If you’re leaving a job, you can keep your legal bills down by not taking copies of your former employer’s non-public business information with you.
If you take files, it might not be clear
that you’ve done nothing wrong
You might not have any intention of using the former employer’s information for an improper purpose. You might swear up and down that you never even looked at the copies you took with you — or that you did look at the copies, but not for anything the former employer might object to.
Your former employer might not believe you. In fact, if there’s any bad blood at all between you, your former employer probably won’t believe you.
The mere fact that you took the copies might be deemed evidence of possible wrongdoing. It might be enough evidence to entitle your former employer to a trial.
A case study
For an interesting case study, read the court’s opinion in L-3 Communications Westwood Corp. v. Robichaux, No. 06-279 (E.D. La. Feb. 29, 2008) (granting in part but denying in part defendants’ motion for partial summary judgment).
In the L-3 case, two former employees (a husband and wife) some months before being fired, had backed up the entire contents of their laptops to an external hard disk. They admitted looking at source code on the backup after they were fired. The husband had also provided his father (himself a former employee) with company documents.
All three denied doing anything improper with the information. But the court held that there was sufficient evidence of possible wrongdoing to require a trial. See id., slip op. at 11-12.
Trial preparation legal bills can be killers
Trials are expensive enough for the parties, but trial preparation is what really runs up the legal bills. (The vast majority of cases settle before trial anyway.) During pre-trial prep, the lawyers for both sides will spend a lot of time reviewing documents; interviewing potential witnesses; figuring out how to present it all to the judge and jury; and arguing to the judge about what the jury should be allowed to hear and see.
You probably aren’t keen on spending that kind of money on legal fees. That being the case, you’re usually better off making it a point not to take anything with you that’s even arguably confidential to your former employer.
(It’s another story if the business information is publicly available, but that in itself can be another fight.)
In the L-3 case mentioned above, the three defendants are likely to settle the case, possibly on unfavorable terms. If they don’t settle, their legal bills, for trial preparation and the actual trial, could be devastating.
The lesson: When leaving a job, it’s usually best not to take anything with you that you’re not indisputably entitled to keep.