No, Not Free Speech

It came as no surprise that the Puddle posted about whether lawyers should pay to give presentations.  After all, what legitimate conference or CLE would have a Puddle reader speak?  There is little draw for a lawyer without any accomplishments whatsoever telling other lawyers, well, anything.

But even so, Andrew Cabasso didn’t come out completely in favor of lawyers trying desperately to manufacture credibility out of nothing to whip out their credit card for the chance to take the podium in front of others.

The idea of paying for a speaking gig is, well, a bit offensive. Especially when the host is already profiting from attendees, which is essentially double-dipping because the speaker [he means “host,” but editing is hard work] gets paid by the audience and the speaker. The audience gets information and CLE credits. The speaker just gets a bill.

When it comes down to it, you are doing your host a favor by helping them fill their programming and educating their audience. Preparing a speech and supplemental handouts takes considerable time and effort to put together. And the actual speaking gig itself is time that could otherwise be spent billing paying clients.

Of course, if the putative speaker had paying clients he could be billing, he wouldn’t need Cabasso to explain why this is a bad idea. The problem is that the speakers inclined to pay for the privilege are the ones who have to pay to speak, because nobody would want them to speak otherwise. They already billed for the three six-minute segments they could that month, and are paying in the hope of doubling their billing.

Plus, if you have any reputation at all, agreeing to speak may actually help your host sell tickets. Your knowledge and reputation are getting your host paid.

Your “knowledge and reputation” are why the host will only tolerate you if you pay. Because you have no knowledge and reputation to offer.  When I get one of the never-ending solicitations to come to the Fabulous conferences (and I almost always get offered a freebie), the first thing I do if I have any interest at all is check out the speakers.  Some make me cringe. Most make me utter, “who?”

But what’s far more ubiquitous, and sly, is that most speakers beg for the slot. They want to be up front so desperately that they get down on their knees and beg. They will pay their own way, flight, hotel, food, whatever it takes. And legitimate conference hosts tell them, “sorry, but you’re not right.”  Because they wouldn’t subject their conference attendees to presentations by worthless nobodies, even if they cost nothing.

Kevin O’Keefe offers his variations on the Puddle’s theme.

Being asked to pay comes in all flavors in the legal industry — and I suspect other industries.

  • Some conference coordinators ask you up front in their sponsorship offerings if you would like to buy a spot that includes giving a keynote or hosting a panel.
  • Some invite you to give a keynote which you accept and then later call and indicate that keynote speakers from companies “usually” pay to sponsor and the other keynotes are doing so — that happened to me last year.
  • Some invite you to speak and charge you to get into the conference (nuts, but true), knowing that with 30 speakers/panelists they now have 30 more paying attendees.
  • Some invite you to sit on a panel sponsored by a company so you say nice things about the company sponsor – one time I got bounced off a panel because a company paying to have its people on the panel did not trust that I would support them.

Kevin throws in Marc Randazza’s two cents.

Over in a Facebook discussion Attorney Marc Randazza (@marcrandazza) said he’ll donate the honorariums right back to the right association. Love that idea.

My take is simpler. I’m more than happy to speak for any non-profit, like a bar association or law school, without an honorarium (a terrible word designed to conceal that it’s a speaking fee), but I expect my expenses to be covered. I have never asked to speak at a conference or CLE, and certainly never begged.

If the conference or CLE is thrown by a for-profit enterprise, then I expect to be paid for my time. They’re for profit? Me too! Why the hell would I give a for-profit business a donation of my time? And, as Josh Lenon at Clio can tell you, I don’t negotiate my fees.

But as Kevin notes, those who speak often conceal one of two nasty secrets. They are either insiders, or dear friends of insiders, who want to speak to bolster their cred, regardless of whether they have anything to offer, or anyone wants to hear them. Or the host is assured that they will say nice things about the host.

When negotiating my speaking fees for last year’s Cliofest, Josh told me that his people were scared to death of having me speak. I was, in his words, a shit thrower when it came to legal tech. After all, who pays to bring a skunk to their garden party? Then again, they don’t know what I would have said since they didn’t meet my fee. They came close, but I ain’t horseshoes.

If you’re a non-profit and you want me to speak at a CLE and conference, ask me. I won’t ask you, and I sure as shit won’t pay you. But I will give you my time. I will give you my knowledge and reputation. Plus, I get to hang out with lawyers from around the country, and I’ve met some terrific people that way.

One day, some for-profit is going to have the guts to put me on stage as a keynote, reflecting that they are secure enough in what they offer to take the risk of putting a shit thrower up front.

That alone would be a huge draw, as there are few lawyers who have been as openly skeptical about the snake oil being sold to lawyers, to take the chance of my telling their audience that they’re wearing no clothes.  And they will have to pay me for the privilege of finding out whether I think their baby is ugly.

When that happens, you will know who actually believes enough in what they do, in the intelligence of their audience, in their quality and worth, so that you can be assured that the speaker isn’t some guaranteed sycophant or some pay to play filler. Be assured, my speech ain’t free.

7 comments on “No, Not Free Speech

  1. Marc J. Randazza

    To clarify my comment – I donated my honorarium right back to The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, when they had me speak. Why?

    1. They are a non profit
    2. I love their mission
    3. They were classy enough to not expect me to speak for free

    I wouldn’t necessarily donate my honorarium back to any and all organizations that had me speak. That said, I have never seen a speaker’s fee that wound up being more than I’d make just staying home and working. Maybe my voice isn’t worth enough. But, the number of invitations I get per year is pretty high. I’m accepting less and less of them, for sure.

  2. Patrick Maupin

    The idea of paying for a speaking gig is, well, a bit offensive.

    Of course, if the putative speaker had paying clients he could be billing, he wouldn’t need Cabasso to explain why this is a bad idea.

    Except he didn’t really explain it. Oh, sure, he touched on it right in his first sentence:

    CLE attendees generally assume speakers are paid.

    But then he didn’t really expand on that thought.

    When the speaker pays the venue, it’s in both their interests to not disabuse those attendees of this notion. In fact, the kind of speaker willing to play this game seriously would probably even be willing to pay more for a higher-paying audience — it shows they have money to spread around, and that the venue has managed to convince them that it’s worth their time to hear the speaker, so they’re primed for whatever real message he wants to send.

    Of course, an audience that paid handsomely while knowing up front that the speaker was also paying would be pure gold, but how often are you going to find one of those?

  3. Dragoness Eclectic

    …the concept of being a speaker at a convention and being expected to pay for the privilege of providing content for the profit of the convention just boggles my mind. In most other fields, that would be a red flag that the “convention” is a scam–like vanity publishers that pretend to be otherwise, “literary agents” that charge up-front fees, and similar nonsense.

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