As

Goldman Sachs

(GS) - Get Report

seeks direction amid a changed landscape for the former investment banks, the company's most important challenge is to hang onto its culture and its people.

Goldman's success rests largely on its brand, which has been enhanced in recent years by a flurry of executives -- including Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine -- who have found their way into influential government positions. While it makes the firm subject to some wacky conspiracy theories, it doesn't stop top companies from utilizing its services.

But with

Goldman

expected to report its first quarterly loss later this month and its business model under attack, smaller investment banks, such as

Centerview Partners

,

Lazard

(LAZ) - Get Report

and

Evercore

(EVR) - Get Report

hope to poach some of Goldman's top dealmakers.

One headhunter, who says he is working for a couple of the more prestigious smaller investment banks, says he believes some of Goldman's top M&A bankers are poachable for the first time in many years. If he is right -- and brand-name bankers like Jack Levy and Warren Buffett favorite Byron Trott were to leave -- that could cause some of Goldman's other lesser-known stars to consider a move. A string of such defections, coupled with Goldman's badly beaten-down share price, would likely spell disaster for the firm. Calls to Levy and Trott were not returned.

Brad Hintz, analyst at Sanford Bernstein, believes Goldman could weather any potential defections. "You really just don't see investment banking market share shift around very rapidly," he argues.

Hintz is more concerned about Goldman's claims that it can continue to make money in the same way it has done for the past several years. For example, the firm's use of leverage will have to come down further under pressure from regulators, and a difficult environment for hedge funds will hurt revenues in the firm's prime brokerage business, which provides capital and services to hedge funds.

Goldman's major rival,

Morgan Stanley

(MS) - Get Report

seems to acknowledge that the world has changed, and is working much harder to turn itself into a diversified company like

JPMorgan Chase

(JPM) - Get Report

,

Citigroup

(C) - Get Report

or

Bank of America

(BAC) - Get Report

, which do business with both large companies and retail clients.

Goldman, on the other hand, has been saying that its business model is largely unchanged. Hintz doesn't believe the firm's statements.

"On one side of its mouth Goldman is saying everything can remain the same, but the areas they point to for growth are noncapital-intensive businesses -- which is a logical move if you're worried about declining trading revenues," Hintz says. "My guess is they're trying to be coy to maintain confidence in the marketplace."

Because it is a bank holding company with access to funding from the

Federal Reserve

, Goldman Sachs does not appear in danger of running out of money. But it still has to articulate a plan for profitability going forward.

Goldman has always been shy about telling investors how it makes its money -- which wasn't a problem when it was making money. Now analysts are predicting that Goldman will lose money for the first time, so suddenly it matters a lot more, particularly since there is a broad perception in the market that many of the things investment banks did to make money are under attack by both the market and a tough new regulatory environment.

Benjamin Pace, U.S. CIO of Deutsche Bank Private Wealth Management, believes the traditional investment bankers will stick around because their services will be more in demand than ever. It's the traders who he believes will be the most likely to disappear.

"I'm talking about the best and brightest who come out of our engineering schools," Pace says. "They weren't going to work for

Cisco

Systems

(CSCO) - Get Report

and

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

anymore, they were going to work for Goldman Sachs."

But Goldman's genius appears to come from its ability to win advisory assignments through its investment bankers, which gives them access to information and capital its traders can put to work. Without those two things working together, there would appear to be little difference between Goldman and Lazard -- except about $20 billion in market cap.

The gap is still large, but it has narrowed considerably over the last two-and-a-half months.