Friday, February 24, 2017

Get Your Own Lawyer, Darn It!

Financial advisors facing an arbitration claim or regulatory inquiry often count on their broker-dealer or registered investment advisor for legal counsel. These “employers” will frequently provide them with an ostensibly independent “conflict counsel” after they retain their own counsel. Unfortunately, however, it is arguably little more than a charade when the “independent” attorney either has, or one day hopes to represent the broker-dealer or registered investment advisor.

Consider viewing the situation in the context of an attorney's ethical duty of loyalty, her fiduciary duty to put the client's interests first, and her obligation to avoid even the appearance of failing to do so. If you (the attorney) have been hired and paid by a large client that you covet to represent an individual financial advisor that you will never see again, would you not be hesitant to suggest the financial advisor save herself – even if it injures the interests of the large corporate client? Would you really warn the advisor if you caught wind of the broker-dealer's or registered investment advisor's intention to throw him or her under the bus, or even put their interests before your client's in just a small way? And these are not mere hypotheticals. I have seen these situations, and even been caught up in them.

Loyalty and independent judgment are essential elements in the lawyer's relationship to a client. Concurrent conflicts of interest can arise from the lawyer's responsibilities to another client, a former client, or a third person or from the lawyer's own interests. For specific Rules regarding certain concurrent conflicts of interest, see Rule 4-1.8. For former client conflicts of interest, see Rule 4-1.9. For conflicts of interest involving prospective clients, see Rule 4-1.181.

Many years ago, I was in a fairly “steady relationship” with a large broker-dealer. But my firm was more like a second fiddle to a larger law firm they had used for years. Upon the advent of a large regulatory action, the broker-dealer hired me to represent some of their former advisors and executives. I became uncomfortable with this arrangement when it became apparent to me that many of my clients had a strong defense to the allegations, in that the broker-dealer was in large part responsible for my clients' alleged omissions. But before that day of reckoning arrived, something happened. The broker-dealer's primary attorney decided to file what appeared to me to be a frivolous motion that would not be in the best interests of my individual clients. I informed the primary attorney that my clients would not be joining the motion as he had directed. I received a major ass-chewing from him, and an order to get in line. Long story short is that I did not comply with that demand, and the broker-dealer got sanctioned for the motion. My individual clients were relieved, and ultimately dismissed from the case for zero fines or sanctions. But the broker-dealer never hired me again.

In another case, a financial advisor hired me to file a breach of fiduciary duty action against his former broker-dealer's attorney. That attorney initially represented both the broker-dealer and the advisor during a regulatory investigation. That same attorney then proceeded to play an instrumental role in throwing that financial advisor under the bus. When the dust had settled, no pun intended, the broker-dealer and attorney paid almost $4,000,000 to my client for their respective roles in the subsequent U-5 defamation and breach of fiduciary duty.

Finally, in a more recent situation, the attorneys for a broker-dealer's employee never even broached the subject of a resolution between my client and her individual client. Her firm covets their relationship with the broker-dealer far more than I had even dared to imagine. Things went south fast in our previously cordial relationship when I had the audacity to raise the “appearance” issue with her. Nothing changed in terms of proper legal representation, other than the tenor of the relationship.

The moral of these stories is this: if you are in hot water together with your employer, avoid the temptation of having your employer pay your legal bills and pick your lawyer for you. And if you are representing a broker-dealer and they ask you to serve as an unbiased loyal counsel for an employee or independent contractor, “just say no." Food for thought.

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