President Trump’s inimitable personal attorney, Michael Cohen, was reported by the Wall Street Journal to have used a Delaware LLC as a vehicle for payment to a porn actress of $130,000 for her silence about an alleged consensual affair with Trump. The purpose of this arrangement, apparently, was to keep Trump’s involvement quiet by using an LLC with a generic name, Essential Consultants LLC, though this goal was undermined by the fact that the publicly-filed Certificate of Formation of that entity was signed by “Michael Cohen, authorized person.” This sort of filing does not need to list any owners, and in practice is usually signed by the person with the law or accounting firm, often a paralegal, that actually prepares the filing at the client’s direction. (It’s amusing that the operation that has the financial wherewithal to pay six figures in hush money is too cheap to pay a law firm three figures to maintain the confidentiality of the principal’s involvement.)
I read with interest an essay in the Wall Street Journal by a management professor, Morten T. Hansen, arguing that the key to success in business is selectivity, i.e., figuring out which tasks were the most important to complete, doing them well, and focusing less on the rest. Workers who take this approach are not the “hardest” workers as commonly understood, usually measured by hours spent, but they are the most effective and ultimately successful. This is an application of Occam’s Razor, which generally states that when assessing two competing theories attempting to explain a problem, the simpler one is usually the right one. Applied in this context, the correct approach to completing business tasks is to simplify the steps.
I graduated from law school over 20 years ago and accordingly don’t spend as much time thinking about law school admissions as I did in the past. However, as the parent of a high school senior currently in the throes of the college application process, I’ve recently again been considering the right approach for a student to take while applying to undergraduate and graduate programs. In either case, there are myriad good options to select from, and the thought process used to narrow them down can be scattershot.
My wife, Leslie, pursued an entrepreneurial venture mid-career like me, founding Leslie’s Leashes, provider of pet care services like dog walking and sitting to grateful animals on the North Shore of Long Island. There are only so many half-hour time slots for pet visits in a day, especially when everyone wants theirs to be at noon, so Leslie has hired walkers as demand for her services grew. However, some of the more particular clients specifically want Leslie to be the walker.
Carolyn Elefant, writing (sensibly) in Above the Law, argues in favor of loosening restrictions in the U.S. against ownership of law firms by non-attorneys. She focuses on the increasing need for small firms to partner with non-lawyer professionals and how the inability to compensate these professionals by sharing profits makes it unnecessarily difficult to function. Regardless of a firm’s reasons for wanting to bring in non-lawyer equity holders, it’s worth considering the policy rationale underlying the current restrictions.
The general fear is that non-lawyer equity holders would interfere with legal decisions that should be left to the lawyers. This is a reasonable concern. To take a concrete example, suppose I had an outside non-lawyer investor in my firm, and suppose further that I was advising a cash-poor startup company who was negotiating with an outside investor on terms that I found to be inadvisable for the client. Now, it would be in my pure financial interest (short-term anyway) to downplay my concerns and let the client proceed with the investment, since it would mean my firm would get paid. But I’m constrained by ethical obligations that require me to put the client’s interests first. If my firm’s investor, however, became aware of this issue, the investor would be expected to push me to withhold my sound advice to the client.