WHEN SUPPORTING A CAUSE UNDERMINES IT

Lee Siegel and The New York Times probably thought they were aiding a vital cause when the Times published Siegel’s June 6 op-ed, “Why I Defaulted on My Student Loans.” The underlying issue is important. Many of today’s young people bear the burden of huge educational debt in an economy that has not afforded the kinds of opportunities available to their baby-boomer parents, including Siegel.

Here’s the problem: Siegel did more harm than good. He made himself a poster child for the kind of moral hazard that first led policymakers to render student loans non-dischargeable in bankruptcy more than 40 years ago. It was a mistake then, and it’s a mistake now. But Siegel is exactly the wrong spokesperson for the issue.

Lee Siegel’s Pitch

According to his op-ed, Siegel financed his education with student loans, the first of which he obtained 40 years ago. But when his family’s financial hardship left him unable to pay the full cost of tuition at “a private liberal arts college,” he “transferred to a state college in New Jersey, closer to home.” Eventually, he defaulted on his student loans.

“Years later,” he writes, “I found myself confronted with a choice that too many people have had to and will have to face. I could give up what had become my vocation (in my case, being a writer) and take a job that I didn’t want in order to repay the huge debt I had accumulated in college and graduate school. Or I could take what I had been led to believe was both the morally and legally reprehensible step of defaulting on my student loans, which was the only way I could survive without wasting my life in a job that had nothing to do with my particular usefulness to society.”

He urges others to follow his example: default.

Who is Lee Siegel?

Here’s what Siegel and the Times didn’t reveal.

Notwithstanding his transfer to a New Jersey state college, he obtained three degrees from Columbia University — a B.A., an M.A., and a master’s of philosophy. According to the HarperCollins Speakers Bureau website, he’s “an acclaimed social and cultural critic.” The mere fact that he appears on that site means that you should expect to pay big bucks for the privilege of hearing him speak. He has written four books and his essays have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.

In other words, he has an elite education that led to a lucrative career. He is exactly the wrong person to be the face of the student loan crisis — which is very real.

The Problem with Siegel’s Support

Siegel has now made himself a powerful anecdote for those on the wrong side of the fight for reform in financing higher education. Forty years ago, similar ammunition — anecdotes about individuals exploiting moral hazard — led to bad policy when student debt first became non-dischargeable in bankruptcy.

In the early years of the student loan program, the Department of Health, Education & Welfare brought a supposed “loophole” to the attention of the 1973 Congressional Commission on Bankruptcy Laws. Concerned about tarnishing the image of the new program, the Department didn’t want new college graduates embarking on lucrative careers to default on loans that had made their education possible

But there was no hard, numerical evidence suggesting a serious problem. Rather, media hype over a few news reports of “deadbeat” student debtors took on a life of their own. In 1976, Congress yielded to public hysteria and made student loans non-dischargeable in bankruptcy unless a borrower had been in default for at least five years or could prove “undue hardship.”

In 1990, it extended the default period to seven years. In 1997, the Bankruptcy Reform Commission still had found no evidence supporting claims of systemic abuse, but Congress decided nevertheless that only “undue hardship” would make educational debt dischargeable. That placed it in the same category as child support, alimony, court restitution orders, criminal fines, and certain taxes. In 2005, it extended non-dischargeability to private loans as well.

The Enduring Power of a Big Lie

Unfortunately, the anecdotes and unsubstantiated lore about supposed abuses that led to the current rule persist to this day. In a lead editorial on July 25, 2012, The Wall Street Journal perpetuated the falsehood that “[a]fter a surge in former students declaring bankruptcy to avoid repaying their loans, Congress acted to protect lenders beginning in 1977.” 

There was no such surge. It was “more myth and media hype” than reality. Now, Siegel has provided fuel for a new round of obfuscation to displace facts.

“Thirty years after getting my last [student loan],” Siegel writes, “the Department of Education is still pursuing the unpaid balance.” I hope they catch him.

NOTE: The special ebook sale of my first book, Crossing Hoffa – A Teamster’s Story continues: http://discussions.mnhs.org/10000books/true-crime-e-book-sale/. It’s the true crime saga of my father’s two-year tangle with Jimmy Hoffa from 1959 to 1961.

The Chicago Tribune honored it as one of the “Best Books of the Year.” You can get it at Amazon, bn.com, Google, iTunes, and Kobo.

NOW ON SALE: “CROSSING HOFFA — A Teamster’s Story”

My publisher just announced a special ebook sale of my first book, Crossing Hoffa – A Teamster’s Story: http://discussions.mnhs.org/10000books/true-crime-e-book-sale/. It’s the true crime saga of my father’s two-year tangle with Jimmy Hoffa from 1959 to 1961.

The Chicago Tribune honored it as one of the “Best Books of the Year.” You can get it at Amazon, bn.com, Google, iTunes, and Kobo.

THE DEWEY TRIAL: TRUTH, JUSTICE, OR NEITHER?

[NOTE: My recent post, “Cravath Gets It Right, Again,” was a BigLaw Pick of the Week.]

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“Not all the evidence that you hear and see will be riveting,” said Steve Pilnyak last Tuesday as he opened the prosecution’s case against three former leaders of the now-defunct Dewey & LeBoeuf. The judge warned jurors that they will probably be there past Labor Day. The antagonists will present dueling views of what the New York Times called “arcane accounting treatments and year-end adjustments” three years before Dewey’s collapse. As you read between the yawns, watch to see if the trial leaves the most important questions about the final days of a storied firm unanswered.

Victims?

The prosecution’s case requires victims. It settled on insurance companies who bought the firm’s bonds in 2010 and big banks that lent the firm money for years. We’ll see how that plays, but it’s difficult to imagine aggrieved parties that would generate less juror sympathy than insurers and Wall Street bankers. Then again, rich lawyers aren’t exactly the most desirable defendants, either.

The prosecution’s cooperating witnesses will take the stand to explain what it calls a “Master Plan” of accounting adjustments that are the centerpiece of the case. The battle of experts over those adjustments is more likely to induce sleep than courtroom fireworks.

Villains?

If you think former firm chairman Steven Davis and his two co-defendants, Stephen DiCarmine and Joel Sanders, are the only villains in this saga, you’re allowing the trees to obscure a view of the forest. In that respect, the trial will fail at its most fundamental level if it doesn’t address a central question in the search for justice among Dewey’s ruins: Who actually received — and kept — the hundreds of millions of dollars that entered the firm’s coffers as a result of the allegedly fraudulent bond offering and bank loans?

As the firm collapsed in early 2012, it drew down tens of millions of dollars from bank credit lines while simultaneously distributing millions to Dewey partners. As I’ve reported previously, during the five months from January to May 2012 alone, a mere 25 Dewey partners received a combined $21 million. Are they all defendants in the Manhattan District Attorney’s criminal case? Nope. Will we learn the identity of those 25 partners, as well was the others who received all of that borrowed money? I hope so.

Shortly after those 2012 distributions, Wall Street Journal reporters asked former Dewey partner Martin Bienenstock whether the firm used those bank loans to fund partner distributions. Bienenstock replied, “Look, money is fungible.”

It sounds like his answer to the question was yes.

Unwitting Accomplices?

With respect to the proceeds from Dewey’s $150 million bond offering, the picture is murkier, thanks to protective cover from the bankruptcy court. When Judge Martin Glenn approved a Partner Contribution Plan, he capped each participating partner’s potential financial obligation to Dewey’s creditors at a level so low that unsecured creditors had a likely a recovery of only 15 cents for every dollar the firm owed them. That was a pretty good deal for Dewey’s partners.

But here’s the more important point. As it approved that deal, the court did not require the firm to reveal who among Dewey’s partners received the $150 million bond money. In calculating each partner’s required contribution to the PCP, only distributions after January 1, 2011 counted. The PCP excluded consideration of any amounts that partners received in 2010, including the bond money. That meant they could keep all of it.

In light of the bankruptcy code‘s two-year “look back” period, that seemed to be a peculiar outcome. Under the “look back” rule, a debtor’s asset transfers to others within two years of its bankruptcy filing are subject to special scrutiny that is supposed to protect against fraudulent transfers.

Dewey filed for bankruptcy on May 28, 2012. The “look back” period would have extended all the way to May 28, 2010 — thereby including distributions of the bond proceeds to partners. Which partners received that money and how much did they get? We don’t know.

Connecting Dots

As the firm’s death spiral became apparent, a four-man office of the chairman — one of whom was Bienenstock — took the leadership reins from Steven Davis in March 2012. A month later, it fired him. In an October 12, 2012 Wall Street Journal interview, Bienenstock described himself as part of a team that, even before the firm filed for bankruptcy, came up with the idea that became the PCP. He called it an “insurance policy” for partners.

Taking Bienenstock’s “money is fungible” and “insurance policy” comments together leads to an intriguing hypothetical. Suppose that a major management objective during the firm’s final months was to protect distributions that top partners had received from the 2010 bond offering. Suppose further that in early 2012 some of those partners also received distributions that the firm’s bank loans made possible. Finally, suppose that those partners used their bank loan-funded distributions to make their contributions to the PCP — the “insurance policy” that absolved them of Dewey’s obligations to creditors.

When the complete story of Dewey gets told, the end game could be its climax. It could reveal that a relatively few partners at the top of the firm won; far more partners, associates, staff, and creditors lost.

Or maybe I’m wrong and the only villains in this sad saga are the three defendants currently on trial. But I don’t think so.

ON THE COLUMBIA LAW SCHOOL BLUE SKY BLOG…

The Columbia Law School Blue Sky Blog is now running my article, “Law School Moral Hazard and Flawed Public Policy”

Here’s the link: http://clsbluesky.law.columbia.edu/2015/05/28/law-school-moral-hazard-and-flawed-public-policy/

IT’S NOT TOO LATE…

As my regular readers know, in February I received an unwelcome medical diagnosis: neuroendocrine pancreatic cancer. For those who have inquired, I’m happy to report that after spending 43 of 56 days in the hospital between January 28 and March 27, I’m now celebrating my eighth week at home recuperating. All things considered, I’m feeling quite well.

Readers also know that my daughter, Emma, lives in the Bay Area and is actively involved in an upcoming event to support pancreatic cancer research: Purple Stride San Francisco 2015 — a 5K family run/walk in San Francisco on May 31.

My entire family is grateful for the response of friends and readers to this cause on my behalf. For those who have not yet joined “Team Willis” — Willis is Emma’s longstanding nickname for me — you don’t have to be a runner or, for that matter, anywhere near San Francisco now, on May 31, or ever.

Anyone interested can make a tax-deductible contribution — even a nominal one is significant — to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. Just go to this site and click on “Donate Now.”

Thanks, again.

CRAVATH GETS IT RIGHT, AGAIN

 

biglaw-450The focus of The American Lawyer story about Richard Levin’s departure after eight years at Cravath, Swaine & Moore understates the most important point: Levin is a living example of things that his former firm, Cravath, does right. I can count at least three.

#1: Top Priority — Client Service

Cravath hired Levin, a top bankruptcy lawyer, from Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom on July 1, 2007. At the time, Cravath didn’t have a bankruptcy/restructuring practice. But at the beginning of the downturn that would become the Great Recession, its clients were drawn increasingly into bankruptcy proceedings.

Explaining the firm’s unusual decision to hire Levin as a lateral partner, the firm’s then-deputy presiding partner C. Allen Parker told the New York Times that “the firm was seeking to serve its clients when they found themselves as creditors. Many of Cravath’s clients have landed on creditors’ committees in prominent bankruptcy cases, he said, and the firm has helped them find another firm as bankruptcy counsel.”

In other words, Cravath sought to satisfy specific client needs, not simply recruit a lateral partner who promised to bring a book of business to the firm. The Times article continued, “While Mr. Parker does not foreclose the chance of representing debtors — which is often considered the more lucrative side of the bankruptcy practice — for now, it is an effort to serve clients who are pulled into the cases.”

#2: Mandatory Retirement Age

It seems obvious that Levin’s upcoming birthday motivated his departure to Jenner & Block. Less apparent is the wisdom behind Cravath’s mandatory retirement rule. As The American Lawyer article about his move observes:

“[A]t 64, Levin is now approaching Cravath’s mandatory retirement age. And he says he’s not ready to stop working. ’65 is the new 50,’ Levin says. ‘I’d be bored. I love what I do [and] I want to keep doing it.'”

Well, 65 is not the new 50 — and I say that from the perspective of someone who just celebrated his 61st birthday. More importantly, sophisticated clients understand that a law firm’s mandatory retirement age benefits them in the long run because it makes that firm stronger. When aging senior partners preside over an eat-what-you-kill big law compensation system, their only financial incentive is to hang on to client billings for as long as possible. It creates a bad situation that is getting worse.

Recent proof comes from the 2015 Altman Weil “Law Firms in Transition” survey responses of 320 law firm managing partners or chairs representing almost half of the Am Law 200 and NLJ 350. I’ll have more to say about other results in future posts, but for this entry, one of the authors, Eric Seeger, offered this especially pertinent conclusion about aging baby boomers:

“That group of very senior partners aren’t retiring,” he explains.

Seeger went on to explain that even if they were, younger partners are not prepared to assume client responsibilities. Why? Because older partners don’t want that to happen. According to the Altman Weil survey, only 31 percent of law firm leaders said their firms had a formal succession planning process.

At Cravath, mandatory retirement works with the firm’s lock-step compensation structure to encourage much different behavior. Aging partners confront an end date that provides them with an incentive to train junior attorneys so they can assume client responsibilities and assure an orderly intergenerational transition of the firm’s relationships. Hoarding clients and billings produces no personal financial benefit to a Cravath partner.

In contrast, hoarding is a central cultural component of eat-what-you-kill firms. Individual partners guard clients jealously, as if they held proprietary interests in them. Internal partnership fights over billing credit get ugly because a partner’s current compensation depends on the allocations. Partners have learned that the easiest way to avoid those fights is to keep their clients in silos away from other partners. For clients, it can mean never meeting the lawyer in the firm who could be most qualified to handle a particular matter. If they understood the magnitude of the problem, most clients would be astonished and outraged.

#3: Strategic Thinking

With respect to Richard Levin’s practice area, the most recent Georgetown/Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor Report notes that in 2014 big firm bankruptcy practices suffered a bigger drop in demand than any other area. Lawyers who had billed long hours to big ticket bankruptcy matters have now been repurposed for corporate, transactional, and even general litigation tasks. Don’t be surprised as firms announce layoffs.

Cravath’s timing may have been fortuitous. It hired Levin at the outset of the Great Recession — just as a big boom time for bankruptcy/restructuring lawyers began. Likewise, Levin departs as that entire segment of the profession now languishes. I think Cravath’s leaders are too smart to think that they can time the various segments of the legal market. But the firm’s strategic approach to its principal mission — client service — caused it to do the right things for the right reasons.

The harder they work at that mission, the luckier they get.