If your employer is being investigated by the SEC, then you likely have some questions about the SEC investigation process but may not feel comfortable asking them of your supervisor or co-workers. This is understandable, as an SEC investigation can mean significant civil penalties such as fines, permanent career and reputational damage, or loss of a job. One of the most common questions employees of a company under SEC investigation ask is whether they need their own lawyer, and they often trip themselves up by asking the wrong people to answer that question.
Your Company’s Attorneys Cannot Tell Whether You Need a Lawyer
When an employee learns that an SEC investigation is occurring, it is common for the employee to ask the HR director, the General Counsel, or even an outside law firm representing the company whether the employee needs his or her own lawyer. First, it is critical to understand that all of those people are there to serve the interests of the company, not you the employee. Thus, it is not their job to be concerned with whether you would be better off from a legal perspective by having your own attorney.
In addition, they might not have any idea what your role in potential SEC violations were and thus whether it would serve your interests to have your own attorney or not. If company attorneys are speaking with you about events related to a potential SEC investigation (also note that the company attorneys are likely not under any obligation to tell you whether an investigation is indeed occurring or not), there is a good chance they know less than you do about potential violations at that point and are indeed speaking with you to gather that information, thus making them even less likely to be able to answer that question accurately.
The Company Attorneys Represent the Company, Not You
Beyond the issue of presenting the question of whether you need your own attorney to company lawyers, regardless of what they might say to you, the fact of the matter is that those attorneys represent the company and not you. Simply put, their allegiance and duties are directed towards representing the company’s interests, and that will always be their overriding mission.
Does this mean they are out to get you and will ultimately throw you under the proverbial bus in an SEC investigation? Not necessarily, and the company (and by extension, its attorneys) may have a strong interest in defending, so long as your interests are aligned with those of the company.
But, when push comes to shove, it is the case that they are not there to defend your interests and formulate legal strategies to protect your reputation, career, and future. In many cases, companies under SEC or other federal investigation can curry favor with law enforcement by showing that they are taking a hard line against employees in the company who have violated laws, and so penalizing and/or terminating an employee can be an action a company takes on the advice of its attorneys to reach a favorable outcome with the SEC. And this outcome may be reached on the basis of information you as the soon-to-be terminated employee provide to the company and its attorneys under the mistaken impression that doing so would help your interests.