The Limited Liability Partnership in Bankruptcy
American Bankruptcy Law Journal (2016, Forthcoming)
39 Pages Posted: 23 Feb 2015 Last revised: 28 Jul 2015
Date Written: February 22, 2015
Brobeck. Dewey. Howrey. Heller. Thelen. Coudert Brothers. These brand-name law firms had many things in common at one time, but today have one: bankruptcy. Individually, these firms expanded through hiring and mergers, took on expensive lease commitments, borrowed large sums of money, and then could not meet financial obligations once markets took a downturn and practice groups scattered to other firms. The firms also had an organizational structure in common: the limited liability partnership.
In business organizations classes, professors teach that if an LLP becomes insolvent, and has no assets to pay its obligations, the creditors of the LLP will not be able to enforce those obligations against the individual partners. In other words, partners in LLPs will not have to write a check from personal funds to make up a shortfall. Creditors doing business with an LLP, just as with a corporation, take this risk and have no expectation of satisfaction of claims by individual partners, absent an express guaranty. In bankruptcy terms, creditors look solely to the capital of the entity to satisfy claims. While bankruptcy proceedings involving general partnerships may have been uncommon, at least in theory, bankruptcy proceedings involving limited liability partnerships have recently become front-page news.
The disintegration of large, complex LLPs, such as law firms, does not fit within the Restatement examples of small general partnerships that dissolve fairly swiftly and easily for at least two reasons. First, firm creditors, who have no recourse to individual partners’ wealth, wish to be satisfied in a bankruptcy proceeding. In this circumstance, federal bankruptcy law, not partnership law, will determine whether LLP partners will have to write a check from personal funds to satisfy obligations. Second, these mega-partnerships have numerous clients who require ongoing representation that can only be competently handled by the full attention of a solvent law firm. In these cases, the dissolved law firm has neither the staff nor the financial resources to handle sophisticated, long-term client needs such as complex litigation, acquisitions, or financings. These prolonged, and lucrative, client matters cannot be simply “wound up” in the time frame that partnership law anticipates. The ongoing client relationship begins to look less like an obligation to be fulfilled and more like a valuable asset of the firm.
Partnership law would scrutinize the taking of firm business by former partners under duty of loyalty doctrines against usurping business opportunities and competing with one’s own partnership, both duties that terminate upon the dissolution of the general partnership or the dissociation of the partner. However, bankruptcy law is not as forgiving as the LLP statutes, and bankruptcy trustees view the situation very differently under the “unfinished business” doctrine. The bankruptcy trustee, representing the assets of the entity and attempting to salvage value for creditors, instead seeks to make sure that assets, including current client matters, remain in partnership solution unless exchanged for adequate consideration, even if the partners agree to let client matters stay with the exiting partners.
This Article argues that the high-profile bankruptcies of Heller Ehrman LLP, Howrey LLP, Dewey & LeBeouf, LLP, and others show in stark relief the conflict between general partnership law and bankruptcy law. The emergence of the hybrid LLP creates an entity with general partnership characteristics, such as the right to co-manage and the imposition of fiduciary duties, but with limited liability for owner-partners. These characteristics co-exist peacefully until they do not, which seems to be at the point of dissolution. Then, the availability of limited liability changes partners’ incentives upon dissolution. Though bankruptcy law attempts to resolve this, it conflicts with partnership law to create more uncertainty.
Keywords: partnership, bankruptcy, business organizations, law firms
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