Should governance lawyers be independent?

Most boards need professional advisors, such as auditors, compensation consultants and lawyers. After Enron and WorldCom frauds of 2002, regulators stepped in to ensure that auditors were hired by – and accountable to – the audit committee of the board, on behalf of shareholders, and not hired by or unduly influenced by the CFO as they once were. After the financial crisis of 2008, regulators stepped in (in 2012) to ensure that compensation consultants were hired by the compensation committee of the board and not hired by or unduly influenced by the CEO or other management. What about lawyers? Should lawyers who act for management also advise the board of directors? I don’t think so.

Now there are strict independence requirements for both auditors and compensation consultants. Their primary client is the board of directors and ultimately shareholders, whom the board is there to represent. It is entirely probable that if you do your job properly as an auditor or compensation consultant, that you will make recommendations that management will not like. You are there to act on behalf of the board and shareholders, not management. You cannot have dual masters and fulfill your fiduciary duties to only one as a professional. Indeed, auditors and compensation consultants cannot provide any additional services to management without the express consent from the board or a committee of the board. This authority is – or should be – rarely granted now.

Lawyers are equally important in the field of corporate governance. They interpret and apply legislation and offer advice to a variety of constituencies – shareholders, directors, managers and other stakeholders – who have interdependent and even adverse interests in the well being of the corporation and the competition for scarce resources. If the above reasoning is correct, so far as auditors and compensation consultants is concerned, strict independence should also apply to lawyers.

What this means is that a lawyer (or even a law firm) who has acted, or currently acts, or seeks to act, for management, should be prohibited from also acting for the board. This independence requirement is not practiced currently. There are numerous lawyers and law firms who act for both management and boards. Because most fees originate from management work, the consequences of this is a pro-management bias exhibited by lawyers who have drafted protection and entrenchment mechanisms for management such as poison pills, dual class shares, restrictions on meetings and voting, and staggered boards. Lawyers then resist pro-shareholder governance reform such as majority voting, say on pay and proxy access.

When interests between management and shareholders become adverse, even through the regular course of events, it is important for boards to have their own set of lawyers who are independent from management and seen as objective and willing to act in the interests of directors, not management, and ultimately shareholders. Management lawyers frequently exhibit an anti-shareholder bias, using words such as “attack,” “dissident,” and “proxy fight.” See here for example: Dealing With Activist Hedge Funds. Shareholders suffer when the board retains advisors who are beholden to management.

Some services this new set of “governance-only lawyers” could offer include:

  • Drafting board guidelines, committee charters and position descriptions for the board [if drafted by management lawyers, as they are now, these policies are often pro forma, management friendly, and restrict the board unnecessarily];
  • Board and committee reviews of effectiveness [typically these reviews are done by management or management lawyers currently];
  • Advising the board on activist shareholders, institutional shareholders and overall shareholder engagement [these governance lawyers would have a shareholder not a management mindset];
  • Reviewing and opining on the annual proxy circular, on behalf of the board [typically the board does not have the time to do a detailed review];
  • Review of the strategic planning process and value creation by management, on behalf of the board [again, with a shareholder mindset];
  • Negotiating and drafting the CEO contract and its terms, on behalf of the board and shareholders [typically a management lawyer drafts the agreement];
  • Assessments of risk management and oversight functions, on behalf of the board [again, the assessment would be independent of management and lawyers would work with independent auditors as necessary];
  • Ongoing coaching and development and review of implementation of policies, on behalf of the board.

All of the above activities and services are currently offered by management lawyers primarily from the point of view of management, not the board and not shareholders. This needs to change. The lawyers involved should fall into line (or camps), just like the auditors and compensation consultants have. There is room for governance lawyers who are unambiguously there to act only for directors, on behalf of shareholders.

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