(The following post originally appeared on ONSecurities, a top Minnesota legal blog founded by Martin Rosenbaum to address securities, governance and compensation issues facing public companies.)
I attended a compelling legal education program this week, taught by Egil "Bud" Krogh. Political junkies know that Krogh was a young assistant White House counsel in the Nixon years. As a leader of the "Plumbers" unit, he authorized the 1971 break-in of the offices of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist after the leak of the Pentagon Papers. After the break-in came to light in the Watergate hearings, Krogh pleaded guilty, served time in prison, was disbarred and later reinstated.
Bud now lectures on the topic of legal ethics, based on his recent book, Integrity: Good People, Bad Choices, and Life Lessons from the White House. His premise: in a pressure-filled environment such as the White House, intense loyalty to individuals can blind you to your higher principles. This is compounded by fear, inexperience, pride and other factors.
Krogh's description of an environment that can put pressure on decision-making is familiar to anyone called on to say yes or no to any proposal by a corporate officer. Whether the proponent is the client of an outside attorney or the boss of an in-house attorney, there is a lot of pressure just to nod approval, as Bud Krogh nodded to Howard Hunt when the Plumbers break-in was discussed. I think the situation is especially acute for in-house attorneys. Of course, most proposed actions are legal, and the advice is often about the level of risk involved in two alternatives. And most in-house attorneys do a great job of balancing the competing pressures of giving sound advice while also being part of the team. But how do some decisions, even decisions by good people, go astray?
A great example can be found in the options backdating scandals. An article in the Financial Times in November 2006 reported that the backdating scandals had resulted in at least twelve major US companies replacing their general counsel, and a March 2008 speech by the SEC's Director of Enforcement reported that at least seven former general counsel had been charged by the SEC in connection with the scandals. Backdating, even though not necessarily illegal in itself, in these cases represented falsification of documents and involved misleading accounting and tax fraud. I know many attorneys said "no" to the practice, but these counsel simply nodded as backdating was pushed by other corporate officers. It might not have seemed like such a big deal at the time.
I asked Krogh how to advise an attorney (maybe a younger in-house attorney) how to avoid the pitfalls of losing perspective in a pressure-filled situation. He steered me toward a Top Ten List provided by Hank Shea, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney in Minnesota who teaches ethical leadership at the University of St. Thomas Law School, including the following two lessons learned from the misconduct of others:
When faced with a right versus a wrong decision, guard against that first intentional misstep.
When faced with an ethical dilemma, seek advice and counsel from others.
After an interesting program, Bud entertained us with a great Nixon impression, including, at the request of one of my colleagues, the famous phrase "I am not a crook". Bud proved that we can all learn lessons about how to be able to make that statement, and mean it.
It's Just An IP Thriller - One More Comment
Bud Krogh also told a great story about Elvis, the King of Rock and Roll, who came to visit President Nixon in a meeting engineered by Bud. I just saw a great film about another King - the King of Pop. "This Is It" chronicles the rehearsals for Michael Jackson's planned comeback concert tour. I recommend it to anyone who wants to see the combination of pure genius and meticulous attention to detail shown by MJ. If you didn't see it before, it's worth reading my previous post, reporting that Jackson was actually one of the named inventors in an issued patent.