Don’t Poach on Me

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.