As University of Southern California alumni digest the news of ex-medical school dean Carmen Puliafito’s alleged drug-fueled escapades—and the university’s handling of the scandal—USC’s president announced last week that it had tapped Debra Wong Yang, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, to conduct a “thorough” investigation.
The university didn’t call the firm’s internal review independent. And the Los Angeles Times, which first broke the USC story, made a point of detailing the strong ties that Yang and her firm have to the school.
Yang once taught at USC’s Gould School of Law, where firm managing partner Kenneth Doran earned his degree and later served as board president. In 2014 the law school touted Gibson Dunn’s “100 percent participation” in an alumni fundraising drive. And Yang has done legal work for USC before, representing the university in 2012 when parents of Chinese students who were killed near campus brought wrongful death claims.
In a different Gibson Dunn investigation, Yang had earned scrutiny over her ties to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose office hired the firm to investigate his administration’s conduct in the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal.
The Gibson Dunn team included Yang, a former prosecutor who was a Christie friend and fundraiser. The firm ultimately issued a report clearing the governor of wrongdoing.
But in the USC matter at least, the firm’s institutional connections don’t raise red flags, according to Columbia University Law School professor and corporate governance expert John Coffee Jr.
“I don’t see this as dangerously close [to signaling a conflict]. I don’t even see it as an appearance issue. It doesn’t sound incestuous. She didn’t go to the law school,” Coffee said of Yang, who graduated from Boston College Law School.
While Gibson Dunn and Yang have represented USC, they haven’t done so regularly. And when it comes to Gibson Dunn lawyers’ contributions to USC’s law school and to other ties, Coffee said, “You aren’t going to find major law firms that don’t have those connections.”
But, Coffee added: “The classic rules are that you use a law firm that is not your regular counsel. You make it very clear this is going to be a one-shot retention.”
Chuck Herring, a partner in Austin’s Herring & Panzer who also focuses on ethics, was more skeptical. “In order to have an investigation that the public will have confidence in,” he said, the school would be better served to pick a firm with no ties. “If the firm has previously been a beneficiary of the school, questions might be raised after the report has been issued,” Herring said.
“If you paid me in the past that may undercut the public perception and confidence in the investigation. It’s not as if there is a shortage of former prosecutors out there,” Herring said.
Letters to the editor published by the L.A. Times highlight the public perception issue. One reader, calling Yang a “former employee” of USC, asked if the university would have a “thorough investigation or a whitewash.” Another reader also noted that Yang had been an adjunct professor at the law school, writing that “a truly independent investigator is warranted.”
Both Yang and her firm declined to comment for this story.
Miriam Rozen covers the business of law with a focus on law firm-client relationships. Contact her at email@example.com. Twitter: @MiriamRozen.