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Do Successful People Give or Sell?

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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.

  • Carolyn, I think you raise an interesting point. For some, blogging and teaching is a means to a greater business goal.  You have MyShingle not only as a means of selflessly educating but also to build authority and, presumably, drive sales to your books.  That’s a valid goal.

    Brian blogs (in part, I assume – I’ve never asked him about it) to build his credibility as an attorney who helps other lawyers defend against bar complaints.  His blog gives away a ton of information that’s useful for lawyers to read, but it serves as a driver for his practice.  Also a valid goal.

    Most of the lawyers who teach other lawyers how to practice in a particular field of law also provide great value at no cost.  Cathy Moran of Bankruptcy Mastery and Max Gardner of the bankruptcy boot camp interact regularly with consumer bankruptcy lawyers on listservs (both their own and ones operated by national and local bankruptcy bars), speak and educate for no money, and do what they can to bring along the next generation of lawyers in the field.

    On Bankruptcy Law Network, more than two dozen consumer bankruptcy lawyers blog about the issues facing the industry and the consumer debtor.  Why?  Because we not only way to educate, but we also use it as a means of establishing our expertise and driving business to our firms.

    Over at Legal Practice Pro, I routinely give away 95% of my marketing and technology knowledge at no cost.  Come on by, read some stuff, and apply it.  If you want that last 5% that’s when the wallet needs to open.  But I make darn sure – as does any self-respecting professional – that the 95% given away for free provides real value rather than serving as a platform for selling.

    The trick is not to give away everything for free; rather, the implicit understanding is that you get 95% of what we know at no cost in a manner that works for the medium.  But if you want in-depth education and knowledge tailored directly to your circumstances then you’ve got to pay for that final 5%.

    In the end, the public (defined as you see fit) is helped along at no cost.  The professional builds credibility while achieving a commercial goal.  Everyone gets what they want and need.

  • Guest

    experience has been that great lawyers share lots of good information but they keep
    their real methods a closely guarded trade secret.  This is just a variation of the “free
    consultation” that criminal, divorce and PI lawyers give new clients.  They explain the fundamentals of the law but
    don’t give enough information for the client to take care of it himself without
    a lawyer.


    I agree with Jay Fleishman. Modern
    internet salesmanship consists of giving lots of good and useful information
    for free, but keeping the most important parts secret so the client (or referring
    lawyer) hires you rather than competes against you.

  • It’s a tricky balance the open source world fights with constantly. I think Jay makes a good point, though, with is 95% v 5% analogy. Offer enough value that people can take a stab at it themselves, but if they stumble or need help, they know where to turn to for help, for that other 5% to make it to the end, whatever that might be.

    There’s been a fluctuation between keeping information secret, and sharing it. The election called for “transparency” and more “open government,” and such sentiments seem to carry over into the legal profession as well. It’s a balance, though, and I think many are still trying to figure that out. As you say, Carolyn, there is so much more information out there now that’s been commoditized, the trickier part might be sifting through the riff-raff to find the 5%.

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