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Julie Brush Julie Brush.

The Question: I want to hire a superstar lawyer I managed at my last company, but I am worried that poaching her will burn bridges with my former employer. What should I do?

Good people are very hard to find. So when you have a positive experience working with and managing a superstar lawyer, your desire to recruit that person to your new team is understandable. But when it comes to poaching a valued employee from a former employer, you must tread lightly—as you run the risk of drawing ire from your former boss and colleagues. And such a move can jeopardize relationships and taint your reputation. Two things that should be carefully preserved in this microscopic legal and business world in which we all reside.

So does this mean you should stay clear of hiring this A Player? Not necessarily. But it is important to determine whether poaching this lawyer is worth the potential relationship fallout. In order to do this, consider the following:

  • Do You Have a Legal Obligation? This is cut and dry. If your employment contract or separation agreement states that you must not solicit any current employees, moving forward is a no-go.
  • Strength of The Relationship With Your Former Employer. The strength and quality of these professional relationships falls on a wide spectrum. The stronger they are, the more compelling a hands off approach may be. But even if you’re not peas and carrots with your former execs, the consequences of poaching a former employee can still damage your reputation and a career. It’s clear from your question that there is some kind of meaningful relationship that is creating your worry about the issue. So assess this factor carefully.
  • How Critical is This Lawyer To Your Former Employer. A key lawyer’s departure will have a material impact on the legal department … and organization. And the more critical s/he is, the more ire you may create.
  • How Powerful are Your Former Colleagues. Are they Goliaths in the legal and/or business world? Are they uber connected and influential? Are they willing to wield that influence to take you down or taint your reputation? Measure their power and pick your battles.
  • Your Former Employer’s Reaction To Your Poaching. No one is happy when you take their “people”, but reactions vary. So assess his/her personality type, the anticipated reaction and the likelihood the former exec will retaliate.
  • Your Needs and Duty To Your Current Employer. It’s also important to take into account your own needs and the duty to your current employer to build the best legal team possible to protect the company. How important is this hire to fulfilling these needs? Are there plenty fish in the sea or is this person a must-have?
  • Did S/he Contact You? This may make a difference … or it may not depending on the circumstances. But if your former colleague has reached out to you directly, it likely indicates that s/he is loose in the saddle and will leave for greener pastures regardless of your decision to engage. This circumstance can make it easier if you’re required to explain your actions—as the decision was prompted by them as opposed to you.

After assessing the above, you may determine that it’s too risky a path to take – and elect to pursue alternative measures like conducting a search and considering other candidates. If this lawyer has approached you and you elect not to engage, be honest about the challenges facing his/her candidacy and move on. But if you elect to press forward…and your recruiting efforts succeed in landing your superstar, I recommend that you extend your former colleagues the professional courtesy of a phone call (email is a distant second) to notify them of the situation, address any issues and create closure. This will maximize your ability to preserve your relationships and mitigate bad feelings. Might it be uncomfortable? Yes. Might it be hard? Yep. Might there be conflict? Uh huh. Regardless, being direct and open is the professional … and right thing to do. And you’ll feel better about yourself for doing so. If you have anxiety, prepare for your call and any questions, complaints or barbs that might come your way and you’ll feel more confident going into the conversation.

It’s a dog eat dog world out there—and competition for the best talent remains stiff. So picking off your former superstar employee is an easy way to build your world-class team. It’s a tempting proposition, no doubt. But before you act, pause … and consider the issues that should influence your decision and your conduct in the process. By doing so thoughtfully, you will determine for yourself whether tis nobler to poach … or not.

Julie Brush is the founder and author of The Lawyer Whisperer (www.thelawyerwhisperer.com), a career advice column for legal professionals, also found on LinkedIn. She is co-founder of Solutus Legal Search, a legal search/consulting boutique firm, serving as a strategic adviser to lawyers, law firms and corporations.

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