Despite the amount of time defense counsel spend handling class actions, one aspect often continues to frustrate analysis – plaintiffs’ counsel. Studying how plaintiffs’ counsel operate in class actions (which is, of course, essential to opposing them in individual litigation) can sometimes feel like Kremlinology, or reading tea leaves. Since plaintiffs’ counsel have a strong interest in presenting their best possible face to the world – and defendants often feel strong distrust of plaintiffs’ PR – defense counsel risk predicting the moves of a caricature, rather than a fully-fleshed opponent.

Fortunately, a number of academics have begun to examine the ways in which plaintiffs’ counsel interact, find clients, and build their cases. One of the more prolific scholars of class-action practice, Stephen Choi, has teamed with longtime co-author A.C. Pritchard and judicial clerk Drew T. Johnson-Skinner to perform an analysis of “pay to play” practices among plaintiffs’ counsel and state pension funds. 

As Choi and company describe it, since the passage of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act (which heavily favors institutional investors over individual investors as class representatives, on the theory that they are more likely to be independent of class counsel):

Most of the institutional investors that have agreed to serve as lead plaintiffs have been government-sponsored pension funds. Many of these funds are managed directly by politicians, such as state comptrollers, who must campaign to retain their current positions, or may have designs on higher offices. Alternatively, these funds are managed by political appointees, who typically owe their position to the state’s governor. The presence of political influence over these funds naturally raises the question of whether law firms are making political contributions to the politicians who wield that influence in order to enhance their chances of being selected to represent the pension funds. Simply put, are law firms buying lead counsel status with campaign contributions, i.e., do class action lawyers pay to play?

(Emphasis added.) Their conclusion? Yes. Class-action lawyers do. And firms that appear to win their work as a result of “pay to play” practices generally receive higher attorneys’ fees than those that don’t.

So what are the strategic implications of this finding? For defendants, Choi and company’s analysis implies that it’s worth serving discovery exploring the various relationships plaintiffs’ counsel may have had, even with larger institutional investors. Commentators (and courts) had previously presumed that institutional investors would be more adequate than smaller clients because they had the incentive to oversee counsel (because they had a larger stake in the litigation), and the investing knowledge required to do it effectively. However, Choi and company’s analysis implies that pension funds that accept “pay to play” contributions may lack the financial independence to oversee class counsel. If they lack that independence, they may not be adequate fiduciaries of the interests of the class. And that’s a powerful argument against certifying a class.