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For a relief pitcher, it’s protecting a one-run lead with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning. For a general counsel, it may be discovering that an employee hired away from the competition has just returned to his old company and may have taken your trade secrets with him. William Black found himself in such a predicament last year. Black works for the huge international aerospace defense contractor Thales S.A. He’s the general counsel for Thales Avionics Inflight Systems in Irvine, Calif., which manufactures in-flight entertainment equipment. Black’s problem began on June 5, 2001, when his company was about to roll out a product that promised airline passengers music, Internet access, on-demand movies and television. What grabbed Black’s attention that day was the abrupt departure of Calvin Fang, an engineer who had only been hired a week earlier. His previous employer was Rockwell Collins Inc., one of two companies that together control about 90 percent of the in-flight entertainment market. SURPRISE DEPARTURE Fang hadn’t told anyone he was leaving. He e-mailed his resignation after the rest of his department left for the night. Black talked to Fang’s supervisors and co-workers. The engineer had seemed to be adjusting well. No one had a clue. But it wasn’t the mystery that bothered Black. The second-year GC knew that Fang had access to the technical engineering library through the company’s computer network, and he’d been familiarizing himself with the new product line. Within 30 minutes of learning Fang was gone, Black called the company’s information technology department and had them quarantine Fang’s computer. “I knew he’d had access to our engineering department,” Black said, “and if something was amiss, there would be evidence on his computer. And I wanted to be sure we had a good chain of custody.” Black quickly launched an investigation. His information technology staff reviewed Fang’s e-mail on the network server and discovered that, on June 4, Fang had downloaded the engineering specifications of the new product and e-mailed them to his Yahoo account. He’d also exchanged e-mail with former colleagues at Rockwell. The download and these e-mails were the only documents Fang had deleted from his computer. As the importance of the case became clear, Black called Brian Ashe, a litigation partner in the San Francisco office of Chicago’s Seyfarth Shaw. Ashe, with whom he’d worked many times, recommended an expert to examine Fang’s computer. The expert confirmed what the information technology staff had uncovered. But what could they do about it? Plenty, as it turned out. They filed in Orange County, Calif., Superior Court an ex parte application for a temporary restraining order, to prevent Fang from using the information, and for a writ of possession to seize Fang’s computers. Both were granted. Within days, Thales sued Fang for breach of contract, misappropriation of trade secrets and fraud. Based on information obtained during discovery, the complaint was amended to include Rockwell and its management team. A trial is scheduled in December. Fang and Rockwell declined to comment. To Black, the case illustrates the importance of literally looking for trouble. “Don’t wait for employees to bring things to you,” he said, “or you’ll find out there’s a problem weeks or months later — too late to do anything about it.” A busy GC can be tempted not to bother investigating such a seemingly small matter as an unexplained resignation, Ashe added. But in this case, he said, that could have spelled disaster.

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