Florida State law professor Elizabeth Chamblee Burch is the latest to weigh in on the problem of how to make sure class actions are adequately governed.  In an forthcoming article from the Vanderbilt Law Review, she asks what makes an optimal lead plaintiff in a securities class action.

Burch focuses on the the difficulties raised by what she refers to as plaintiffs’ law firms "courting process," particularly the use of "pay to play" practices and investment monitoring agreements.  Her discussion of these issues is worth quoting at length:

After the PSLRA, plaintiffs’ law firms sought to maintain their competitive advantage by courting large institutions, developing repeat relationships with them, and encouraging them to serve as lead plaintiff. Law firms’ courting process may involve “pay-to-play” practices where plaintiffs’ law firms contribute to the political campaigns of those selecting counsel for public or labor pension funds and lobbying the officials who control public pension funds. Lobbyists encourage pension funds to serve as lead plaintiff and to then select the lobbyist’s law-firm employer as lead counsel. These practices forge repeat relationships and inhibit competition in ways that lack merit and transparency. And because other eligible institutions like banks, mutual funds, and insurance companies maintain commercial relationships with the defendants or defendants’ customers, public and union pension funds are the institutions that typically take on the lead-plaintiff role.

Law firms’ courting process also involves “portfolio monitoring,” where the law firm keeps abreast of the institution’s holdings and notifies it whenever it suffers a significant enough loss that it could serve as the lead plaintiff in a related class action. Portfolio monitoring is a preexisting contractual relationship between the lead plaintiff and class counsel. Preexisting relationships typically give courts pause, particularly when counsel has no relationship with other class members and no subclassing exists. But most courts find free portfolio monitoring in exchange for retaining the law firm unproblematic; they look for something more, like long-term friendships or familial relationships.Although courts have been slow to recognize it, portfolio monitoring is both widespread and troubling. The few courts who agree reason that the practice “creates a clear incentive for [the law firm] to discover ‘fraud’ in the investments it monitors” and thereby “fosters the very tendencies toward lawyer-driver litigation that the PSLRA was designed to curtail.” Plus, regularly depending on the same law firm makes it unlikely that institutions will bargain for lower attorneys’ fees or monitor trusted counsel. To be fair, some pension funds, such as MissPERS, use plaintiffs’ firms for free investment monitoring, but rely on multiple law firms and guarantee none that it will be selected as lead counsel. On one hand, portfolio monitoring is commendable—it encourages institutional investors to get involved, enforces substantive rights, and may uncover and deter fraud. But on the other, ongoing business relationships between the lead plaintiff and counsel appear improper, may cause counsel to maximize the institutional lead plaintiff’s return to the class’s detriment, and may encourage counsel to litigate in ways that establish favorable precedent for the institution.

(Emphases added.)  Burch has several suggestions for addressing these issues. Her most interesting is to recommend that securities class actions should be headed by plaintiff groups rather than lone plaintiffs, so long as the group reflects the diversity of the class.

Ideally, group members represent the class’s diverse interests such that when each member pursues her own self-interest, the group resembles a microcosm of the whole class.

Burch is not blind to the problems that plaintiffs’ groups can pose. Nor is she a lone voice advocating for diversity. That said, she tends to be optimistic about how diverse stakeholders may interact in overseeing a class action. 

Put simply, class counsel should consult and take direction from the lead-plaintiff group on matters that implicate members’ values and litigation objectives or affect the case’s merits in much the same way that an attorney consults with her client in individual litigation. In short, if lead plaintiffs are to adequately represent class members’ interests, monitor the lawyers, and minimize agency costs, then, consistent with the PSLRA’s goal of increasing client control, they should have more decision-making authority.

While it would be helpful to know whether Burch is advocating a doctrinal or legislative reform (in other words, should courts just start enforcing this proposal, or does Congress need to amend the PSLRA?), the policy arguments she raises can prove useful for securities defense lawyers. At the very least, they exemplify a trend of continued concern about the adequacy of securities lead plaintiffs, and provide several examples of why one should not assume that institutional investors are always adequate lead plaintiffs.