Last week’s season finale of AMC’s critically acclaimed series "Mad Men" shows a prime example of how to get involved in big time litigation when leaving a former employer to start-up a competing enterprise or work for a competitor. Mad Men is a made for cable series set in the 1960’s about a Madison Avenue advertising firm.
In the season finale, Don Draper, Roger Sterling and Bert Cooper learn that their New York subsidiary of a London-based advertising firm ("PPL") is being sold to a competitor. Shackled by noncompetition agreements they signed when their firm was purchased by the London firm and intent on not working for their competition, they evaluate their options.
The solution –conspire with the office manager (a long-time PPL employee who will be cast aside following the sale) to terminate their contracts (fire them) in return for a partnership interest in the new venture. To ensure that their plans are not discovered, the office manager strategically waits to advise PPL’s home office of the terminations until the close of business Friday afternoon thereby ensuring that PPL will not learn of the change until Monday morning. Over the course of the weekend, Draper and company loot client files; take account and marketing materials; and go on a wholesale campaign to solicit firm clients to join the new firm. This is the season finale and so we don’t yet know whether the 1960’s London-based company response will be to file lawsuits or do nothing.
In today’s times, I would expect the next season would begin, and end, as follows. The episode opens in a courtroom where Draper, Sterling and Cooper are about to be sentenced for certain criminal offenses. The next scene then flashes back to last season’s finale with Draper and company wheeling out boxes and boxes of information from their old employer; making solicitations to the customers of their old firm; and competing fiercely for new business. Lawyers are engaged; lawsuits are filed. Draper and company are slapped with injunctions that prohibit them from calling on or doing business with old firm clients and from using the confidential, proprietary information that was misappropriated from the old employer. Next, a grand jury is summoned by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Our heroes are indicted for theft of trade secrets and a whole host of other misconduct. Draper files for bankruptcy since his resources are drained by being a partner in an advertising firm that is enjoined from working with clients –not to mention the divorce from his lovely wife Betty. Finally, our Mad Men plead guilty to criminal offenses and are sentenced to moderately lengthy prison sentences. Next season’s opener ends up being the series finale because the protagonists misappropriated and used information that belonged to their old employer.
What this episode of "Mad Men" teaches is that if one is going to leave an employer and either work for a competitor or start a competing venture; don’t do it like the Mad Men. Departing employees should 1) honor reasonable and enforceable contractual agreements regarding competition and nondisclosure of confidential information; 2) not take or use anything from the former employer; and 3) compete fairly.