The market assumed the worst Monday after Reuters’ great scoop on Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein bringing in Reid Weingarten of Steptoe & Johnson to represent him in the Justice Department’s investigation of the bank. Goldman’s share price fell almost 5 percent on the fear that Weingarten’s entrance signals that DOJ is getting serious about its follow-up to the April 2011 Senate subcommittee report on the financial crisis. In one sense, that’s reading way too much into the mere fact that Blankfein has brought in his own lawyer. It’s standard operating procedure for corporate executives at companies under investigation to have separate counsel. Consider the example of other alleged villains of the financial meltdown. Richard Fuld of Lehman, Joseph Cassano of AIG, Angelo Mozilo and David Sambol of Countrywide, John Thain of Merrill Lynch, Kenneth Lewis of Bank of America: they all have their own lawyers, and none of them have faced any criminal charges. Only Mozilo and Sambol even had to answer to the SEC.
Lawyers who represent corporations — Sullivan & Cromwell, in Goldman’s case — have a duty to the company. And though CEOs and other high-ranking executives often think their interests are exactly the same as the corporation’s, lawyers have to anticipate a divergence between what’s good for the company and what’s good for its leaders. A company under investigation might be best served by cooperating with prosecutors and turning over (for instance) its lawyers’ interview notes; execs may have conflicting interests. Even if they don’t, lawyers are supposed to avoid even the appearance of a conflict, so as soon as it’s clear that investigators are interested even in just interviewing an individual executive, white-collar defense lawyers will typically advise bringing in separate counsel.

A couple of cases from the last few years drove home that lesson. Proskauer Rose represented Allen Stanford’s Stanford Financial as the Ponzi scheme collapsed. Proskauer partner Thomas Sjoblom was in the room with Stanford Financial’s chief investment officer, Laura Pendergest-Holt, when she was interviewed by the SEC in 2009. Sjoblom told the SEC that he was representing the company, not Pendergest-Holt. But she ended up indicted for lying to investigators and obstructing justice based on that SEC interview. Pendergest-Holt turned around and sued Sjoblom and Proskauer, asserting that she was never told the firm wasn’t representing her. Sjoblom subsequently resigned from Proskauer. (Proskauer’s spokesman didn’t return my call.)