Microsoft's lawyers argued yesterday that former executive Kai-Fu Lee left the company with the full intention of doing the same kind of...
Microsoft’s lawyers argued yesterday that former executive Kai-Fu Lee left the company with the full intention of doing the same kind of work for Google.
Lee is free to take a job at Google, they said, just not in the areas he worked in at Microsoft.
Google’s lawyers argued Lee was hired mainly to recruit graduating students and foster relations with the government and universities in China. He should be allowed to do so, they said, because it has been at least five years since he recruited anyone to work for Microsoft’s research facilities.
The lawyers’ arguments came in King County Superior Court over whether Lee, who left Microsoft in July, should be blocked from doing the job he was hired for at Google until a January trial takes place.
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Microsoft has sued Google and Lee, citing terms of a noncompete agreement Lee signed in 2000.
After hearing two days of hearings, Superior Court Judge Steven Gonzalez said yesterday he would issue a ruling Tuesday.
Lee had promised Microsoft in 2000 he wouldn’t do work that competed with the company for a year after leaving, said Microsoft lawyer Karl Quackenbush in his closing argument. But Lee lost his objectivity, Quackenbush said, the day he sent an e-mail to Google executives initiating discussions about a new job.
“Dr. Lee was ready, willing and able to do what Google wanted him to do,” Quackenbush said in court. “And that violates his agreement.”
Microsoft’s lawyers displayed a timeline that showed Lee was holding high-level meetings with Microsoft executives during the same period he was negotiating a position at Google.
Lee eventually got an offer from Google that included a $250,000 annual salary, a $2.5 million signing bonus, an additional $1.5 million bonus and tens of thousands of shares of stock. Google also agreed to indemnify and defend Lee against non-competition claims by Microsoft.
Lee was a key adviser to Microsoft on its China strategy and built the company’s Beijing laboratory into one of the most desirable places for new graduates to work, Quackenbush said. He was well-known to Chinese students and university professors, in part because of his Microsoft work.
“He was the public face of Microsoft in this recruiting machinery, and he ought not to be the public face of Google,” Quackenbush said.
Google lawyer John Keker said Lee wasn’t responsible for recruiting in China while at Microsoft. When he quit, he was a Redmond-based vice president for the natural-interactive-services division, which develops technologies for interactions between users and their computers and devices.
Lee had a significant amount of interaction in China before he came to Microsoft, and maintained his relationships while at the company, Keker said. There has been “a total failure of proof” from Microsoft to show that talking to Chinese officials or professors would violate Lee’s noncompetition agreement, Keker added.
Of the 700 to 800 people Microsoft has hired in China in the past five years, only three were interviewed by Lee, and none was recruited by him, Keker said.
In a stipulation agreement filed in the case, Google and Lee promised he would not do any work before the January trial related to search, speech and natural-language technologies. The letter also said Lee would not talk about Microsoft with any Google job candidate, recruit any Microsoft employees to Google or disclose any confidential information about his former employer.
Keker said that an injunction, especially one made unnecessary by the agreement, will injure Lee’s reputation in China and elsewhere.
Microsoft’s lawyers countered those promises are not enough, and asked the judge for an enforceable order that places more restrictions on Lee.
Throughout the hearing, Microsoft lawyers repeatedly questioned Lee’s credibility, trying to paint him as untrustworthy. In court filings, Microsoft said that before Lee left earlier this year for a sabbatical — during which he negotiated his Google job — he told co-workers twice that he was going to return. Yet on one of those occasions, Lee knew he was not going to stay.
In cross-examination by Microsoft lawyer Jeffrey Johnson earlier in the day, Lee said that after accepting the Google job, he had planned to return to Microsoft to help with the transition after his departure.
Gonzalez asked Lee if he thought that answer was misleading. “Do you think that was an honest and complete answer?”
“In my mind that was not a complete answer but an honest answer,” Lee responded.
Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or firstname.lastname@example.org