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?
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.