The Problem With “The Most Successful People”

The Problem With “The Most Successful People”

There is a story about a lady at a dinner telling President Calvin Coolidge she had wagered she could get the President to say more than three words. Silent Cal’s famous response: “you lose.”[1]

More about Coolidge later.

Over the summer you may have noticed that social media was abuzz with “the most successful people I’ve met” posts. Apparently it started with this tweet from a guy calling himself Pomp:

Pomp.png

Naturally this led to people posting their own lists. These fell into two categories: (1) earnest attempts to make a better list and (2) parodies.

Some parodies were funnier than others, but with thousands of people weighing in, the funniest ones were pretty darn funny. Twitter at its best.

I didn’t have an immediate tweet of my own, but my thoughts on “successful people” eventually morphed into a blog post called Successful Blogger Shares Secrets of Morning Routine. It was classic me: half-joking, self-deprecating, not really that funny.

But now I want to share my serious, deeper thoughts about this “habits of successful people” thing. If you’re like me, you probably want to be “successful” (whatever that means), and you like good tips on how to succeed. So does the recent “successful people” episode have any lessons of real value?

Let’s start with the list that kicked off the tweetstorm. It’s easy to make fun of it, and I am not above doing that, but does it contain any true insight?

This is a tough one. The most profound truths are often the simplest and most obvious. That means there is often a fine line between the profound and the banal. Or in the words of David St. Hubbins, “it’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.”

So let’s start by giving Pomp his due. We can concede that it’s good to do the things on his list. We can even acknowledge that most successful people do most of those things.

Now, with that out of the way, let the snark begin.

Many people pointed out the fact that successful people often have a head start:

Lucky.png

Others highlighted the fact that “successful” people can be selfish jerks:

Jerks.png

And some redefined success to favor cats and fuzzy fictional children’s characters:

Eat honey or marmalade

But for me, the funniest ones were the absurd non sequiturs:

Hamburglar.png

Jokes aside, there are also serious critiques. For one thing, many traits people put on these lists are tautological, i.e. true by definition. Saying that successful people “build great teams” or “demand excellence” is only slightly more insightful than saying “successful people tend to be very successful.”

But there’s a more fundamental problem. This tweet pointed it out:

Survivorship Basis.png

Survivorship bias is the logical fallacy of looking at the characteristics of people who survived some selection process and ignoring the people who did not. It is a form of selection bias.

Selection bias provides a meta-critique of the whole idea of identifying traits of successful people. When we select successful people and leave out unsuccessful people, we fail to make a comparison that would be useful. Plus, when we decide which successful people to study, we effectively predetermine which characteristics make one successful.

A trivial (?) example that makes the point: highly successful entrepreneurs who wear the same thing every day. Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg did it and built multi-billion dollar empires. But wearing your sleeveless Def Leppard shirt and cargo shorts every day probably won’t guarantee success. Just like wearing the same white shirt and blue suit won’t make your YouTube series on non-compete litigation a viral sensation. Hypothetically.

This gets to the correlation versus causation problem. Let’s take another example. Does working out every day cause you to succeed? Or perhaps highly successful people have some other characteristic that explains both why they make partner at age 29 and the fact that they never miss their 5 am spin class.

If you really wanted to be scientific about it, you would identify a certain habit—such as reading a book every week—and you would compare a randomly selected group with that habit to a randomly selected group without that habit. Ideally, each group would be exactly the same but for that one characteristic. You would then see if the book-reading group was more successful than the group that watches The Bachelor every week.

Of course, this is virtually impossible to do in real life, which is why social science will never be as “scientific” as laboratory science.

No, understanding the secrets to success requires wisdom, not double-blind clinical trials. The scientific method has its limits.

And while the average individual is not very wise, there is a certain collective wisdom that can emerge from a community. Case in point: the nuggets of wisdom that can be panned from all the “successful people” parodies in the Twitterverse.

Just to name a few:

  • Many factors go into success
  • Success is not entirely within your control
  • Many successful people were born into wealth or privilege
  • People succeed by being in the right place at the right time
  • Some people achieve success through immoral, unethical, or illegal means
  • Successful people can have negative or self-destructive traits in addition to their positive ones
  • Sometimes the negative traits of successful people are inextricably intertwined with the positive ones (Nietzsche said, “Be careful, lest in casting out your demon you exorcise the best thing in you”)
  • Imitating the traits of successful people doesn’t guarantee you will succeed
  • “Success” isn’t everything

Wait a minute. One of these nuggets is not like the other. The last point—success isn’t everything—calls into question the whole premise.

This leads us to the most profound truth to emerge from the “most successful people” memes. The most successful people define “success” on their own terms.

If you define success as becoming a billionaire, a professional athlete, or a rock star, then your chances of success are pretty low. But if “success” for you means loving your friends and family and treating people well, your chances increase.

This is undoubtedly true, but it kind of dodges the question. What if we change the question to “what practice will help you succeed in your business or career?” That’s less important than “what is a meaningful life?” but still important.

And that brings me back to Calvin Coolidge. Here’s something we know he really said:

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

My dad shared this quote with me years ago, and aside from the political incorrectness (we wouldn’t say “men” and “derelicts” today), it’s pretty good advice.

It’s also a great example of what I call “dad” advice. I don’t necessarily mean advice from my dad, and dad advice could come from anyone (including a mom). Personally, I’m more prone to make a dad joke than to give dad advice, but I have two kids of my own now, and on occasion I find myself dispensing some dad advice.

Dad advice has two main characteristics: (1) it’s somewhat obvious, and (2) it’s not fun.

Obviously, if you want to build wealth then you should save more and spend less. Obviously, if you want to lose weight you should eat healthier foods and exercise. Obviously, you do not want to emphasize the fourth when playing over a major seven chord.

This is dad advice. It’s kind of a downer.

If it wasn’t obvious, it would come from an expert, like Tony Robbins, not your dad. If it was fun, everyone would do it.

Persistence is like that too. It’s boring. But here’s the good news: it works. Recently I had a small but significant achievement that resulted from a couple years of steady effort. It really brought home to me the importance of persistence.

So yeah, the most successful people I’ve met are persistent. And most of them don’t wear the same thing every day.

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IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. “Nietzsche says, out of chaos comes order.”

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients.

[1] The “you lose” story is probably apocryphal, but like most great stories, if it didn’t really happen it should have.

Key Issues in Departing Employee Litigation

Key Issues in Departing Employee Litigation

On September 19 I gave a one-hour presentation on Key Issues in Departing Employee Litigation to the Houston Bar Association Litigation section. If you couldn’t make it, this is the five-minute version.

Five key issues in five minutes. For each one, I’ll give you a practice tip (or two) and a key case that will help you understand the issue.

Here we go.

No. 1: Preservation of ESI

What’s the first question a lawyer should ask the client in a departing employee case? I say it’s “what company documents did the employee take?” As I explain in this video, the departing employee almost always takes—or keeps—something, even if it’s not for any sinister reason.

This is important to know, whether you represent the original employer, the employee, or the new employer. This fact tends to color all the other issues. A judge is more likely to enforce a non-compete, for example, if there is evidence that the employee downloaded the company’s confidential customer list on the way out the door.

And of course the question is relevant to misappropriation of trade secrets. As a practical matter, the documents taken will determine the strength of any trade secrets claim. I call this Wolfe’s First Law of Trade Secrets: whatever company documents the employee takes will be the alleged “trade secrets” in the subsequent lawsuit.

Practice Tip:

Press the client for details about documents early in the case. This is important for the reasons I’ve already mentioned, but also to meet the duty to preserve relevant electronically stored information (ESI).

You’ve got to press, especially if you represent the employee, because it’s too easy for the employee to say “no, I don’t have anything” without really thinking it through. No, you don’t have a “customer list,” but what about the contacts on your iPhone?

Cases to Read:

In re Methodist Primary Care Group, No. 14-18-00191-CV, 2018 WL 3061321 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2018) (orig. proceeding). In Weekley Homes, the Texas Supreme Court laid out the procedure for obtaining direct access to another party’s computer or other device in discovery. This case applies the Weekley Homes standard to a departing employee dispute.

First Western Capital Mgmt. Co. v. Malamed, No. 16-cv-1961-WJM-MJW, 2016 WL 8358549 (D. Colo. Sept. 30, 2016). I wrote about this case here. It’s a good lesson on what not to do if you’re the employee in a customer list case. It also illustrates a Catch-22 for the employee: admit the customer list is a trade secret you help the plaintiff prove its case; if you deny the customer list is a trade secret, the judge may see this as evidence you intend to use it.

No. 2: Confidentiality Agreements

Usually the departing employee signed an employment agreement that includes a confidentiality clause or “NDA.” Often the NDA will require the employee to delete or “return” confidential company documents after termination of employment.

But as I explained here, deleting or returning company documents is not always advisable. First, deleting documents could violate the duty to preserve relevant evidence when litigation is reasonably anticipated. Second, the employee might need those documents to prove her own case, especially if there is a dispute about whether the employee is owed compensation. Then there’s the practical problem: how do you “return” electronic files?

Practice Tip: Exercise judgment about deleting or “returning” company documents. On this issue there is no one-size-fits-all solution. You have to think through the issues and make a judgment call. You may decide, for example, to return that portable hard drive the employee used but to have an expert make a forensic copy that you retain in case of litigation.

Case to Read:

Daugherty v. Highland Capital Management, L.P., No. 05-14-01215-CV, 2016 WL 4446158 (Tex. App.—Dallas Aug. 22, 2016, no pet.) (mem. op.). In this case, evidence that the employee took confidential information supported granting a permanent injunction against the employee, despite the jury’s finding of zero damages.

No. 3: Non-Competes

Texas has a lot of case law on non-competes. If you’ve got 30 minutes you can watch my video series Essentials of Texas Non-Compete Litigation.

But if you only have a minute, I can sum up Texas law on non-competes in just seven words. I call it Wolfe’s First Law of Texas Non-Compete Litigation: you can’t take your customers with you.

It’s just a general rule. But most of the time it will hold true.

Practice Tips:

First, evaluate the confidential information issue early. In the typical case where the non-compete is tied to a confidentiality agreement, the issue is whether the employer made the agreement enforceable by following through on its commitment to provide confidential information to the employee. If the employee is going to take the position that he didn’t receive any confidential information, you need to test that position and, if it holds true, prepare the employee to stick to it.

Second, if you represent the employee or his new employer, you need to understand the business plan. Is the employee going to go after new customers he didn’t deal with at his previous company? Then the non-compete probably won’t be a problem. But if the plan is to bring all of the employee’s old customers over to the new company, you may have a problem.

Case to Read:

Republic Services, Inc. v. Rodriguez, No. 14-12-01054-CV, 2014 WL 2936172 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] June 26, 2014). This is a good example of a Texas case upholding a non-compete. The court rejected the employee’s argument that the employer never provided confidential information, citing the employee’s testimony that she received training on software, access to the company’s invoices, and information on pricing. The court also rejected the employee’s argument that the non-compete was a prohibited “industry-wide exclusion,” where there was evidence the employee could work in the legal services industry without working for a competitor of the company.

No. 4: Trade Secrets

Big trade secrets cases tend to grab headlines. There was the Waymo v. Uber trial, where Google accused a former employee of stealing its confidential self-driving car technology. There was the recent Zhang case where the FBI arrested a former Apple engineer as he was getting ready to board a plane to China with Apple’s secret technology for . . . you guessed it, self-driving cars.

But the typical trade secrets claim does not involve cutting-edge technology. More often it’s the company’s customer list or pricing information. The company will argue that information about the identity and needs of customers is a trade secret, and that knowledge of the company’s confidential prices would allow a competitor to “undercut” the company and take its customers.

Practice Tip: Understand the client’s industry. Whether customer information or price information is a trade secret is usually a fact-intensive issue that requires understanding how the industry works.

Is it an industry where everyone knows who the target customers are? Are prices widely available in industry publications? Do the prices change daily, weekly, monthly? These are the kinds of facts that will determine whether the information at issue is “not readily ascertainable,” which is the key to trade-secret protection.

Case to Read:

SP Midtown, Ltd. v. Urban Storage, L.P., No. 14-07-00717-CV, 2008 WL 1991747, at *6 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] May 8, 2008) (mem. op.). This case illustrates that even the most mundane information can potentially be a trade secret. The court held there was a fact issue on whether the company’s daily rental logs constituted trade secrets where “[t]he information would allow competitors to slightly undercut Space Place’s prices and take its business.”

No. 5: “Fiduciary” Duty

What if the employee didn’t have a non-compete? What if there are no trade secrets? The employer may still have a claim against the employee for breach of fiduciary duty.

The employee doesn’t have a true “fiduciary” duty, because there is a lot the law allows an employee to do that a true fiduciary couldn’t do. Texas law says it is not a breach of the employee’s fiduciary duty for the employee to make plans to compete with the employer and to conceal those plans from the employer. That’s why I call it “Fiduciary Duty Lite.”

But if there’s one thing an employee shouldn’t do, it’s diverting customers to a competitor while still employed by the company, especially if the employee receives compensation for doing so. That would be a breach of the employee’s fiduciary duty.

Practice Tip:

Don’t assume the Texas Pattern Jury Charge question and instruction on fiduciary duty applies to employees.

If you’re the plaintiff, you love the Texas Pattern Jury Charge question and instruction on breach of fiduciary duty. It places such a heavy burden on the defendant. For example, the defendant must prove it “acted in the utmost good faith and exercised the most scrupulous honesty” toward the plaintiff. How can an employee who concealed his plans possibly meet that standard?

He can’t, and that just shows that the Pattern Jury Charge question and instruction on breach of fiduciary duty was not intended for departing employee cases.

Case to Read:

Orbison v. Ma-Tex Rope Co., No. 06-17-00112-CV, 2018 WL 2993012 (Tex. App.—Texarkana June 15, 2018). In this case, the employee started competing with his employer before leaving, resulting in the court ordering the employee to forfeit a portion of the salary earned at the first company and two weeks of his salary from his subsequent employer. The dollar amounts at issue were small, but the principle provides a warning for any employee thinking about diverting customers to a competitor while still employed.

Of course I’ve only scratched the surface of these issues here. Send me an email if you have questions, or to book me for your next one-hour time slot.

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IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

 

Totally Apolitical Cross-Examination Lessons from the Kavanaugh Hearings

Totally Apolitical Cross-Examination Lessons from the Kavanaugh Hearings

Let’s set aside the politics of the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings for five minutes (as if that were possible). What can litigators learn about effective cross-examination from Senator Kamala Harris’s grilling of Judge Brett Kavanaugh about a possible discussion of the Mueller investigation with a law firm that represents Donald Trump?

The reviews of Harris’s performance were all over the map. Some gushed over the former prosecutor’s toughness and cross-examination prowess. Others, especially fellow litigators, scoffed like she was an amateur. (I imagine the latter is similar to the way jealous stand-up comedians review each other.)

And strangely enough, the varied reactions to the Senator’s technique tended to correlate with the political views of the reviewer.

But let’s put aside the fact that Harris is a liberal Democrat with presidential ambitions and Kavanaugh is a conservative Republican who could tilt the Supreme Court rightward for a generation. Let’s just look at it as a lawyer cross-examining a witness. What can we learn?

Recap

First let’s recap what happened. As you can view here, Harris asked Kavanaugh if he had ever discussed the Mueller investigation with anyone at the law firm Kasowitz Benson & Torres, the law firm founded by Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Marc Kasowitz.

Kavanaugh, thinking Harris must have some kind of information on such a discussion, stalled for time. “I would like to know the person you’re thinking of,” he said. Harris kept pressing, without revealing the name of the person she had in mind. Eventually, Senator Mike Lee jumped in to try to rescue Kavanaugh. When Harris resumed the questioning, Kavanaugh continued to avoid giving a direct answer.

This is a familiar scenario for litigators. It often happens in depositions. The lawyer asks a pointed question that is specific enough to imply the lawyer has the goods on the witness, but open-ended enough not to suggest the answer. This makes the witness squirm. “What does she have on me?” the witness thinks. Afraid of giving an answer that could easily be impeached, the witness bobs and weaves. If the lawyer keeps pressing, eventually the witness’s lawyer jumps in, even if that’s a violation of the rules.

So the Harris-Kavanaugh exchange provides a teaching moment. What do we think of Senator Harris’s cross-examination technique? And what can we learn from Judge Kavanaugh’s answers, or non-answers?

Grading Senator Harris

Let’s start with the Senator. So much depends on what she really has on Kavanaugh, if anything. If her question was based on pure speculation or rumor, then I would have to give her performance a C-. Because if she doesn’t really have any evidence of the discussion, then the whole episode will ultimately just hurt her credibility.

As I tweeted:

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Yes, in the short term she created some doubt about Kavanaugh’s credibility—that’s why I wouldn’t give her an F—but if she can’t back up her implied accusation the court of public opinion will eventually ask “what was the point of all that?” You don’t want to get the jury excited about some juicy fact and then fail to deliver.

But let’s assume for the sake of argument that Senator Harris does have some specific, credible evidence that Kavanaugh had some substantive discussion of the Mueller investigation with a lawyer at Kasowitz. That would change things.

Then the evaluation would shift to the question of timing. When would be the best time for Sen. Harris to reveal the evidence she has?

Some observers skewered Harris for not immediately impeaching Kavanaugh with evidence. And perhaps they were right that the best time to bring it up was immediately.

But I think it’s wrong to assume that waiting was a mistake. Trial lawyers often have to make this kind of judgment call. The argument for bringing up the impeachment material immediately is that you want to score points while the issue is fresh on the minds of the audience. If you wait, the audience may forget the issue or worse, assume you never had anything on the witness in the first place.

But there are also good reasons to wait. The best one: You may be able to offer the impeachment evidence when it is too late for the witness or his lawyer to try to explain it away.

Screen Shot 2018-09-09 at 11.41.58 AM.png

Let’s say in a civil lawsuit a witness testifies “no, I never emailed my customer list to anyone outside the company.” Suppose such an email comes into evidence later. Imagine the lawyer waits until closing argument to show that email to the jury. “Remember when Dawn Davis said she never emailed her customer list,” the lawyer says in closing, “I guess she conveniently forgot about this one.” What can Dawn say at that point?

So I have to give Sen. Harris an I for “Incomplete” on her strategy. Time will tell.

But of course it’s not just about strategy, it’s also about technique. For demeanor and tone, I give Harris an A. She was persistent without overdoing it. She didn’t let Kavanaugh or Lee get her off track. Her tone was dry, and her facial expressions said it all. “Be sure about your answer, sir,” she deadpanned with a skeptical look.

I liked her tone. But I’ll admit this is the most subjective part of the grade.

Grading Judge Kavanaugh

And of course, even the best cross-examination technique can be thwarted by a good solid answer. So how do we grade Judge Kavanaugh’s response? Again, so much depends on what the real answer is.  As I tweeted that day:

Screen Shot 2018-09-08 at 8.26.07 AM.png

Is there one I’ve missed? Let me know.

Kavanaugh started ok, saying “I’m not remembering,” but then he got more defensive, asking twice if Harris would tell him who she was thinking of, and then saying he was trying to think if he knows anyone at that firm. If he really didn’t remember, why not just stick with that and end the questioning there?

One possibility—consistent with possibility 3—is that Kavanaugh could not answer the question because Washington is crawling with lawyers, the Kasowitz firm itself has over 200 lawyers, and Kavanaugh cannot be expected to know the firm affiliation of every lawyer he talks to. This was essentially what Sen. Lee interrupted to suggest to the witness and the public.

In litigation, jumping in like this generally violates the rules, but I get it. Sometimes as the lawyer for the witness you just have to do it. (It’s only consistent with the rules if the questioning has crossed the line into harassment.) But if you’re the lawyer for the witness and you intervene to suggest the answer, the answer you suggest should at least be credible.

And the answer Sen. Lee suggested just wasn’t that persuasive. Are you telling me that a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals—a court likely to hear some appeals arising from the Mueller investigation—has had so many conversations with people about the Mueller investigation that he can’t remember if one of those conversations was with a lawyer who works for a law firm that has represented Trump?

I don’t buy that. But in fairness to Kavanaugh, it’s certainly possible that he didn’t know for sure.

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Without knowing which possibility is the truth, I’ll give Kavanaugh’s response a C. He doesn’t get an F, because at least he didn’t give a direct, dishonest answer. That would be the worst thing to do.

But his equivocating was not the best approach. It made him look like he had something to hide—even if he didn’t. And it instantly highlighted the issue as important. Instead of questioning the questioner—and inviting a debate—why not just give a simple answer?

That doesn’t mean you should trust your memory too much. There is no need to go out on a limb and say “I absolutely never spoke to anyone at that firm about Mueller a single time in my life.” But if the honest answer is “I don’t remember talking to someone at that firm about it,” then just say that. At that point you’ve taken the sizzle out of the question.

So it turns out the Harris-Kavanaugh episode doesn’t just give us a lesson on cross-examination. It teaches us something about witness preparation too: The simple truth will set you free.

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IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

 

Essentials of Texas Non-Compete Litigation (the Viral YouTube Sensation)

Essentials of Texas Non-Compete Litigation (the Viral YouTube Sensation)

Fivers, did you know I have a YouTube channel? It’s called That Non-Compete Lawyer. I named it that because I’m a lawyer, and . . . ok, you get it.

I thought about naming it That Houston Lawyer Who Does a Lot of Different Kinds of Business Litigation but in Recent Years Mainly Litigation Involving Departing Employee Issues Like Non-Competes and Trade Secrets*. But that just didn’t have the same ring to it.

Anyway, I’ve had this YouTube channel for a while. It’s the home for my series of videos explaining non-compete issues in a way that lawyers and other humans can both easily understand.

It’s also the hub for my series of “Top 5 Tuesday” videos. I consider them both insightful and hilarious, providing useful legal information in an entertaining way, while critics have expressed amazement at how they manage to be dull and frivolous at the same time.

But now I’ve launched something even more amazing: Essentials of Texas Non-Compete Litigation. It’s a 30-minute video course in 15 installments. As you math majors will deduce, that’s an average of two minutes per installment.

And I would venture to say there has never been a better 30-minute YouTube course on Texas non-compete litigation. I mean, it’s no Dude Perfect, but I think you’ll like it. And when you watch, be sure to follow along with my free Study Guide. It has helpful case cites and tips on additional reading. (Spoiler: there’s a heavy dose of Five Minute Law posts in the “Additional Reading.”)

Love it? Hate it? Is there something essential I left out? Did I get anything wrong? Was there anything I could have cut? If so, I’m pretty sure there is a way to communicate that to me through YouTube’s popular platform. Or if you’re not that tech-savvy, you can just text me on your flip phone.

FAQ

Is Essentials of Non-Compete Litigation approved for CLE credit in Texas? No, but I’ll look into that.

Is it better to watch one episode at a time, or to binge-watch the whole series in one weekend? I leave this to your discretion.

Can one Texas trial lawyer cover the essentials of Texas non-compete litigation in just 30 minutes? There’s only one way to find out.

Is there a GoFundMe campaign to get you better lighting and sound? Not yet, but I like the way you think.

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IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. He hopes to continue litigating even after becoming a viral YouTube sensation. 

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

*Not certified by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization

Do’s and Don’ts for Departing Employees

Do’s and Don’ts for Departing Employees

Specialization has benefits. A lawyer who repeatedly handles the same type of case will tend to become an expert in that type of case, understanding the nuances, tricks, unanswered questions, and grey areas. See Do I Need a Specialist to Handle My Texas Non-Compete Case?

But becoming an expert on an area of law can have a less obvious downside: the tendency to forget that things that are self-evident to you may not be so obvious to a client.

For example, if you’re a plaintiff’s personal-injury lawyer, it’s pretty obvious that a person who claims he suffered a debilitating injury probably shouldn’t post photos on Facebook showing himself water-skiing at the lake last weekend. But as I discussed here, you still might need to tell the client to avoid posting social media content that could hurt his case.

Let’s apply this to the type of case I often handle. If you’re an employee planning to quit your job and go to work for a competitor, it’s probably a bad idea to lie to your employer about where you’re going. But even an honest employee could make a mistake like this when caught off guard.

This is just one example. There are a lot of things departing employees should and shouldn’t do.

That’s one reason it’s a good idea for a departing employee to consult with her own lawyer ahead of time. Many common mistakes can be avoided by getting some basic advice from an attorney.

But what if your lawyer inadvertently leaves something out? What if the one thing your lawyer forgets to mention on the phone is the one crucial mistake you make on the way out the door?

If only someone could come up with a simple list of do’s and don’ts for departing employees. Some kind of form that could be shared with both lawyers and clients.

Wait a minute. I could do that.

Here it is: Wolfe’s Do’s and Don’ts for Departing Employees. Download it, study it, follow it, critique it. Whatever you want. Just don’t ignore it.

Of course, I need to accompany this with the usual MASSIVE LAWYER DISCLAIMERS:

*This list is for general educational purposes only. Every case is different. If you are the employee, consult with your own lawyer,  Don’t rely on this as legal advice for your particular case.

*Even if you’re a lawyer, keep in mind these are only general tips that apply to most departing employee scenarios. They don’t cover specific substantive legal questions, like Is the Employee’s Non-Compete Enforceable?, Is the Company’s Pricing Information a Trade Secret?, or How Should a Departing Employee “Return” Company Documents? You may need to consult your friendly neighborhood litigation blogger about these issues.

But hopefully these tips will help people avoid some common mistakes. Like posting that water-skiing photo.

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IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

 

 

 

Successful Blogger Shares Secrets of Morning Routine

Successful Blogger Shares Secrets of Morning Routine

You’ve all read those “habits of successful people” and “best morning routine” articles. Is this just another one of those? Well, yes. But it’s a little different.

That’s because my morning routine doesn’t follow the conventional scripts. You already know the basic types.

First there’s the “Crunchy” kind: get a full night’s sleep, wake to the sound of birds chirping, practice “mindfulness” for 20 minutes, then do some yoga and meditation, drink green tea, and eat an egg-white omelette made with local asparagus and eggs from cage-free free-range chickens. Eventually get to the office at 11:00 am.

That’s not for me.

But I’m not big on the “Ironman” kind of morning routine either: wake to an alarm at 4:30 am, dunk yourself in ice-cold water for five minutes, run six miles wearing a weighted vest, then drink a cup of dark-roast coffee mixed with New Zealand goat butter. Then go to your job at the shoe department of J.C. Penney and kick ass.

No, I’ve got my own special morning routine.

The first thing you need to understand is that your morning routine actually starts the night before. If I want to have a super-productive day, I start by setting my iPhone alarm to go off an hour earlier than usual—for me that would be 5:00 a.m.

The alarm goes off at 5:00 am. I stagger over to the nightstand and hit the snooze button, which I think is set to nine minutes by default. There is probably some way to change that, but with my busy schedule I haven’t had a chance to research it. Anyway, over the next hour I hit the snooze button another six or seven times.

You might ask why I don’t just set the alarm for 6:00 am and get up without hitting snooze. What you don’t realize is that I’m not actually sleeping during that hour. Instead, I make productive use of that time by lying there half-awake thinking about the most stressful things I have to deal with that day. Scientists say this releases a special chemical in the brain that increases stress. And that helps me keep my mind focused.

When I eventually get up, I make my way to the bathroom, close the door so I won’t wake my wife, and sit on a stool in the closet. It’s a plastic stool that is just the right height. For a five-year-old. Then I open my Twitter feed and start scanning. This doesn’t help me wake up, but it does help me catch up on the latest salary increases for starting associates at big New York law firms.

Once it sinks in that third-year lawyers will be charging twice my hourly rate, I’m in just the right mood to step on the bathroom scale. “All right, that’s it, I’m starting my healthy eating program,” I say to our cat sitting on the counter. “Tomorrow.”

Then, after a shower, a clean, close shave with my Philips Norelco® 5850 electric shaver, and getting dressed, I’m ready to take on the day. But this is where I pause for some alone time in my study downstairs. It’s quiet in the house, my wife and kids are still snug in bed, and the morning sun is just peeking over the horizon. It’s a great time to sit alone and dwell on past regrets and failures.

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Behind the scenes at our photo shoot

I know, they say you should learn to let go of regret and learn from your failures. But I prefer to hold on to those regrets and to keep making the same mistakes. I feel this increases my empathy and “emotional intelligence.”

Once I’m feeling agitated enough, I’m ready to hit the road. I pull into the drive-through lane at the new Shipley Donuts just down the street. “I’ll have four—actually, make that five—original glazed, please.” While I stress-eat my donuts, I head towards Starbucks and turn on some sports-talk radio to find out for the final time if Lebron James is better than Michael Jordan.

Stopping at Starbucks gives me a chance to get out of the car so I can brush off those little shards of donut glaze. When I step out of the car, my glasses fog up, but it’s ok because I don’t need to see the menu inside. The guy at the counter has already put in my order and says “hey, Zach, that’ll be $4.17.” After I scan the front pages of the free newspapers, I grab my double-tall cappuccino.

I’m running late for work, but before driving off I have to vent some frustration about the political news of the day with a sarcastic tweet. “Ha, take that!” I say to no one in particular. You shouldn’t hold that emotional stuff inside.

I have a long commute, so this is the time to educate myself with a podcast on the latest law practice trends. But seven minutes in to “Best Practices for Law Firm Cyber-Security,” I get bored. I switch over to the “Bob Schneider’s Song Club” podcast, so I can hear some stories about B. Schnitty’s drinking days and how he came up with the lyrics to “Cap’n Kirk.”

After about 80 minutes on Houston’s fine freeways, I’m slouching over the computer at my office desk. This is crucial time. Researchers say you have the most mental focus in the first few hours of the work day. So I use that time wisely by checking my blog stats. I can’t wait to see how many people viewed my hilarious post about choice of law in non-compete litigation. The result is underwhelming: 17 views since Monday. And that’s just my family.

Dang it. It’s already 10:30 am and my morning mojo is shot. Time to hit Starbucks again. But maybe this time I should go with the green tea.

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IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation, but he’s angling for an endorsement deal with Philips Norelco. He also wants to kick out the jams and rock the block.

Five Minute Law assumes no liability for incidental or consequential damages that may result from following this morning routine. Photo credit: Eric Wolfe.

 

FBI Nabs Apple Trade Secrets Thief

FBI Nabs Apple Trade Secrets Thief

You may have read about Xiaolang Zhang recently. He’s the Apple engineer who was about to board a plane to China before being arrested by FBI agents and charged with theft of trade secrets under Title 18, United States Code, Section 1832. His new employer, Xpeng Motors, denied any knowledge of trade secret theft.

Rather than recount the details reported by the press, this week on Five Minute Law we’re traveling into the future to hear opening statements in the civil lawsuit to be filed in federal court under the Defend Trade Secrets Act.

SCENE: Courtroom, Robert F. Peckham Federal Building & United States Courthouse, San Jose, California, USA.

THE COURT: Ok, we’re on the record on July 14, 2020, in Case No. 18-CV-78745, Apple, Inc. v. Xpeng Motors. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, we are now going to hear opening statements from the lawyers. Ms. Cunningham, are you ready to proceed?

MS. CUNNINGHAM: Yes, Your Honor.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is a case about cheating. Not cheating at sports or cheating on your spouse, but cheating at business. Specifically, the business of self-driving car technology. You all know my client, Apple. It’s the best-known technology company in the world. It got there through hard work and innovation.

But some companies want to take shortcuts. Rather than doing the hard work to develop their own technology, they want to cheat and ride the coattails of others. The evidence will show that the defendant, Xpeng Motors, is one of those companies.

Xpeng was founded in 2014 in Guangzhou, China to develop electric self-driving vehicles. It is backed by some of the biggest Chinese companies in the world. It has a lot of smart people working for it, but in 2016 Xpeng decided that wasn’t enough. They needed a boost.

Now you all know about the iPhone and the MacBook, but that’s not all that Apple does. Apple also has a division working round the clock to develop software and hardware for autonomous vehicles. That means self-driving cars.

Back in 2016, Apple had made general statements to the press about self-driving car technology, but the details were a closely guarded secret. The code name was Project Golden Delicious.

This project involved thousands of engineers. One of those engineers was Mr. Xiaolang Zhang. Apple hired Mr. Zhang in December 2015 as a hardware engineer on the Compute Team, where he designed and tested circuit boards to analyze sensor data for the project.

Apple is very serious about making sure people like Mr. Zhang don’t publicize Apple’s secret technology and future product plans. The evidence will show that Apple takes extensive efforts to protect its trade secrets.

Before starting, corporate employees must sign an Intellectual Property Agreement that prohibits any unauthorized use or transmission of Apple’s intellectual property. Apple provides employees annual training on the importance of protecting its confidential information. Mr. Zhang signed one of these agreements and attended the annual training, so he was fully aware of his obligations to protect Apple’s intellectual property.

Apple was especially serious about protecting the secret technology it was developing in Project Golden Delicious.

Apple had several layers of access control for project information. First, Mr. Zhang had to log in to the company’s virtual private network, which they call the “VPN.” Next, another employee had to grant him disclosure rights for the project.

Then, Apple used an internal software tool to manage requests for project disclosure and maintain a record of all disclosures. For Mr. Zhang to get access to the project, another employee had to “sponsor” him and give a business justification. A manager had to review and approve that request. So, access was strictly on a “need to know” basis.

After granting Mr. Zhang general access to the project, Apple then gave him even higher access to the secret project database. He worked on the project for about a year and a half, learning about Apple’s secret autonomous vehicle technology the whole time.

This was a huge privilege for Mr. Zhang. Just imagine having the keys to the vault where you could find top-secret technology for the most cutting-edge industry in the world.

But what did Mr. Zhang do with this privilege? The evidence will show that he betrayed Apple. And he did not act alone.

Sometime prior to April 2018, Mr. Zhang got in touch with Xpeng Motors. We don’t know exactly when or where, because Mr. Zhang pled the Fifth.

MR. CROCKETT: Objection! Your Honor, may we approach? [bench conference ensues with animated body language]

MS. CUNNINGHAM: As I was saying, we know Mr. Zhang got in touch with Xpeng Motors at some time before April 2018. You see, Mr. Zhang took advantage of Apple’s generous paternity leave policy from April 1 to April 28, 2018. While on paternity leave, he traveled to China. Funny thing is, that’s where Xpeng Motors has its headquarters.

Then on April 30, 2018, shortly after returning from China, Mr. Zhang suddenly announced—these announcements are always “sudden”—that he was moving back to China to be with his mother who was in poor health. Oh, and one more thing. He told his immediate supervisor at Apple he was going to work for Xpeng Motors.

You can imagine the alarm bells this set off at Apple. Mr. Zhang’s supervisor called in Apple’s New Product Security Division, who met with Mr. Zhang and took custody of his two iPhones and his MacBook laptop. Apple then immediately disabled his access to Apple’s network and offices.

Apple did a forensic analysis of Mr. Zhang’s devices, and guess what they found? Just days before Mr. Zhang announced he was leaving, his Apple network activity increased exponentially. It included both bulk searches of the secret project database and targeted downloading of specific files.

These files included technical documents on Apple prototypes and prototype requirements, such as power requirements, low voltage requirements, battery system, and drivetrain suspension mounts. You will hear Apple’s expert witness testify that these secret technical documents would have great independent economic value for a competitor in the self-driving car field.

But that’s not all. You will see security camera video showing Mr. Zhang on Apple’s campus at 9:14 p.m. on the evening of Saturday, April 28, 2018. You’ll see him enter Apple’s autonomous vehicle software and hardware labs and leave the building less than an hour later carrying a computer keyboard, some cables, and a large box.

Was he just working late, burning the midnight oil? Keep in mind he was on paternity leave at this time, and he announced his resignation just two days later. The evidence will make it pretty obvious what he was doing.

But don’t take my word for it. You will hear testimony that Mr. Zhang was interviewed both by Apple security and the FBI. And he admitted it. He admitted pursuing employment with Xpeng Motors while still employed by Apple. After initially denying it, he admitted he was on the Apple campus on April 28. He admitted taking online data from the secret project database while on paternity leave.

It gets worse. Mr. Zhang admitted “air-dropping” the data he took from Apple’s system on to his wife’s laptop computer. When Apple examined that computer, it found that a folder titled “RECENT” contained 40 Gigabytes worth of data, and the laptop’s system event logs reflected “Air Drop” activity on April 29 and 30. And 60 percent of the data on the computer came from Apple.

One of the files Mr. Zhang put on his wife’s laptop was especially important. We call it the “X-File.” The X-File contained top-secret electrical schematics for one of the circuit boards Apple was developing for the project.

Now, why do you think Mr. Zhang was doing all this? Was he going to use all this secret technology by himself? That doesn’t make any sense.

The evidence will show that immediately after leaving Apple, Mr. Zhang went to work for Xpeng Motors at its headquarters in Palo Alto. Then on July 7, he bought a last-minute round-trip ticket to China. And he might have gotten away with it too, if FBI agents hadn’t arrested him just after he got through the security checkpoint at Terminal B.

After you hear all the evidence, the inescapable conclusion will be that Mr. Zhang was working with Xpeng Motors to take Apple’s secret technology.

And that’s cheating. Thank you.

THE COURT: Thank you, Mr. Cunningham. Mr. Crockett, are you ready to proceed? . . . Mr. Crockett?

MR. CROCKETT: Oh, sorry. Yes, Your Honor.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I’m impressed. That was quite an opening by Ms. Cunningham. I don’t know if I can compete with that. I mean, I didn’t go to Harvard like she did. I’m just an old trial lawyer.

But I tell you what. These old hearing aids still work pretty good, and I was using them while Ms. Cunningham was talkin’. And it’s not what I heard that’s important, it’s what I didn’t hear.

Let me give y’all an example. I didn’t hear her say anything about having any evidence that Xpeng Motors was in cahoots with Mr. Zhang when he did all that sneaky stuff during his paternity leave. Did you hear her say anything about any evidence that anybody at Xpeng Motors put Mr. Zhang up to it? I didn’t.

You know what else I didn’t hear? I didn’t hear anything about any evidence that Mr. Zhang ever—ever—gave any of those top-secret Apple documents to anyone at Xpeng Motors.

Now, when we get to the end of this trial, you’re going to get some papers from the judge that we call a charge. And that charge is going to have a lot of complicated instructions about stuff like “misappropriation.”

Now, back when I was flying helicopters in Vietnam, we didn’t use a lot of fancy words like “misappropriation,” but I know what stealing is. And that’s basically what misappropriation means: stealing. And I’ll make you a bet. I bet during this whole trial you won’t hear any evidence that my client, Xpeng Motors, stole anything from Apple.

You know what else you’re not going to hear? I’ll bet you dollars to donuts you won’t hear any evidence that Apple lost any money because of anything Xpeng Motors did. Now they’ve got this man with a Ph.D who’s going to come in and say there’s no way Xpeng could have developed its self-driving car technology without Apple’s schematics. So when they don’t have any real evidence, they’re going to rely on some professor getting paid $750 an hour. Well, we have a saying back in Texas where I grew up: that dog won’t hunt.

Now, I’ll level with you on something. You’re going to see some internal emails from Xpeng Motors talking about how they’re going to make their self-driving car technology more like Apple’s and beat Apple at its own game. But that’s not stealing, that’s competition. That’s the American way. If you can build a better mouse trap, you get the cheese.

Or the apple. [wink]

THE COURT: Thank you, Mr. Crockett. Ms. Cunningham, call your first witness.

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Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC.  

He made up the names “Project Golden Delicious” and “X-File,” and the stuff about what Xpeng Motors did. The rest of the facts are taken from press reports and the FBI agent affidavit attached to the Criminal Complaint in U.S. v. Xiaolang Zhang, No. CR-18-70919, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.