For the defendant, lead-plaintiff motions in class actions can often seem like a small sideshow to the real litigation. (Indeed, in many kinds of class actions, where only a single firm or consortium has brought a lawsuit, the lead-plaintiff motion may only be pro forma.) For plaintiffs however – particularly securities plaintiffs – lead-plaintiff motions lie somewhere between corporate merger and bloodsport. The consequences to winning or losing these motions can have effects for years, and the efforts to win have landed more than one attorney in ethical trouble, and sometimes prison.

But how important is the lead-plaintiff motion really? NYU Professor Stephen Choi offers one look (based on a survey of lead-plaintiff motions between 2003 and 2005) in a working paper entitled Motions for Lead Plaintiff in Securities Class Actions. His conclusion? Getting appointed lead plaintiff is still critically important to plaintiffs’ attorneys, primarily because it allows them to command higher fees.

Professor Choi also found that plaintiffs’ counsel – particularly experienced attorneys with lots of repeat interactions with co-counsel – will enter into side deals to determine who will be lead plaintiff, and with it, lead plaintiffs’ counsel. As a result, the plaintiffs with the largest losses are not always appointed lead plaintiff, and their attorneys are often able to command higher fees for fewer hours worked.

What use is Professor Choi’s study to the securities class-action defendant? The paper does provide valuable intelligence on how plaintiffs’ counsel operate, something that defendants always need more of.  But, more importantly, Professor Choi’s data suggests a possible argument at class certification. His data on fees and hours worked can operate as a rough proxy for client supervision. If there is evidence that plaintiffs’ counsel cut a side deal to determine who would be lead plaintiff (for example, if an investor with larger losses stepped aside to allow another investor represented by a larger firm to be lead plaintiff), that may indicate that the lead plaintiff does not have the independence to adequately oversee its attorneys. In that case, the defendant may argue that the named plaintiff is not an adequate representative of the class.