that more of the time needs to be spent marrying the doctrinal and theoretical work to practical skills into the current curriculum.

Third, schools can look to their communities. In addition to using adjuncts to bring practical experience to the classroom, schools, the public and private sector should develop partnerships where students can intern more frequently and easily for school credit in the area of their choice, including nonprofit work, local government, criminal law, in house work and of course, firm work of all sizes.  Current Department of Labor rules unnecessarily complicate internship processes and those rules should change.

This broader range of opportunities will provide students with practical experience, a more realistic idea of the market, and will also help address access to justice issues affecting underserved communities, for example by allowing supervised students to draft by-laws for a 501(c)(3). I’ll leave the discussion of high student loans, misleading career statistics from law schools and the oversupply of lawyers to others who have spoken on these hot topics issues recently.

Fourth, law schools should integrate the cataclysmic changes that the legal profession is undergoing into as many classes as they can. Law professors actually need to learn this as well.  How are we preparing students for the commoditization of legal services through the rise of technology, the calls for de-regulation, outsourcing, and the emerging competition from global firms who can integrate legal and other professional services in ways that the US won’t currently allow?

Finally and most important, what are we teaching students about managing and appreciating risk? While this may not be relevant in every class, it can certainly be part of the discussions in many. Perhaps students will learn more from using a combination of reading law school cases and using the business school case method.

If students don’t understand how to recognize, measure, monitor and mitigate risk, how will they advise their clients? If they plan to work in house, as I did, they serve an additional gatekeeper role and increasingly face SEC investigations and jail terms.  As more general counsels start hiring people directly from law schools, junior lawyers will face these complexities even earlier in their careers. Even if they counsel external clients, understanding risk appetite is essential in an increasingly complex, litigious and regulated world.

When I teach my course on corporate governance, compliance and social responsibility next spring, my students will look at SEC comment letters, critically scrutinize corporate social responsibility reports, read blogs, draft board minutes, dissect legislation, compare international developments and role play as regulators, legislators, board members, labor organizations, NGOs and executives to understand all perspectives and practice influencing each other. Learning what Sarbanes-Oxley or Dodd-Frank says without understanding what it means in practice is useless.

The good news is that more schools are starting to look at those kinds of issues. The Carnegie Model of legal education “supports courses and curricula that integrate three sets of values or ‘apprenticeships’: knowledge, practice and professionalism.” Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers is a growing consortium of law schools which recommends “an integrated, three-part curriculum: (1) the teaching of legal doctrine and analysis, which provides the basis for professional growth; (2) introduction to the several facets of practice included under the rubric of lawyering, leading to acting with responsibility for clients; and (3) exploration and assumption of the identity, values and dispositions consonant with the fundamental purposes of the legal profession.”  The University of Miami’s innovative LawWithoutWalls program brings students, academics, entrepreneurs and practitioners from around the world together to examine the fundamental shifts in legal practice and education and develop viable solutions.

The problems facing the legal profession are huge, but not insurmountable. The question is whether more law schools and professors are able to leave their comfort zones, law students are able to think more globally and long term, and the popular press and public are willing to credit those who are already moving in the right direction.  I’m no expert, but as a former consumer of these legal services, I’m ready to do my part.

 

 

 

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December 14, 2011
Does a Corporation Have a Conscience and Can It Tempt Ethical People to Do Bad Things?
Posted by Marcia Narine

Time Magazine’s “person of the year” is the “protestor.” Occupy Wall Street’s participants have generated discussion unprecedented in recent years about the role of corporations and their executives in society. The movement has influenced workers and unemployed alike around the world and has clearly shaped the political debate.

But how does a corporation really act? Doesn’t it act through its people? And do those people behave like the members of the homo economicus species acting rationally, selfishly for their greatest material advantage and without consideration about morality, ethics or other people? If so, can a corporation really have a conscience?

In her book Cultivating Conscience: How Good Laws Make Good People, Lynn Stout, a corporate and securities professor at UCLA School of Law argues that the homo economicus model does a poor job of predicting behavior within corporations. Stout takes aim at Oliver Wendell Holmes’ theory of the “bad man” (which forms the basis of homo economicus), Hobbes’ approach in Leviathan, John Stuart Mill’s theory of political economy, and those judges, law professors, regulators and policymakers who focus solely on the law and economics theory that material incentives are the only things that matter.

Citing hundreds of sociological studies that have been replicated around the world over the past fifty years, evolutionary biology, and experimental gaming theory, she concludes that  people do not generally behave like the “rational maximizers” that ecomonic theory would predict. In fact other than the 1-3% of the population who are psychopaths, people are “prosocial, ” meaning that they sacrifice to follow ethical rules, or to help or avoid harming others (although interestingly in student studies, economics majors tended to be less prosocial than others). 

She recommends a three-factor model for judges, regulators and legislators who want to shape human behavior:

 “Unselfish prosocial behavior toward strangers, including unselfish compliance with legal and ethical rules, is triggered by social context, including especially:

(1)         instructions from authority

(2)         beliefs about others’ prosocial behavior; and

(3)         the magnitude of the benefits to others.

Prosocial behavior declines, however, as the personal cost of acting prosocially increases.”

While she focuses on tort, contract and criminal law, her model and criticisms of the homo economicus model may be particularly helpful in the context of understanding corporate behavior. Corporations clearly influence how their people act. Professor Pamela Bucy, for example, argues that government should only be able to convict a corporation if it proves that the corporate ethos encouraged agents of the corporation to commit the criminal act. That corporate ethos results from individuals working together toward corporate goals.

Stout observes that an entire generation of business and political leaders has been taught that people only respond to material incentives, which leads to poor planning that can have devastating results by steering naturally prosocial people to toward unethical or illegal behavior. She warns against “rais[ing] the cost of conscience,” stating that “if we want people to be good, we must not tempt them to be bad.”

In her forthcoming article “Killing Conscience: The Unintended Behavioral Consequences of ‘Pay for Performance,’” she applies behavioral science to incentive based-pay. She points to the savings and loans crisis of the 80's, the recent teacher cheating scandals on standardized tests, Enron, Worldcom, the 2008 credit crisis, which stemmed in part from performance-based bonuses that tempted brokers to approve risky loans, and Bear Sterns and AIG executives who bet on risky derivatives. She disagrees with those who say that that those incentive plans were poorly designed, arguing instead that excessive reliance on even well designed ex-ante incentive plans can “snuff out” or suppress conscience and create “psycopathogenic” environments, and has done so as evidenced by “a disturbing outbreak of executive-driven corporate frauds, scandals and failures.” She further notes that the pay for performance movement has produced less than stellar improvement in the performance and profitability of most US companies.  

She advocates instead for trust-based” compensation arrangements, which take into account the parties’ capacity for prosocial behavior rather than leading employees to believe that the employer rewards selfish behavior. This is especially true if that reward tempts employees to engage in fraudulent or opportunistic behavior if that is the only way to realistically achieve the performance metric.

Applying her three factor model looks like this: Does the company’s messaging tell employees that it doesn’t care about ethics? Is it rewarding other people to act in the same way? And is it signaling that there is nothing wrong with unethical behavior or that there are no victims? This theory fits in nicely with the Bucy corporate ethos paradigm described above.

Stout proposes modest, nonmaterial rewards such as greater job responsibilities, public recognition, and more reasonable cash awards based upon subjective, ex post evaluations on the employee’s performance, and cites studies indicating that most employees thrive and are more creative in environments that don’t focus on ex ante monetary incentives. She yearns for the pre 162(m) days when the tax code didn’t require corporations to tie executive pay over one million dollars to performance metrics.

Stout’s application of these behavioral science theories provide guidance that lawmakers and others may want to consider as they look at legislation to prevent or at least mitigate the next corporate scandal. She also provides food for thought for those in corporate America who want to change the dynamics and trust factors within their organizations, and by extension their employee base, shareholders and the general population.

 

 

 

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December 12, 2011
Corporate Criminal Liability- Prosecutors in the Boardroom and the Call for an Affirmative Defense
Posted by Marcia Narine

Massey Energy and Walmart made headlines last week for different reasons. Massey had the worst mining disaster in 40 years, killing 29 employees and entered into a nonprescution agreement with the Department of Justice. The DOJ has stated in the past that these agreements balance the interests of penalizing offending companies, compensating victims and stopping criminal conduct “without the loss of jobs, the loss of pensions, and other significant negative consequences to innocent parties who played no role in the criminal conduct, were unaware of it, or were unable to prevent it.”

Massey’s new owner Alpha Natural Resources, has agreed to pay $210 million dollars in fines to the government, compensation to the families of the deceased miners and for safety improvements (the latter may be tax-deductible). The government’s 972-page report concluded that the root cause was Massey’s “systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts” to conceal life threatening safety violations. The company maintained a doctored set of safety records for investigators, intimidated workers who complained of safety issues, warned miners when inspectors were coming (a crime), and had 370 violations. The mine had been shut down 48 times in the previous year and reopened once violations were fixed.  112 miners had had no basic safety training at all.  Only one executive has been convicted of destroying documents and obstruction, and investigations on other executives are pending. However, the company itself has escaped prosecution for violations of the Mine Safety and Health Act, conspiracy or obstruction of justice. Perhaps new ownership swayed prosecutors and if Massey had its same owners, things would be different. But is this really justice? The miner’s families receiving the settlement certainly don’t think so.

Walmart announced in its 10-Q that based upon a compliance review and other sources (Dodd-Frank whistleblowers maybe?), it had informed both the SEC and DOJ that it was conducting a worldwide review of its practices to ensure that there were no violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”).  Although no facts have come out in the Walmart case and I have no personal knowledge of the circumstances, let’s assume for the sake of this post that Walmart has a robust compliance program, which takes a risk based approach to training its two million employees in what they need to know (the greeter in Tulsa may not need in-depth training on bribery and corruption but the warehouse manager and office workers in Brazil and China do). Let’s also assume that Walmart can hire the best attorneys, investigators and consultants around, and based on their advice, chose to disclose to the government that they were conducting an internal investigation.  Let’s further assume that the incidents are not widespread and may involve a few rogue managers around the world, who have chosen to ignore the training and the policies and a strong tone at the top.

As is common today, let’s also assume that depending on what they find, the company will do what every good “corporate citizen” does to avoid indictment --disclose all factual findings and underlying information of its internal investigation, waive the attorney client privilege and work product protection, fire employees, replace management, possibly cut off payment of legal fees for those under investigation, and actively participate in any government investigations of employees, competitors, agents and vendors.

Should this idealized version of Walmart be treated the same as Massey Energy? (For a great compilation of essays on the potential conflicts between the company and its employees, read Prosecutors in the Boardroom: Using Criminal Law to Regulate Corporate Conduct, edited by Anthony and Rachel Barkow).  Should they both be charged and face trial or should they get deferred or nonprosecution agreements for cooperation? Do these NPAs and DPAs erode our sense of justice or should there be an additional alternative for companies that have done the right thing -- an affirmative defense?

A discussion of the history of corporate criminal liability would be too detailed for this post, but in its most simplistic form, ever since the 1909 case of New York Central & Hudson River Railroad Co v. United States, companies have endured strict liability for the criminal acts of employees who were acting within the scope of their employment and who were motivated in part by an intent to benefit the corporation.  As case law has evolved, companies face this liability even if the employee flouted clear rules and mandates and the company has a state of the art compliance program and corporate culture.  In reality, no matter how much money, time or effort a company spends to train and inculcate values into its employees, agents and vendors, there is no guarantee that their employees will neither intentionally nor unintentionally violate the law.

The DOJ has reiterated this 1909 standard in its policy documents. And because so few corporations go to trial and instead enter into DPAs or NPAs, we don’t know whether the compliance programs in place would have led to either the potential 400% increase or 95% decrease in fines and penalties under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines because judges aren’t making those determinations. The DPAs are now providing more information about corporate compliance reporting provisions, but again, even if a company already had all of those practices in place, and a rogue group of employees ignored them, the company faces the criminal liability. The Ethical Resource Center is preparing a report in celebration of the 20th Anniversary of the Sentencing Guidelines with recommendations for the U.S. Sentencing Commission, members of Congress, the DOJ and other enforcement agencies. They are excellent and timely, but they do not go far enough.

A Massey Energy should not receive the same treatment as my idealized model corporate citizen Walmart. Instead, I agree with Larry Thompson, formerly of the DOJ and now a general counsel and others who propose an affirmative defense for an effective compliance program- not simply as possible reduction in a fine or a DPA or NPA.

While the ideal standard would require prosecutors to prove that upper management was willfully blind or negligent regarding the conduct, this proposed standard may presume corporate involvement or condonation of wrongful conduct but allow the company to rebut this presumption with a defense.

In the past decade, companies drastically changed their antiharassment programs after the Supreme Court cases of Fargher and Ellerth allowed for an affirmative defense. The UK Bribery Act also allows for an affirmative defense for implementing “adequate procedures” with six principles of bribery prevention. Interestingly, they too are looking at instituting DPAs.

I would limit a proposed affirmative defense to when nonpolicymaking employees have committed misconduct contrary to law, policy or management instructions. If the company adopted or ratified the conduct and/or did not correct it, it could not avail itself of the defense. The company would have to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that: it has implemented a state of the art program approved and overseen by the board or a designated committee; clearly communicated the corporation’s intent to comply with the law and announced employee penalties for prohibited acts; met or exceeded industry standards and norms; is periodically audited and benchmarked by a third party and has made modifications if necessary; has financial incentives for lawful and penalties unlawful behavior; elevated the compliance officer to report directly to the board or a designated committee (a suggestion rejected in the 2010 amendments to the Sentencing Guidelines); has consistently applied anti-retaliation policies for whistleblowers; voluntarily reported wrongdoing to authorities when appropriate; and of course taken into account what the DOJ has required of offending companies and which is now becoming the standard. The court should have to rule on the defense pre-trial.

Instead of serving as vicarious or deputized prosecutors, under this proposed standard, a corporation’s cooperation with prosecutors will be based on factors more within the corporation's control,rather than the catch-22 they currently face where if employees are guilty, there is no defense. And if the employees are guilty, this would not preclude the government from prosecuting them, as they should.

Responsible corporations now spend significant sums on compliance programs and the reward is simply a reduction in a fine for conduct for which it is vicariously liable and which its policies strictly prohibited. A defense will promote earlier detection and remedying of the wrongdoing, reduce government expenditures, provide more assurance to investors and regulators, allow the government to focus on companies that don’t have effective compliance program, and most important provide incentives for companies to invest in more state of the art programs rather than a cosmetic, check the box initiative because the standard would be higher than what is currently Sentencing Guidelines.

Perhaps only a small number of companies may be able to prevail with this defense.  Frankly, corporations won’t want to bear the risk of a trial, but they will at least have a better negotiating position with prosecutors. Moreover, companies that try in good faith to do the right thing won’t be lumped into the same categories as those who invest in the least expensive programs that may pass muster or worse, engage in clearly intentional criminal behavior.  If companies have the certainty that there is a chance to use a defense, that will invariably lead to stronger programs that can truly detect and prevent criminal behavior.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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September 28, 2011
The Bainbridge Corpus In Two Posts
Posted by David Zaring

Bainbridge writes so much that it is hard to know where to start.  But he seems to be boiling it down for you in advance of a corporate governance conference at UCLA.  Here he is on director primacy; here he is on the misguided efforts to get corporations to act ethically, or at least less insidery.

I'm not sure that director primacy is consistent with a disregard for business ethics.  If director primacy is taken seriously, then it can't prevent boards from acting in all kinds of ethical ways to the detriment of shareholders.  Otherwise, it wouldn't be director primacy.  And of course, boards do that all the time, particularly if they come from corporatist jurisdictions like, say, Germany of today, or pre-Depression America.  But I make this probably well-known observation mildly - for internal corporate governance wisdom, the other authors of this blog are the better guides!

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September 18, 2011
Entity and Identity: Jones Day
Posted by Usha Rodrigues

In Business Associations a few weeks ago, as we wrapped up our discussion of partnerships, I mentioned LLPs and observed that, as we moved to limited liability forms like the corporation and LLCs, one trend would be the need, in the title of the organization, to highlight its limited liability status.  Hence statutory requirements that a limited liability business organization's name contain "Corp.", "Inc.", or "LLP" : businesses need to put the public in general, and creditors in particular, on notice that the assets of the owners won't be available for their benefit.

A few days later a student posed a question: he'd been getting interviews with various law firms, and they all dutifully notified the world of their limited liability status.  You're familiar with these markers: Sullivan & Cromwell LLP, Latham & Watkins, LLPWilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, PC (my firma mater).  Those capital letters after the fancy names put clients and creditors alike on notice that the firm has opted out of the general partnership default, where each partner is jointly and severally liable for the debts of the firm.  

So the student had been in talks with Jones Day and noticed the absence of any limited liability suffix.  I was puzzled: how could Jones Day be evading this basic requirement?  A little poking around on the law firm website provided the answer

Jones Day is organized as a true partnership, and it operates as such, not as an LLP or LLC or some other quasi-corporate entity. We see ourselves as a global legal institution based on a set of principles to which a large number of men and women can commit – principles that have a social purpose and permanence, that transcend individual interests. While this may well be a more sociological description than you would see on most law firm web sites, and no doubt is subject to a skeptical reaction from many when they first read or hear it, we believe it accurately describes one important aspect of what makes Jones Day the client service organization that it is.<7

Wow.  So I become a partner at Jones Day and I'm on the hook to the tune of all of my assets for the debts of the firm and the malpractice of my fellow partners. I note that the firm doesn't frame the proposition that way, but that's its effect--along with a lot more incentives for monitoring my fellow partners and the financial health of the firm.
 
Questions:
 
1. Is this something everyone knows?  I didn't.  And  I'm someone interested in the relationship between choice of entity and firm identity.

 

2.  Are there other big law firms that make similar choices?  In drafting this post I found the same lack of suffix at Wachtell, but no explanation on the website.  

 

3. Why doesn't Jones Day highlight the joint-and-several liability aspect of its organizational choice?  Is it for the same reason the realtor in our Arlington house counseled us not to list as a selling point that our basement didn't flood during the "hundred year flood" when all of our neighbors' homes did?  I.e., because when you're selling you don't want to remind people of the things that can go wrong?

 Update: Larry Ribstein reminds me that Scott Baker and Kim Krawiec have already written about this. In 2005 they performed an empirical study of NYC law firms and predicted that the GP law firm was on its way out:

...it is apparent that unlimited liability is generally considered burdensome, and it is the authors’ prediction that, at some point in time, nearly all the firms in their sample will choose to file as limited liability partnerships. The general partnership form, with its unlimited liability, will operate only as a penalty default that punishes parties who fail to sufficiently define their organization, forcing firm members to reveal relevant information to courts and interested third parties.

I guess we're not there yet.

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July 19, 2011
Corporations/B.A. Roundtable: The Coverage Problem and Its Solutions
Posted by Gordon Smith

My apologies for arriving late to the party. I am currently teaching Corporations in London as part of the Georgetown Summer Law Program, and finding the time to blog has been a challenge.

In reading the posts in this Roundtable, I was struck by the fact that all of them deal with coverage! While teachers of other courses face the issue of what to leave in and what to leave out, I can't think of another course in the curriculum where this issue is so prominent. (As an associate dean in charge of curriculum, I have some standing to make this claim, though I assume others would take a different view.)

The problem with business organizations is not just that there is so much law, but rather that we rely on this course to provide a general introduction to business for students who have no past experiences with business. Some schools offer a separate "business principles" course (accounting + finance) to get at this problem, but the problem persists for the business organizations course because most students don't take the business principles course. As a result, we spend time on these basic business concepts, time that could otherwise be spent on myriad doctrinal puzzles.

One way to get at the problem, described by David Millon, is to devote more time to business organizations generally. The W&L solution is to divide business organizations into two courses, one relating to closely held businesses and one relating to public corporations. While this has long been my preferred solution (it's the structure we used at Wisconsin), as David noted, only about half of the students who take the first course enroll in the second. That seems like a big miss to me, since the course on public corporations is the place where students engage many of the big policy questions relating to the role of corporations in society.

At BYU we teach Business Associations as a three-credit course, and we treat this as an overview course. Almost all of the students in the law school take the course, which is offered both semesters. When I first started teaching in this system, I argued that three credits was wholly inadequate to cover the field, and that is undoubtedly true. But this overview course is starting to grow on me. Strangely, being constrained in this way is liberating in that I don't feel any pressure to cover every doctrinal twist and turn. Instead, I feel pressure to focus on foundational concepts, which the students can use in Corporate Finance, Mergers and Aquisitions, Securities Regulation, and other advanced courses if they choose to deepen their training in business organizations.

The advantage of our system, then, is that almost all students get some grounding in the whole field, from agency law through hostile takeovers. Although some superficiality is inevitable when striving to cover that much territory, I have the sense that my students now are more fluent in the role of limited liability, the essence of fiduciary obligation, and the varied conflicts inherent in business organizations than they were when I taught more of the particulars of the doctrine. To invoke that old saw, they are seeing more of the forest by focusing less on the trees. Is it possible that less is actually more in this instance?

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