Do Successful People Give or Sell?

Over at his My Law License blog, my friend and co-defendant Brian Tannebaum adeptly summarized a thought to which I’ve devoted far too many words without ever getting to the point. Specifically, Brian asserts:

Successful people give away advice on success, unsuccessful people sell it.

Initially, I thought that I could refute Brian’s comment by referencing successful people who command huge speaking fees.  But in doing some research, I discovered that the pinnacle of speaking engagements – the ever-inspiring TED Talks don’t pay their speakers.  Score one for Brian!

Of course, in the work-a-day world, success and revenue-producing activities aren’t always mutually exclusive. There are examples of successful lawyers who generate income from CLE’s and programs and seminars (like Bryan Garner, whose legal writing seminars were reviewed here or the Gerry Spence Trial College or Gardner Bankruptcy Bootcamp — programs which are well reputed though I can’t vouch for them personally since I’ve never taken them or reviewed the materials.  I even generate revenue, albeit modest, from this blog and my books – not enough to get rich or retire on for sure, but enough to make the time away from my practice that I spend on this blog worthwhile.  After all, because I don’t coach or sell product, and because this blog (in contrast to this one) is entirely unrelated to my day job as an energy lawyer, it doesn’t generate any business for my practice.

Still, I get what Brian is saying. These days, there’s too much information that colleagues once freely shared or passed down through the ages in the interest of teaching new lawyers and improving the quality of legal services that many consultants have commoditized and repackaged solely for profit.   But  putting a price tag on something free doesn’t always improve the value.  To the contrary, a dollar sign can also cheapen a noble  act like mentoring motivated by generosity and professional commitment by converting it into a commodity that can be bought and sold.

Maybe I’m just a nostalgic lawyer clinging to an idealistic vision of how our legal profession “used to be.” Still, aren’t the gurus who give away nothing the ones who are really out of synch with the times?  After all, at least two of the 21st century’s biggest entrepreneurial success stories – Facebook and Google – give away quite a bit (as do the TED speakers I mentioned earlier) though of course, those companies make it up on the back end even as they provide a useful product.  Even so, these companies remind us that charging for every little crumb of information isn’t what the cool kids do.

Fortunately, there are still plenty of solo lawyers who generously share their practice experience on blogs, or listserves or face to face without a fee – and I’ll continue to do so as well by ensuring a stock of  FREE materials at my site as well (the only time I absolutely don’t do free is when someone else earns money off of it).

So, what do you think?  Is Brian’s dichotomy accurate? Or does he have it backwards?  Is there a middle ground – for example, are there certain types of programs or services that justifiably command a fee, and other types that ought to pay you to show up?  Post your comments below.