The “Iron Curtain” has Fallen: A Radical Shift in Lawyers Representing Whistleblowers
Whistleblower Network News (WNN) recently revealed, for the first time, that major corporate law firms specializing in representing defendants before the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) have, in some cases, switched sides and are now representing whistleblowers who are turning in corporate fraudsters. All but one of the firms identified by the SEC did not call public attention to their new-found client base – most likely because they did not want to upset their bread-and-butter corporate clients. It appears that major corporate law firms now understand that the Dodd-Frank Act’s whistleblower reward provisions are incredibly effective in incentivizing corporate insiders to report fraud, even when those insiders are executives usually on the other side of a whistleblower issue. Lawyers who traditionally represent whistleblowers understand that Dodd-Frank is well designed and is being professionally implemented by the SEC. Corporate lawyers and their firms have apparently caught on to this new reality and are now representing whistleblowers.
That defense firms are now actively engaged in representing whistleblowers cannot be denied. Lists of law firms that have prevailed in Dodd-Frank whistleblower cases, disclosed in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed with the SEC, document that 9.3% of firms that have obtained rewards on behalf of whistleblowers were traditional defense firms. These firms include some of the largest defense firms in the United States that represent numerous corporations subjected to SEC enforcement actions for violating securities laws as well as firms that have defended corporations against whistleblowers in retaliation cases.
If that statistic holds, it is clear hundreds of corporate defense firms or their attorneys are representing whistleblowers in confidential investigations. Why are these cases still under review? Dodd-Frank is still a young law, and the vast majority of cases have not yet resulted in formal reward determinations. Cases often take five years or more to be finalized, and as of the end of Fiscal Year 2021 over 51,000 whistleblower cases had been filed with the SEC. Furthermore, under the FOIA requests the SEC only released the names of law firms that prevailed in a whistleblower case. The names of firms that did not prevail in a claim, or firms that represent whistleblowers in ongoing investigations, were not disclosed.
Time will tell whether defense firms’ representation of whistleblowers who accuse their employers (or other corporate wrongdoers) of fraud is a good or bad development. But unique issues will arise whenever a firm that primarily generates its profits from representing corporations accused of wrongdoing switches sides and represents a whistleblower who has accused an executive of engaging in fraud. Although such representations may be permitted under the attorney’s rules of ethics, this does not mean that such representations are always in the best interest of a lawyer's clients. There are inherent potential conflicts whenever a defense firm switches sides and decides to represent a whistleblower reporting major corporate crimes.
Regardless of where you stand on this issue, one thing is clear: the ethical, policy and legal implications of defense firms representing whistleblowers is a dramatic shift in legal practice and must be carefully evaluated. Defense firms must understand that whenever they represent a whistleblower, they must zealously advocate on their behalf, even when the precedents set by their cases may be used against their corporate clients. Likewise, whistleblowers need to be aware of the implications of choosing a lawyer whose primary practice is representing corporate crooks. Conflicts of interest may not initially be visible but can unfold as a case progresses.
In August of 2022, Bloomberg Law and a draft non-peer-reviewed article published by University of Kansas Professor Alexander Platt raised the issue of which law firms represent whistleblowers. Bloomberg and Platt obtained lists of law firms that prevailed in Dodd-Frank whistleblower cases. They used the lists to identify a small number of firms, all of which could be classified as pro-whistleblower firms. These firms’ practices are centered on fighting corporate fraud and speculated whether these firms were being given preferential treatment by the SEC. Neither publication offered proof of any wrongdoing. But Platt and Bloomberg did not list all the law firms that prevailed in Dodd-Frank cases. Significantly, neither even mentioned the fact that major defense law firms had already filed and won Dodd-Frank cases on behalf of whistleblowers. Additionally, the two authors did not explore the special issues that could arise when firms dedicated to defending white-collar criminals quietly switch sides.
In response to Platt and Bloomberg, WNN filed its own Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to obtain access to the documents relied upon in the two articles. The SEC released over 1000 pages of documents to WNN, including all its correspondence with Platt and all the records provided to Platt (and Bloomberg) that identified law firms that successfully represented whistleblowers.
On September 27, 2022, WNN revealed, for the first time, that the SEC had identified 64 law firms that successfully obtained a reward on behalf of a whistleblower. Among those firms were six that primarily represent corporations and individuals accused of corporate crimes. These defense firms included industry giants such as Winston & Strawn and Akin Gump. Together, the defense firms have already obtained over $56 million in rewards on behalf of whistleblowers. In response to the Platt, Bloomberg, and WNN FOIA requests, the SEC only identified firms that had already prevailed and obtained a reward on behalf of their clients. Approximately 50,000 cases are pending within the SEC’s reward program, and there is a long delay in processing whistleblower cases. Therefore, one can assume that numerous other pending cases where these or other defense firms are actively representing whistleblowers that were not disclosed by the SEC.
It is important to note that the Dodd-Frank provisions only apply to large fraud cases. No reward is available unless the SEC issues sanctions against the entity being investigated in excess of $1 million. Thus, the cases previously targeted by the defense firms and currently under investigation by the SEC would implicate major frauds.
The defense firms identified by WNN as being listed in the SEC-released materials were:
Winston & Strawn, LLP: Winston advertises itself as defending “companies and individuals in SEC enforcement and regulatory matters related to allegations involving securities fraud.” But not mentioned on its webpage is that it also represented a securities law whistleblower who obtained a $2.2 million reward.
Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP: Akin Gump also describes its practice as representing “companies and individuals” under investigation by various regulatory agencies, including the SEC. Akin’s attorneys obtained a Dodd-Frank reward of $800,000 award.
Haynes and Boone, LLP: This 600-lawyer defense firm’s website explained that it has “represented employers” in “whistle blowing.” However, the SEC documents revealed the firm also represented a whistleblower who obtained a “20%” award against a corporate fraudster.
Levine Lee LLP: Although this firm markets itself as successfully representing clients accused of violating anti-fraud laws, like the other defense firms, it has apparently started a whistleblower practice and obtained a reward of $10 million on behalf of a whistleblower.
Leader Berkon Colao & Silverstein LLP: This defense firm prevailed in cases filed on behalf of two separate whistleblowers and had considerable success. Their whistleblower clients obtained $15 million and $27 million in awards.
Sallah Astarita & Cox, LLC: Although this firm “regularly represents financial institutions” in “fraud” cases, the firm also represented a whistleblower who obtained a $1.8 million award. Sallah Astarita was the only firm that listed its Dodd-Frank Act whistleblower case on its website as among the victories achieved by one of its partners.
The SEC’s Dodd-Frank Whistleblower Program
Professor Platt and Bloomberg Law criticized the SEC’s Dodd-Frank program as having a bias in favor of a small number of whistleblower-rights law firms that had employed former SEC lawyers. However, the information revealed by WNN completely refuted this negative implication raised by Platt and Bloomberg. Instead, the FOIA documents support a finding that the SEC program is a paradigm of fairness and openness. The extensive correspondence between Platt and the SEC demonstrates that the Commission freely disclosed the names of the firms that had won cases while carefully balancing the confidentiality needs of the whistleblower clients. These numbers illustrate a program open to law firms regardless of their reputation or whether they employ former government lawyers. They also reveal a program open to working directly with whistleblowers and rewarding them even if they had no lawyer. Not one document produced provided any evidence whatsoever of wrongdoing, bias, or unprofessionalism. The numbers speak for themselves:
Over 50 pro se whistleblowers won cases on their own behalf. This high percentage of unrepresented applicants who successfully navigated the SEC’s program is remarkable. In other legal programs, pro se whistleblowers (and other unrepresented persons) lose the vast majority of their cases. Not so under Dodd-Frank. This demonstrates a high level of commitment by the SEC to helping individual whistleblowers who could not afford or obtain lawyers.
Of the 64 law firms that prevailed in a Dodd-Frank reward claim, only 12 had hired former SEC lawyers to assist in the cases. Thus, the vast majority of successful law firms (52 of the 64) had no “insider” connection to the SEC. This fact demonstrates the Commission's staff's willingness to work closely with attorneys who had no "friends" in the agency and whose information was solely merit-based. Moreover, a significant percentage of the firms that did employ former SEC or Justice Department lawyers were the very defense firms that Bloomberg Law and Platt did not discuss or analyze.
The Commission’s staff demonstrated no bias against firms based on their practice areas. The Commission’s enforcement staff and Whistleblower Office worked with law firms that were defense-based (6) and law firms that traditionally represent whistleblowers or employees in lawsuits against companies (many of the remaining 58).
The FOIA documents support a finding that the Commission’s staff is open to whistleblowers, regardless of whether they represent themselves or whether or not the firms raising the concerns have any “insider” connections. Organizations such as the National Whistleblower Center, which regularly works with whistleblowers, have widely praised the program, as have the last three Chairs of the SEC, appointed by Presidents Obama, Trump, and Biden. The Commission itself confirmed that as of September 2021, it returned over $1.3 billion to harmed investors based on whistleblower cases.
The Future Role of Defense Firms in Dodd-Frank Cases
The SEC cannot implement special rules that would be prejudicial to traditional defense firms that file whistleblower cases. Likewise, whistleblowers have the right to hire counsel of their choice and, in most cases, can knowingly waive potential conflicts of interest. But the mere fact that traditional defense firms can lawfully represent whistleblowers without violating any SEC or local Bar rules does not address the special problems that may exist when a defense firm represents a whistleblower. For example, such representations can result in significant conflicts of interest that may not be apparent at the commencement of a case. This may result in the whistleblower’s attorneys not advocating for legal precedents that could harm their other corporate clients.
Traditional defense firms should implement internal procedures to guard against potential problems based on the obvious conflicts that can arise when they represent clients on both sides of whistleblower-disclosure cases. More significantly, it is absolutely crucial that whistleblowers fully understand the potential for conflicts of interest when deciding on the best attorneys to hire. Attorneys working for defense firms must clearly spell out these issues and ensure that when representing a whistleblower, their prospective client is fully aware of all the risks and limitations.
Among the rules, procedures, and practices that defense firms should implement or carefully consider are:
At the very least, defense firms representing whistleblowers should identify this on their websites. Corporate clients should know that the firm also represents whistleblowers and should be able to question counsel on these matters so they feel comfortable that no conflicts would arise.
Whistleblower clients need full disclosure of how the defense firm’s primary practice may impact the representation. This is particularly true whenever a case would require advocacy on behalf of a whistleblower that could expand legal interpretations benefiting whistleblowers. It is hard to reconcile how a law firm defending some clients against whistleblowers can effectively argue before administrative agencies or courts of law legal precedents that could expand the rights of whistleblowers. These expanded rights could and would ultimately not be to the advantage of corporate clients accused of wrongdoing.
Similarly, defense firms need to reconcile how they can advocate for a whistleblower who engaged in tactics, such as removing documents or one-party tape recording, that their corporate clients may find offensive. This is particularly true when the zealous representation of a whistleblower requires expanding the ability of whistleblowers to obtain evidence of wrongdoing, and the precedent this advocacy establishes may be used against the firm’s current or future corporate clients.
The potential for a conflict of interest needs to be fully explored in every case. One issue that firms and clients may not be fully aware of is how the “related action” provisions of the laws impact potential conflicts. Once the SEC obtains a sanction of over $1 million in any case, all “related actions” become eligible for a reward. Sanctions issued by other law enforcement or regulatory agencies based on “related” claims can form the basis of a reward. When examining whether a conflict exists, law firms need to look beyond the SEC action and determine witnesses, parties, and issues that may be implicated in a “related action.” This determination is critical even if the related action is not based on any securities law violation.
Defense firms can also explore ways to refer potential whistleblower clients to attorneys whose practices are based solely on representing whistleblowers. These referrals would help ensure that the defense firm is not conflicted (either as a matter of ethics or marketing) and that the client can obtain the best counsel.
Conclusion: The Iron Curtain has Fallen
Whistleblower representation is entering a new world. The “iron curtain” that formerly separated law firms that represent corporate crooks from those that represent whistleblowers has fallen. This new reality is not without serious risks to whistleblowers (and corporate clients). Whistleblowers must be fully aware of the dangers of having a corporate law firm represent them. Corporate law firms must institute procedures to guard against conflicts of interest and to ensure they can zealously represent whistleblowers. Zealous representation is needed even when the precedents established in these cases may create trouble for their other client base.
At the end of the day, the fact that defense law firms are now representing whistleblowers affirms the success of Dodd-Frank. It is an affirmation of the critical nature of the information whistleblowers provide to the government and the role of this insider information in stopping otherwise hard to detect corporate crimes. The “iron curtain” has fallen, but it has fallen in the direction that helps whistleblowers. It has fallen in the direction that affirms the quality of their disclosures. It refutes the often-repeated slander that whistleblowers are somehow simply disgruntled employees.
Whistleblowers are essential to ensuring fairness in the markets, holding wrongdoers accountable, and deterring future wrongdoing. The SEC has publicly recognized this, and now leading corporate defense attorneys have quietly recognized it. Defense firms like Akin Gump, Winston and Strawn, and Hayes and Boone got it right when they advocated for paying whistleblowers substantial rewards. Whistleblowers whose information holds corporate criminals accountable deserve large rewards. These rewards are in the public interest, and the SEC Dodd-Frank whistleblower program must be protected, enhanced and expanded.
Whistleblower Network News, “WNN Exclusive: SEC FOIA Documents Reveal Big Law Defense Firms are Confidentially Representing Dodd-Frank Whistleblowers,” (September 27, 2022)