Lawyer Dennis Chang didn't expect to have a potential client in the Rampart corruption case snatched out from under him.

But when the man alleged that L.A. police officers had beaten him up, it was just more blood in the water for the legal sharks circling the biggest corruption case in LAPD history.

Before Chang could get to the alleged victim, two competing lawyers had flown to his Nevada home and signed him on as a client. Chang, however, wasn't too upset: He had already managed to lure a Rampart client away from the illustrious Johnnie Cochran.

When it comes to Rampart, client-snatching is the order of the day for trial attorneys.

With as much as $1 billion in liability awards at stake, and lawyers in line to collect roughly 40 percent of it, lots of infighting has erupted in the local legal community the likes of which some lawyers say they have never seen.

In one corner is a group of lawyers who have been doggedly fighting police corruption case for years. In the other are relative newcomers to the police abuse arena jumping on the Rampart bandwagon with visions of a quick buck and instant fame.

"You're going to see ambulance chasers here," said Chang. "I've already experienced it."

Although most lawyers won't talk about it on the record, they confide that the smell of money has whipped many members of the L.A. legal community into a competitive fury.

Among the alleged tactics being used to collect plaintiffs are lawyers stealing clients from their own partners, offering cars and cash advances to people whose cases seem like easy wins, and even filing legal motions targeting the behavior of other lawyers in the rush for clients.

"I don't know whether promises are being made, or threats, but people who I'm representing have been approached by other lawyers," said one attorney. "I have never experienced anything like it."

"Lawyers are at each other's throats," added another attorney. "They smell blood in the water and they're going after it aggressively. They think the city won't be able to resist settling."

The hunt for publicity

Along with multimillion-dollar settlements, careers are at stake in the effort to secure clients. If the highest-profile cases go to trial, lawyers can expect to see their names almost every day in the media. In the most sensational cases, national publicity is also a distinct possibility.

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