OT: If You Want To Know, Ask

Over the years, I’ve heard from people about lousy CLE’s taught by lawyers who demonstrated little level of expertise in the subject they were teaching. I’ve heard about conferences where people no one knows spoke about a subject that conclusively proved they knew the least about it of anyone in the room.  These are issues I’ve written about here as well.

Another frequent occurrence is speakers, with a product or service to sell, end up on the podium to pitch. Often, they are smart enough not to sell directly, but to sell the underlying concept that justifies their product.  Ironically, this has been the methodology used by Avvo in teaching “ethics” CLE’s that conclude that “mixed message” commercial speech is entitled to full First Amendment protections, so they can’t be subject to discipline.

New lawyers are now being cajoled into teaching CLE’s as ways to promote themselves, where before they were relegated to sitting in the audience because the basic rule was learn first, teach later. Not any more.  The explanation is typical juvenile self-absorption, that it’s good for the young lawyers, so who cares about the “senior lawyers” who sit there, listening, watching, scratching their head as to why anyone would force them to go through this.

What isn’t realized by many is that the folks who often speak at CLE’s and conferences actively solicit the opportunity.  Some offer to pay their own way, fly in and pay for their own room and meals, providing a significant savings for the conference organizers who need to put on a show regardless of whether it’s a good show or not. They’ve got a budget, and a speaker who pays his own freight is one less thing to come out of the budget.

Others just beg, plead, prevail upon friends to get a gig that gives them the appearance of credibility. It’s as if the purpose of a CLE is to establish the bona fides of the speaker rather than inform the attendees.  Do a few and the resume begins to look good, regardless of whether there was any useful content offered. It’s astounding how many people claim in their twitter bios that they’re world renown speakers. Everyone is a speaker. No one is a listener anymore. No one will admit to being better suited for the audience than the podium.

I received a call last week from a lawyer who asked not to be named, complaining of a conference he organized for his bar association. He was the organizer, and informed me that his conference stunk. After letting him vent a bit, I asked him what his point was, his purpose in telling me his story. He responded that he wished someone like me would have spoken.

Did you ask me?


Why not?

I didn’t think you would do it, and I already had all these people telling me they wanted to speak.

Then you got what you deserved.

Here’s the deal. I am happy to speak or teach a CLE, provided I am capable of offering something worthwhile. Most lawyers with similar experience will do the same. But we’re not going to ask to speak.  Therein lies a crucial difference. The people who actively solicit speaking engagements have something to sell, whether their product or themselves. They do so for their benefit, not for yours. If that’s what you want, great. But make no mistake about it, the people who have something to offer don’t run around begging to speak. You have to ask them.

And there are some qualifications that go along with this. While I may be happy to do not-for-profit CLE’s and conferences, or speak to law school classes, if you’re running a for-profit CLE or conference, then I expect to be paid for my time.  If you’re making money, me too. If you’re doing it for the benefit of lawyers, then I will be happy to contribute my time.  My expenses, on the other hand, have to be covered.

Unlike the hucksters, I will not go out-of-pocket for the opportunity to speak. I’m there for you, and expect you to pay my flight, hotel and meals.  Anyone who offers to pay his own way is doing so for his own benefit, and is using you as much as you are using him.

As I told the caller, complaining to me afterward is waste of time, both his and mine. There is nothing I can do to help him then.  I asked him why, given that he called me afterward, he didn’t call me beforehand. Even if I was unable to do his conference, I could have offered some advice as to truly competent, qualified speakers on important legal topics.  Ironically, he said he was afraid of “bothering” to ask in advance, but was so upset with what a lousy program he put together, and aware of my criticism of crap CLE’s and conferences, that he was finally motivated to reach out to me.

It’s nuts. If you would like my advice, ask me. I won’t bite your head off.  If you would like me to speak, ask me. The worst that can happen is I say no. And as anyone who has called has found out, I’m pretty good at recommending someone if I’m not the right person.  And I guarantee you that I won’t recommend anyone who will pay their own way so that they can use the speaking opportunity for their own benefit and to the detriment of your conference and other lawyers.

If you’re sick of attending conferences and CLE’s with speakers who are barely capable of carrying your briefcase on the podium, then do something about it. And a special note to lawprofs and law students: With all this talk of “practice ready” education, it’s time to take very seriously bringing in practitioners for the occasional lesson, even if it makes a prawf or two feel woefully inadequate.

There is much to be learned out there for all of us, provided the right people are doing the speaking. The right people exist and, for the most part, are more than happy to contribute to the benefit of the profession. But the right people have to be asked. They do not come begging, and the ones who do are not the people who have anything worthwhile to say.


18 comments on “OT: If You Want To Know, Ask

  1. Sam Glover

    It’s as if the purpose of a CLE is to establish the bona fides of the speaker rather than inform the attendees.

    I think you’re being sarcastic, but having done a brief stint at a legal software startup, I can assure you this is not an “as if.” It is the explicit strategy. It’s the same reason every consultant has a book, these days (a blog used to be enough, but not anymore). Getting the ABA to publish your book makes you look like you know what you’re talking about, even if nobody buys it. So speakers with books are in demand. And because speaking sells books, authors don’t generally need to be paid.

    Maybe along with mandatory CLE requirements should be a requirement that CLE presenters be paid a reasonably-experienced lawyer’s hourly rate. Removing the incentive to get free speakers might drastically improve the quality of CLEs and conferences.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’ve been asked to write a book about a dozen times now. The deal would be a huge money-losing proposition for me, and force me to become my own salesman where the publisher would receive 80-85% of the proceeds. They would pitch me about how a book would make me a very important lawyer, and would establish me as a credible source. I’ve seen others fall for the pitch, some of whom try to produce a truly worthwhile book while others produce narcissistic crap, as if anybody cares how they want to recreate the system to suit their personal whims.

      So yeah, I know.

      1. George B

        And WORSE….. you’ll have to do a book tour. A repeat author friend told me that fact alone discouraged him from writing further books. His money quote, about being on a morning TV talk show, with all-looks no-brane host:

        “I was 3.5 minutes into the segment before she grasped my book was NOT about women’s underwear…”

        1. SHG Post author

          Heh. Hosts are beautiful television celebrities. Guests are there to kill the ten seconds between questions. What’s surprising is that she grasped it at all.

      1. SHG Post author

        This reminds of when twitter started gaining in popularity, and tech-lovers called it “micro-blogging,” for people with extremely short attention spans and, well, their deepest thoughts limited to 140 characters.

        1. SHG Post author

          Well yes, a bed time book for children. But I did it under a pseudonym, so I’m reluctant to reveal it. Goodnight, Sam.

  2. Wheeze The People™

    Not to get off topic, but is it, philosophically-speaking, even possible for a blog owner-operator to legitimately declare a post off-topic (OT)?? . . .

    Because the way I see it, any topic you choose, on any particular day, is on-topic. It’s you BLAWG. You’re the medicine man, and, dammit, the people need their medicine. OT may encourage some to go off their meds for the day, and we all know how that turns out . . .

      1. Wheeze The People™

        I was actually more worried about the integrity of the Library of Congress Web Archive Collection . . .

      2. David

        Actually, it’s SHG’s blog and he’s chosen to describe it as “A New York Criminal Defense Blog”. Having chosen to describe his blog in that way, I’d argue that by his own choice, anything not related to that description is OT. I would interpret it as meaning he blogs about things which are of interest to those who are interested in NY criminal defense, not merely things which are about NY criminal defense, and thus consider this post on topic.

        But it’s SHG’s blog and he chose to describe this as off-topic, so I’ll defer to his categorization as much as I defer to a judgment with which I disagree (that is, I defer only because I must… [grin]).

  3. ukuleledave

    I’m not a lawyer (damned that LSAT!) but I’m a special education teacher. The problem is huge in the teaching field. Most conference speakers fall into simple categories: Grad students who want to be profs., people selling self-published books, friends of the organizer, people who work for book and software publishers.

    One big problem is the reinvention of education every few years. This year, Common Core speakers are in demand. A few years ago it was “No Child Left Behind.” Before that it was “Multiple Intelligences.”
    We sit there, earn our continuing education units (CEUs) and then complain over lunch.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s good to learn that lawyers aren’t the only fools in town when it comes to bogus continuing ed. Why we put up with this crap is beyond me.

  4. David

    To be on-topic to this (arguendo) off-topic post…

    Isn’t it also a case of caveat emptor? I have every sympathy for someone who spends the time and money to go to what sounds like a very interesting and useful conference or seminar only to be disabused of that notion when it starts; but can this also be driven by, for those in jurisdictions with mandatory CLE, being overly attracted to “get all your CLE credits for the year for one low price” type deals? If the focus of the lawyers attending is on fulfilling the letter rather than the spirit of the CLE rules at the lowest possible price, caring less about the quality and the topics, then they’re contributing to this problem.

    I’m fortunate that I’m in a jurisdiction with so much free and very low-cost CLE (and broad definitions of CLE) both in-person and by webinar that I can fulfill the mandatory requirements very easily. If I cared only about the minimum requirements I could easily pay nothing and meet my CLE (and actually have some good CLE, despite it being free…). Thus I don’t need to scramble to get my credits and have the luxury in being selective in what I pay to attend.

    1. SHG Post author

      Absolutely. The ideal of CLE and the practice started out fairly well, but quickly devolved into crap and worthlessness, not to mention scammy businesses whose purpose was to sell credits for those who couldn’t manage to do their duty. But what bothers the hell out of me is that it could be at least moderately useful, both to the lawyer and public, if lawyers refused to go to crap CLEs and instead put in the tiny bit of effort needed to attend only CLEs of value. And if they found a provider had a cool title but nothing behind it, go elsewhere.

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