On Tuesday, The New York Times reported:
The finger-pointing in Merrill Lynch’s bonus troubles shifted to a new target on Monday in two court documents that essentially said: blame the lawyers.
Responding to questions posed by a federal judge, Bank of America and the Securities and Exchange Commission said the bank had relied on its outside lawyers to fill in the fine print in that firm’s controversial marriage with Bank of America.
That meant that lawyers at two firms — Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz as well as Shearman & Sterling — handled a decision to keep Merrill’s $3.6 billion in bonus payouts a secret from Bank of America’s shareholders, according to the filings.
It is unclear if the responses will satisfy the judge who requested them, Judge Jed S. Rakoff of the Southern District of New York. He has the power to decide whether to approve a $33 million settlement reached between Bank of America and the S.E.C. over the bank’s failure to disclose the bonuses to its shareholders.
I was going to write a post about how that bothered me, because, as the AmLaw Litigation Daily noted:
"The preparation of the joint proxy statement, including the decision not to attach the disclosure schedule setting forth the agreement on…bonuses or otherwise disclose its contents in the proxy statement, was made by the lawyers at Wachtell, Shearman, Bank of America and Merrill," the SEC brief says, adding that statements in the proxy materials deliberately misled investors into believing Merrill bonuses would not be paid.
Bank of America did not waive attorney-client privilege for the SEC investigation, so the SEC says its knowledge of what the Wachtell and Shearman lawyers said is limited. The government contends, moreover, that the executives’ reliance on their lawyers shields them from fraud accusations because it would be hard to prove scienter.
Bank of America’s lawyers at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton–Lewis Liman and Shawn Chen–offered precious few of the specifics Judge Rakoff seemed to be asking for at the August 10 hearing. The names of Kenneth Lewis and John Thain, for instance, appear nowhere in BofA’s submission. And as for the role of the outside lawyers, the brief merely says: "The parties were represented throughout the process by two law firms with preeminent experience in the field of mergers and acquisitions." Cleary offered no details on who or what those preeminent firms advised about disclosure materials.
Judge Rakoff, however, beat me to it:
Federal judge Jed S. Rakoff fired a new shot in his challenge to a $33 million settlement by Bank of America Corp. over investor disclosures, saying the government’s justification for letting individual executives off the hook is "at war with common sense."
The SEC has said it couldn’t investigate individual executives’ culpability because they said they relied on lawyers’ advice. Unless the executives waived their right to keep the advice private, the SEC said it would face "substantial obstacles" to building a case.Judge Rakoff, who must approve any settlement, criticized that reasoning. If that were the regulator’s policy, "it would seem that all a corporate officer who has produced a false proxy statement need offer by way of defense is that he or she relied on counsel." He said if the company insists on attorney-client privilege, there is no way to test the assertion and determine whether executives or their lawyers were culpable.
Exactly right. Courts often hold that clients cannot use attorney-client privilege as both a sword and a shield. That is, clients can either use lawyers’ advice as a "sword" to defend themselves or they can use the privilege as a "shield" to keep communications private, in which case they’re off limits entirely.
But they can’t have it both ways. If they could, every defendant would just blame their lawyers and call it a day.
(If you’re interested in more, AmLawDaily dug a bit deeper into the ethics issues raised by the litigation.)