Steady Under Pressure
Russell Beck excels when business disputes come in “short, fast and hot”
Published in 2019 New England Super Lawyers magazine
on October 16, 2019
Updated on April 16, 2020
Time is typically not on Russell Beck’s side.
As a litigator with nearly 30 years of experience representing corporate and individual clients in complex business matters, Beck is often tasked with putting a case together with blistering speed. Consider one from 2016.
It was the week before Thanksgiving when the Boston-based Beck Reed Riden got a call from a large retail company that had just experienced a defection of more than 20 employees leaving to a competitor, potentially violating noncompete restrictions in the retailer’s employee contracts. Beck’s job: to assemble a team of lawyers and construct a legal strategy and briefings that would serve as an argument for why the former employees were in violation of the law.
No simple task. It involved traveling to the retailer’s affected location, conducting interviews with nearly a dozen potential witnesses, assembling forensic evidence and testimony about the exiting employees’ actions before they left, gathering swift but extensive knowledge of the retailer’s specific market, meeting with several out-of-state attorneys to learn that state’s local practices and procedures, and, finally, creating a succinct narrative that Beck and his team could then bring before a judge to secure a temporary injunction.
And it had to be done in a few weeks.
“These things move very quickly and emotions are very high, because when a company comes to us in a case like this they’re usually quite upset, worried about trade secrets going to a competitor, and maybe even feeling betrayed,” says Beck. “And that’s why I always try to be very practical and reasonable, both with the client and the opposing counsel. I try to make the dispute about the dispute, not the about the emotions of the parties involved.”
Like more than 90 percent of the matters Beck handles, the case was resolved before trial.
“That case, like so many others,” recalls Stephen Riden, a founding partner of Beck Reed Riden, “required Russell to quarterback a team of attorneys, associates, and paralegals who then had to work together in a very high-pressure situation, and Russell is just excellent at inspiring those people to do their best work during long days and nights under the most difficult circumstances.
“And after all the hard work Russell puts in, you see him make a mini trial presentation before the judge and it’s like watching a duck cross a pond. It moves very smoothly and deliberately, but below the water its feet are paddling like mad,” adds Riden. “This is not the kind of work where you get years to learn about the specifics of a dispute. It’s short, fast, and hot. And that’s where Russell thrives—high-pressure situations where people are steaming mad.”
Beck grew up in a small town on Long Island’s south shore but was soon looking to Boston.
“I was the product of an overprotective mother and hadn’t really spent time off Long Island,” recalls Beck with a chuckle. “But my older brother was a student at Tufts University, so I visited him there when I was in high school and I thought that was just the most incredible experience possible.”
So Beck attended Tufts as well, earning a degree in computer science. In the summer of 1985, before his senior year, Beck was boating at Lake Winnipesaukee with a friend bound for law school.
“The more he described law school, the more I thought it sounded incredibly interesting,” says Beck. “I was really fascinated by the whole judicial system as a framework for relationships among people, as well as the role lawyers play in helping people navigate those challenges.”
At Boston University School of Law, litigation struck him, he says “as the area of the law that seemed to have the most substance, strategy, and procedure.”
At Simpson Thacher & Bartlett in New York City, he got his first taste of business litigation.
“I was always more interested in commercial disputes than I was in criminal litigation, where the risks were just too high for both defendants and victims,” says Beck. “But business litigation was a way to help people without also knowing that someone’s liberty hung in the balance.”
During his three years at Simpson Thacher, Beck says he “learned to think about the issues from a truly strategic standpoint for the first time, which was invaluable as my career developed.”
By then, Beck had married his wife Jill, and the two were anxious to return to Boston, her home city. It took longer than expected. For four years, Beck was an associate at Reynolds Rappaport & Kaplan on Martha’s Vineyard, where the majority of his work was real estate litigation and land use litigation.
It wasn’t until 1994 that Beck, Jill and their sons Tyler and Jake—“Without her and the boys, none of what I’ve been lucky enough to accomplish would have been possible,” Beck says—returned to Boston, where he began work at Epstein Becker & Green, which became Foley & Lardner a decade later. It was the early days of the commercialized internet, and Beck’s background in computer science was coming into play.
At one point, he represented a tech company that had developed a software product and website allowing users to access stock information in something close to real time. “There was absolutely nothing else like it at the time,” says Beck.
Two of the company’s employees had left suddenly and simultaneously. One was the head software coder, the other the head of sales. They started their own business, and, within a short period of time, had a competitive website up and running.
Even though these former employees hadn’t been bound by noncompete restrictions, Beck’s firm sued for illegally using trade secrets and stolen information to start their own competing enterprise. Beck took the deposition of the software engineer and embarked on a deep dive into his code.
“I went through a number of subroutines in the code he’d written and read one of them out loud into the record. And the name of the code was ‘Stolen Code,’” Beck recalls with a laugh. “I was surprised to find that, but I’m sure he was even more surprised to find a lawyer diving into the specifics of his coding.” The case was settled favorably for Beck’s client.
Beck’s technological aptitude remains a critical component in successfully representing many of his clients, especially as it’s become easier for employees to abscond with privileged information in innovative ways.
“This isn’t like the days when people would just stuff a bunch of documents into a briefcase,” says Hannah Joseph, a business and intellectual property litigator at Beck Reed Riden, who works closely with Beck. “They’re using email, thumb drives, cloud services, you name it. And with Russell’s computer science background he’s able to quickly grasp complex digital forensics to determine when and how someone might have stolen valuable information. It’s one of the many things that makes him so excellent at what he does.”
Since starting his own firm in 2010 with Riden and Stephen Reed, Beck’s expertise on trade-secret and noncompete matters has ascended to the national stage, where he’s frequently called upon to advise on legislation and policy issues. Even by the White House.
In 2016, the Obama administration and Treasury Department each released reports that found widespread abuse of noncompete agreements across a wide array of business sectors. As a follow up, the White House formed a working group of more than 30 noncompete experts. Beck was the only private attorney
Prior to that, Beck helped draft a bill for the Massachusetts legislature concerning the use of noncompetes in his home state. He’d also compiled a first-of-its-kind survey in 2010 detailing the nuances of noncompete laws in all 50 states, which became foundational to both the White House and Treasury Department noncompete reports.
“What’s the real problem with non-competes? What’s the proper balance to strike? And how do we eliminate the abuses? It was very satisfying to see that the [White House] was really trying to get the right result,” says Beck. “I never offered my opinion on what the right answer was. I was not elected. It’s not my role to decide what should be the case. My role was to answer questions and facilitate conversation about what the consequences—intended or unintended—of non-compete legislation might be.”
“Russell’s a little uncomfortable being called a leading national expert in this area, but that’s precisely what he is,” says Riden. “When he went to the White House he understood the importance of his role there and carried the burden well.”
That expertise is a huge asset when Beck is tackling complex cases under intense time pressure.
“When seeking a preliminary injunction from a judge to enforce a noncompete, time is of the essence, because you need to convince that judge it’s an emergency,” says Reed. “That’s where Russell’s depth of knowledge on trade secrets and noncompetes is second to none. When we get a call from a client at 4:30 on a Friday before the start of a holiday weekend, he’s able to cut through all the noise to find out what’s really at stake and how we need to proceed.”
“He has this ability to zoom in and then zoom all the way out to see the biggest picture possible,” says Beck Reed Riden attorney Nicole Daly. “And he’s just so even-keeled. We can have 48 hours of work to get done in 12 hours, but he’s calmly steering the boat and making it all happen.”
Beck applies the same perspective to the cases that have defined his career. “These academic issues take on a sudden crucial importance with little or no warning,” he says. “Whether our client is an individual or Fortune 500 company, when these interests collide, the cases can be life- or business-altering. They are extremely important to them, and therefore to me. Working with them to find the right path through these often complicated issues is extremely rewarding.”
Standing Up to a Noncompete Bully
Although Beck typically works with businesses to enforce or defend complex noncompetes, he occasionally represents workers who are being targeted after leaving a job.
A few years ago, a young man approached Beck with a problem. He’d worked in retail sales, earning a little more than minimum wage. During his first day on the job, his employer presented him with a stack of documents that needed to be signed. The young man, who is dyslexic, asked if he could take the documents home for review, but the employer said there was nothing he needed to be concerned about, so he signed them. A few years later, he was surprised when the company’s lawyer sent him a cease-and-desist letter telling him his new job at a competitor was in violation of his noncompete and that he’d be sued.
“This young man couldn’t afford a lawyer, and it’s the only time I can recall ever responding to a cease-and-desist letter saying that if they decided to pursue this, I would file a request for sanctions on them,” says Beck. “This guy had no trade secrets, no client relationships, nothing. This was a complete abuse of the process. But the other side clearly felt like they could bully him because he had no resources. Long story short, I never heard from them again, and this young man went on with his life and career.”