My Shingle

Don’t Poach on Me

by Carolyn Elefant on April 7, 2011 · 3 comments

in Client Service, Dealing With Clients

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Earlier this week, I dropped a few hundred dollars to attend one day of an industry conference.  I didn’t do it for the CLE.  Rather, I  had to guard against other lawyers poaching my client.  Even with my oversight, at least one consultant made an overt, brazen play for my client as I stood by.

Many lawyers, particularly newbies, shrug aside poaching threats.  Indeed, I did for many years simply because many of my clients were so small that no one else was interested in them.  I was about as far down on the food chain as they could go.  Of course, sometimes after my efforts, they’d attract funding and would hire the VC’s firm.

Even when you do have clients worth picking off, it’s easy to fall into complacency and assume that if you treat clients well and provide exceptional representation, they won’t look elsewhere.  And, sometimes that’s true, since poachers abide the rules of nature and abhor a vacuum. So if you’ve just closed out a matter for a client but haven’t settled definitively on what comes next, poachers may be able to insinuate themselves.  But more often than not, clients are actually most vulnerable to poaching in the midst of a proceeding – perhaps one that drags on and on and the client wants immediate results. At that point, suddenly another lawyer’s grass starts looking a little greener.

The other reason that constant contact isn’t always effective to retain clients is because the playing field isn’t level when it comes to poaching.  Most poachers will promise – nay, even guarantee your client the impossible: lower fees, added expertise and a superior outcome.  You can’t compete with a fantasy lawyer. In my recent situation, I witnessed the poacher making promises for money and results that he could not possibly deliver.  Some clients are loyal but also, they’re in it to win it, and if they feel that the poacher offers that opportunity, they’ll ditch you.

Solos also stand at a particular disadvantage to big-firm poachers. Clients are, after all, human and they’re flattered when they’re courted by the major league-ers. Moreover, many large firms will cut their rates to next to nothing to close the deal. One client of mine was [partly] poached by a big firm (I say partly because management had changed) whose partner, a former government honcho cut her rates to less than mine and I couldn’t match the discount.

Having said that, I’ve really only been poached once or twice over the years.  And for those clients who’ve ditched me, there are many others who’ve not only stuck by me, but also expressed their confidence in my ability to handle their cases.  Karma comforts me also and I’m happy to report that in most cases the ones who got away went under within a year (though truth be told, not due to the fault of the poaching lawyer)

At the end of the day, there’s really no solution to poachers. After all, clients have an unfettered right to choose counsel which is potentially compromised by restricting or sanctioning poachers. So I guess we have no choice but to suck it and realize that just like clients from hell and obnoxious opposing counsel, client-poachers are just another one of those afflictions that come with the territory of solo practice.

I wish that I could share more of my experience because it’s truly a doozy, but given the recent time frame of my encounter, I’m not comfortable doing so right now. So let me turn the tables on you. What’s your most outrageous poaching story.  Rants welcome in the comment section below.

  • Mike Moore

    “Most poachers will promise – nay, even guarantee your client the impossible.” That is so true. A friend with a small technology-focused PR practice faces similar stuff all the time. Poachers – often from larger, big $ firms – approach eager entrepreneurs, hand off a card and craftily wonder aloud “gosh, your product is something Walt Mossberg should be writing about” … when in reality the chances of that happening are virtually nil, or the product itself is so unready that a real “prime time” review would be disastrous. Same for corporate work (“that kind of deal? easy! straightforward!”) or litigators (“this is a slam dunk”). The good news is that the poach rarely works, especially with savvy clients.

  • Oregon lawyer

    This story is the opposite of outrageous, because it has a happy ending. A small part of my practice is foreclosing construction liens. I noticed that a 20-year client had hired another firm to foreclose a construction lien. The principal told me that because construction liens didn’t seem to be a big part of my practice, he was trying them out because they had made a hard-sell pitch to him about how two lawyers there specialized in construction liens, and they had a system in place for prosecuting them efficiently.

    About a year later I asked the client how that worked out. He somewhat bashfully said “It was a complete waste of money; they didn’t know what they were doing. We’re never going anywhere else again, because you care about what’s good for our business and they didn’t.”

  • http://aldredgelaw.com Trip

    Some years ago, I negotiated a record deal with an attorney from a well known California firm which represented the record company. Before the ink was dry on the contract, the attorney was poaching my client. When I called him on the ethics of such activity, asking him how he could represent the label and the artist, his answer was “we do it all the time, we just go out in the hall and argue about it.”

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