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While employment lawyers may know little about the technical aspects of e-commerce, they certainly can spot an industry ripe for employment disputes when they see one. And the dot-com companies, many Connecticut labor-law specialists maintain, harbor all the combustibles to produce a tinderbox of litigation. “It’s one of the real substantial opportunities that’s out there for employment lawyers right now,” declared Glenn W. Dowd, chairman of Day, Berry & Howard’s employment and employee benefits practice group. More than a breeding ground for sexual harassment and discrimination complaints, dot-coms pose a potential explosion of hard-fought stock-option disputes, and battles over overtime pay for highly skilled, highly paid employees and consultants, many lawyers contend. Still, some attorneys are skeptical of overly high predictions when it comes to the amount of employment work Internet start-ups are likely to generate for in-state firms. “There are two Connecticuts,” professed Brian Clemow, head of Hartford-based Shipman & Goodwin’s labor department. “There’s Fairfield County, and there’s everyone else.” And though downstate may be fertile ground for e-commence ventures, the growth in dot-com companies hasn’t exactly caught fire in the state’s seven other counties, Clemow said. “I wouldn’t say our marketing approach views dot-coms as the future of the employment world. It is just one element of that marketplace,” he added. PRECAUTIONARY MEASURES Day, Berry, however, is already cashing in on a demand by Internet start-ups for pre-packaged employment policies, Dowd maintained. In the race to obtain financing and hit the market fast, the task of drafting such guidelines, he explained, often gets pushed to the bottom of fledgling dot-coms’ to-do lists. Day, Berry’s human resources “tool-kits,” Dowd noted, include policies on everything from vacations to sexual-harassment prevention, and can tide new companies over until they get around to composing more comprehensive employee handbooks. At the very least, they are an effective affirmative defense should an employee bring a sexual harassment or discrimination suit, he said. So far, over 20 dot-coms in Connecticut and Massachusetts have taken Day, Berry up on the offer, according to Dowd. Milford, Conn.’s Berchem, Moses & Devlin, meanwhile, has dot-coms’ increasing fondness for non-compete and confidentiality provisions to thank for a growing amount of business, said partner Kenneth R. Plumb. “Everybody is really raiding each other to [get] the best available people,” Plumb said of the dot-com community. As a result, not a week goes by, according to Plumb, when Berchem, Moses lawyers aren’t either drafting a non-compete covenant or reviewing one that a client jumping to a new Internet company is about to sign. Often the receipt of stock options is contingent upon a new hire’s agreement to the terms, he said. And, many employees, he added, sign them with the mistaken assumption that non-compete clauses are universally unenforceable. Disputes, Plumb predicted, are inevitable. HIGH-RISK BEHAVIOR With dot-com executives pinning their futures on the hopes of scoring millions when their companies go public, high-stakes litigation has already erupted over unfulfilled stock-option dreams. Dowd, himself, is defending three such companies against covenant-of-good-faith-and-fair-dealing claims brought by former employees who were terminated before their stock options vested, he said. Two of the cases involve stock options worth more than $1 million, Dowd noted. Dot-coms also are more susceptible than most businesses to discrimination and sexual harassment suits, several employment attorneys claim. “What I’m finding is a propensity to be careless,” acknowledged Mary C. Dollarhide, of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker’s Stamford, Conn., office. Dollarhide said she turned away one such client who shunned her advice to conduct a background check on a candidate for the job of chief technology director. So in demand are talented technology professionals, she said, that dot-coms often don’t want to throw a monkey wrench into the hiring process with lengthy screenings. Increasingly, e-commerce clients even question the necessity of employment applications, according to labor-law specialist Wendi J. Kemp, of Cummings & Lockwood’s Hartford office. “It’s one more piece of paper they have to ask people to fill out. That’s the culture you’re dealing with,” Kemp said. And, in an effort to reinvent the workplace and make it free from traditional rules, the often young founders of Internet enterprises, said Kemp and her colleagues, tend to view employee handbooks as “old school.” But that anti-corporate environment is what makes them vulnerable to litigation, she proclaimed. Coupled with that mentality are the long hours and frequently close quarters in which twenty-something Internet hotshots typically find themselves working while their companies are trying to establish themselves. Dating among co-workers, maintained Susan K. Krell, of Jackson, Lewis, Schnitzler & Krupman’s Hartford office, is rampant because they have so little time in which to develop a social life outside of the office. For the moment, the number of sexual harassment suits brought against dot-coms, according to Kemp, remains relatively low because their employees are hot commodities and usually have no problem finding better opportunities. But “when the bottom falls out and there are no jobs, that’s when you’re really going to see the claims come out,” she predicted. THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS A flood of age-discrimination claims is another likely fallout, said plaintiff employment lawyer Gary E. Phelan, of Garrison Phelan Levin-Epstein Chimes & Richardson. “You’re talking about an industry where CEOs are 32 years old,” said Phelan. Though he won’t name the company, Phelan is representing a 50-year-old former employee of a dot-com business in Connecticut whose ex-boss told her to get in touch with today’s workplace by watching the quirky television drama “Ally McBeal.” The advice came within days after management found out she was a grandmother, according to Phelan. Still, not all lawyers foresee e-commerce as an industry more at risk for employment squabbles than any other workplace. Shipman & Goodwin’s Clemow said that, in his experience, dot-commers make their own opportunities, and are less likely than most employees to bring suit when job troubles arise. “They understand that life may not be rosy. And, if it isn’t, they chalk it up to experience and move on,” he maintained.

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