The Cozy Bank-Law Firm Relationship May Not Be So Cozy After All…These Days Anyway, Part I

First posted on Commercial Law International on Jun 5, 2009.

In Canada an Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruling (McKenna v. Gammon Gold Inc.) has the potential to go viral like the latest YouTube sensation and challenge what can only be called one of the most incestuous relationships in the commercial world.

What am I talking about?

Well I am referring to the relationship, the very close relationship, between banks and law firms.

Ever wonder why, if and when, a bank or other financial institution is being sued it is very rare to find a big name law firm representing the plaintiff but they are very much present to represent the defendant bank? This my friends is no coincidence, it is a deliberate strategy on the part of the banks and other financial institutions. They set out to exploit the conflict of interest rules that lawyers are bound by – a lawyer may not generally represent two clients on opposite sides on the same matter – and they do a very good job of it. This is evidenced by the fact that banks and other financial instructions will spread the legal work they have around to as many international, national, regional and local based (powerhouse) law firms as they can in any market they operate.

The strategy is simple but effective: tie up the biggest, the brightest, the best and if need be the most belligerent legal talent out there. The benefits of this strategy accrue to banks in two significant and interconnect ways. The first is that they have the best legal talent working for them on ordinary transactions while at the same time having them in reserve ready to be unleashed like a pack of attack dogs. The second, which flows from the first, is that having such well trained and impressive attack dogs – oh sorry, I mean lawyers – at the ready will and does inspire fear in not only prospective claimants but other lawyers as well (though most would not admit it).

The law firms are not entirely innocent here, in fact not at all. They are willing subjects or is that objects of the strategy to exploit the conflict of interest rules. They enter this relationship; in fact they actively seek to forge these links, with their eyes, arms and billable hour’s dockets´ all wide open. Law firms know that the work from the banks is not only constant but very lucrative as well, so they are more than happy to be attack dogs for hire.

However, we now live in different times, as this once cozy relationship is being undone or at least it has hit a rocky patch called the current global recession. Whoever first said: it´s all about the money was so right. It is indeed all about the money for both banks and law firms. The former having less work to spread around now is also lacking a commercial rational that would satisfy shareholder costs´ accountability of having such high paid attack dogs in reserve. Consequently, the banks are now looking to cut costs and have aggressively gone after external legal costs reducing the number of attack dogs – sorry, I mean lawyers – it holds in reserve and how much it pays them.

The law firms for their part, seeing the writing on the wall have, have begun to seek out other clients. In fact this has resulted in the once impossible, law firms, well at least in this case, have begun to represent claimants against the banks.

The conflict of interest rules once untested and applied broadly, I would say too broadly, to the bank-law firm relationship is now set for realignment. No longer will law firms simply refuse or not actively seek out work, simply because a suit might be brought against one of their clients. I know I am only an attack dog in training- pardon me, I should say student at law – but my reading of the conflicts section of the Ontario Rules of Professional Conduct does not support such a broad application. Provided the issues are not related, the clients’ information in possession of the lawyer bares no relevance to each other and the lawyers that handle each client´s matter are different, it is difficult to see where a conflict of interest would be created.

Thankfully I don’t have to stand alone in my opinion. I now have Justice Lax in McKenna v. Gammon Gold Inc. to back me up when she ruled that Siskinds should not be disqualified for a conflict of interest from prosecuting a class action against an underwriting subsidiary of a client bank that it acts for in separate matters.

And how so? Well you are just going to have to stay tuned for part two.