Earlier this week, the SEC finalized a new proxy access rule for 3% shareholders (or larger) that was first proposed over a year ago. Proxy access refers to the right of a shareholder to use the company’s proxy statement to solicit votes for a nominee for the board of directors. Prior to the new rule, a shareholder that wanted to solicit votes for a nominee had to prepare its own proxy statement at significant cost. Now 3% shareholders (or larger) can use the company proxy statement to nominate directors.

In general, if a shareholder (or group of shareholders) holds at least 3% of the voting power of a company for at least three years, among other requirements, it can include nominees in the company proxy statement for as many as 25% of the seats on the board.

The new rule is in effect for the 2011 proxy season, except it will not apply to smaller reporting companies for three years.

The new rule has considerably more potential to affect smaller reporting companies because it is easier to obtain 3% of a smaller reporting company than a larger company. And, three years is a long time to tie up the estimated $3.5 billion needed to reach the 3% threshold at any of the 20 largest U.S. corporations by market cap. The 3% threshold may ensure that only significant long-term shareholders at large companies will be granted access, which was a stated goal of the Commission, but it could prove more likely to affect smaller reporting companies.