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By: Jamie Collins

This post is directed to all of the attorneys who read our blog. (We know you’re out there.) I am a voice of one, speaking out across the internet waves to share a message on behalf of thousands who stand beside me in spirit and collegiality. 

Virtually chatting with paralegals from all across the country has its advantages. It allows us to bring a variety of pertinent topics to the forefront of this blog. Today’s topic is an interesting and important one we have not seen featured elsewhere – “paralegal poaching.”

Candidly, I will admit I was approached with five potential employment opportunities over the past year, when I was not even looking for an opportunity. Granted, maintaining a high profile probably has a lot to do with that. I’m sure there are plenty of moments when my boss would love nothing more than to shove me into an empty broom closet lined with pleadings and a PC, somewhere into obscurity (preferably with a box of Godiva chocolates or a margarita) to keep me out of the virtual “poaching” spotlight. But that’s part of what inspired today’s post – my own experience, coupled with chats I’ve had with other folks, who (like me), are also not looking for a new job, but are often approached.

When pondering the employment demographic, I believed there to be three basic categories of paralegals: the newbies/recent graduates; those with 3-7 years experience; and the senior paralegals. However, it has become apparent to me over the past year that there is actually a fourth subclass emerging from the paralegal ashes; the most sought after category of all – the top shelf talent. Those individuals who arrive at law firms backed with stellar reputations and exceptional professional references; they are the legal equivalent of unicorns. Yes, unicorns. People sometimes hear about them, some believe them to exist, but rarely glimpse one in the poised, designer-suited, high-heeled flesh.

I’m here to tell you they do exist.

What they do in those black Tahari pantsuits changes the lives of clients, fills the bank accounts of esquires with a lot of cash, and helps to solidify a firm’s reputation within the community. They are the “fixers,” the “finders” the “legal tactical assault ninjas,” and could-be-(attorney)-career-makers. Yes, indeed. They are a bright spot on the legal landscape. You call, they haul. When time is low and stress is high, they’re the ones you’d bet your money (and more importantly, your career) on. They are the hustlers, the wranglers, the type of paralegal a boss swears could single-handedly invert a skyscraper…if given a spatula, a roll of duct tape, a verbal deadline, and an hour. They are in high demand.

I share this as a major wake up call to every attorney thinking life as he knows it with “the best paralegal he’s ever had” is safe, and not bound for imminent, brutal change. With only a select pool of candidates to draw from, regardless of one’s locale, it is only logical that firms are fighting over the top shelf talent in any given area. Over the heap of resumes and hope-deflating interviews conducted at random, they vie for candidates personally know to them, those they have worked alongside in the past, the ones colleagues speak of in glowing terms, and those coveted souls known through legal circles as the “unicorns” described above.

This is where “the paralegal poacher” enters. This is another firm in town, any firm, that may be interested in your paralegal. In short, they want what you have. They will court her, and woo her with anything and everything – you name it. More money? Tis done. More vacation time? She’s got it. Once a paralegal poacher has your paralegal in his sights, there is no telling what he’ll offer her to get her to walk out of your law firm doors en route to a new opportunity. That paper-spinning, sanity-saving goddess may wave goodbye to you — and helloooo to that offer. The three most dangerous words another attorney could utter to your paralegal?

“Are you happy?”

It is an easy question to lay the groundwork for shaking your entire legal existence, as you know it, to the core. While most top shelf paralegals are a fiercely loyal breed, that is an open-ended question to which you may not like the answer. One which compels a paralegal to search her soul and consider her options. This scenario will typically play out in one of three ways:

Are you happy?

Yes, I love my job, but thank you for approaching me with the opportunity. (The few, the safe, the un-poachable).

Are you happy?

Yes. But I’d like to hear more about the opportunity. (There is potential to be wooed here. She is loyal, but not blind or deaf to opportunities. After all, she is sharp.)

Are you happy?

No. (If you are this paralegal’s boss, you should be scared – very scared. She is out the door. She’s running. She just lost a heel and is still charging. Go ahead and clear your calendar for that “notice” meeting.)

With the end of the year quickly approaching – every attorney on the planet needs to stop and ask himself (truly) if he has done what he could do to make his paralegal happy this year. Did you instill confidence in your paralegal that she is still the best you’ve worked alongside? Did you reward her exemplary efforts when it was warranted this year? Did you invest in her as a person/employee by offering small perks to let her know her value in your eyes? Every attorney wanting to maintain his/her top talent needs to stop and ask these questions. If the answer to any of them was not in the affirmative, you’ve got some work to do.

Here are some suggestions to keep your top shelf talent from departing through those law firm doors:

Tell her what you think of her (and her role within your firm) in a more creative and descriptive way. I am pretty sure most of you are probably routinely saying things like “good job” or “thanks for handling that for me.” Not only are the words you select important, but so is the tone. Telling someone “great job” doesn’t go nearly as far as, “you are the best paralegal I’ve ever had” or “the way you handled that project was nothing short of exceptional.” Extra words? Sure. But it will make her feel confident that she is doing a good job and you are pleased with her.

Avoid using an overly-casual or joking tone when you say really nice things to her; it erodes the meaning. Do not allow the significance of the compliment to be lost in the delivery.

Invest in your paralegal. I know, I know, you already provide what you told her you would when you hired her. I hear you. She agreed to the offer and continues to work alongside you. However, there are some small things you can do to earn favor in the eyes of your paralegal.

Consider the following:

  • Pay her association membership dues. That $60-110 makes her feel like you support her professional endeavors and personal growth. As an added perk, those networking events she attends will put your firm’s name out into the community. She may even emerge as a local “mover and shaker,” putting your firm name prominently out there among your peers.
  • Order her a subscription to a paralegal magazine. KNOW: The Magazine for Paralegals and Paralegal Today are both great. (I do write for KNOW, so consider me biased, but with good reason.) The cost is nominal, typically $30 or less per year. Surprise her with a subscription and a nice note to accompany it. It’s a cheap way to tell her she matters to you.
  • Offer to pay for webinars or seminars on topics pertinent to your practice.  The $90-300 you invest in a seminar will mean a lot to her. It will tell her you support her professional growth within your law firm. You aren’t afraid of losing her. In fact, you want her to be better. (Check out the Organization of Legal Professionals or Institute for Paralegal Education for offerings. The OLP even offers complimentary webinars each month on a variety of topics.)

Talk with her about her career aspirations and goals. Don’t be threatened by her career ambitions or success – celebrate it. Taking an active interest in your paralegal’s personal/professional growth will actually make her want to stay with you longer. It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s true. No person wants to feel like his or her potential is being squelched by an employer. People are more loyal to those who support their aspirations and do what they can to help them along.

Master the art of the kind and unexpected gesture. Whether it’s a $4 gourmet cupcake, a great book, nice lunch outing, or her favorite drink from Starbucks with a nice note on her desk at an unexpected time, it will elevate her happiness, give her a greater level of satisfaction with her job, and further solidify your working relationship. Do not reserve kind gestures only for holidays. The really smart attorneys will bestow a random act of kindness at least monthly. What’s $4-$15 to keep your top talent? Nothing…almost literally. 

Take the pulse of the law firm. I am sure most attorneys reading this feel confident their top shelf talent is happy – probably 50% (or more) believe that to be true. I am here to tell you that many of you are self-delusional in that belief. The discussions taking place in “unicorn” circles all across the country tell a different story. Let’s assume you are in the 50% that needs to something to better cultivate the relationship with your paralegal and staff.

Besides, even if your firm truly falls within that happy 50%, there is no down side to increasing staff morale and employee satisfaction. If you do not do what you can to proactively make an effort to keep your top talent happy, you may find yourself on the other side of an unfortunate discussion held deskside or across a conference room table involving the words “wasn’t looking, but was approached about another opportunity” at some point in your future.

Some reading this will undoubtedly take the view they can just “make things right” if they ever face losing their top paralegals: the fixers, the finders, the skyscraper inverters of the legal world. In that moment, these short sighted souls will readily become willing to offer that salary bump, promotion, additional vacation days, big bonuses, a better title, and anything and everything they can – you name it. But as they say, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” And once that paralegal poacher has your paralegal in his sights – it’s war, a “paralegal war,” to be precise.

May the best man win.

_____

The healthiest competition occurs when average people win by putting in above average effort. – Colin Powell

Believing that your competition is stronger and better than you pushes you to better yourselves.  – Simon Sinek

Number one, cash is king…number two, communicate…number three, buy or bury the competition. – Jack Welch