Pay the Speaker!

I straddle a number of very different work environments every day all of which give me a very different perspective on many things. Some readers find this refreshing, others find it annoying or threatening.

As a writer hanging out with many different types of writers, discussions often crop up about getting paid for services rendered. Of concern to many writers is that more and more writers are willing to write for free, which drives down the value of writing – which in turn, drives down the already low living standard for most writers.

Harlan Ellison, well-known for his rants on many subjects, very deftly addresses this issue here.

The same applies to those of us who make a living through speaking engagements.

The legal profession is notorious for not paying speakers at speaking events – or for giving them a “token gift”. And with the Ontario CPD requirement, the number of speaking events will only increase. Many speakers are happy to speak without a fee at academic events, or at not-for-profit events, or at events that are free for spectators. However, many CPD and non-CPD events are revenue-generating events created by paid event planners.

So the questions become:

“Why should event planners be paid and speakers should not?”

“Why should anyone make money from a speaker who speaks for free?”

I don’t believe that spectators pay event fees – in some cases huge fees – for event planning expertise. They are willing to pay these fees because the true value of the event is in the speakers they come to hear. Keep in mind that at many conferences speakers are also asked to prepare a paper! Again for no fee!

Legal event planners make a living by asking speakers to work for free – and no one raises a fuss.

And surprisingly, lawyers who otherwise meticulously bill clients for every second they spend on a file, no matter how trivial, readily prepare papers and speak for no fee.

Have we all gone mad?

Of course, many will say that law firms indirectly subsidize their lawyers who speak at these events. These lawyers still get their salary or draw, as the firm sees some promotional benefit, so there is little personal cost to the lawyers.

However this has a trickle-down effect to those of us who make a living by speaking – we are now expected to speak for free because the market no longer places any value on the information that we prepare and disseminate.

And I’m not alone. Kung Fu Grippe has a far more aggressive post on this matter here.

So I ask you, as you write cheques for events that you must go to for CPD credits, or for events that promise to make you smarter and better lawyers, think about where that money is going – are you paying for event-planning or for information?


  1. And surprisingly, lawyers who otherwise meticulously bill clients for every second they spend on a file, no matter how trivial, readily prepare papers and speak for no fee

    That’s part of our obligation to the profession, if we’re qualified to do so and able to do so. Get over it.

  2. Hi Mitch!

    I have been on both sides of that equation: as a regular speaker in the Canadian judicial circuit (often through the auspices of NJI) and, more recently, as event planner of Forum 2012.

    After Forum 2012, my appreciation of what it costs to put on a high calibre conference dramatically changed. Wow, just the bill from the hotel was more than $100K!! For a while, we were even wondering if we would end “in the black”… But then our registration numbers picked up. Even then, we put on this Conference because it squarely fits with our mandate, it is certainly not a revenue-generating activity that we can count on, even with sponsorship and exhibitor fees.

    I guess my contribution here is this: even if there is an attendance fee, it would be a mistake (I’m not saying you’re committing it… but I certainly did!) to think event planners automatically make a hefty profit. We did reimburse all Speakers for their travel expenses and offered a speaking fee to our keynote speakers. We would not have been able to pay all speakers though.

  3. I agree with David. It is one of the more attractive features of the profession that senior members are prepared (and have been for a very long time) to share their wisdom and experience with those less experienced without seeking to be paid for doing so. If I do not charge for speaking, why on earth do you care?

  4. I (fortunately for me) get paid whether I speak or not, and derive no professional benefit from speaking – I am not trying to attract clients or referrals because I am employed full time. That said, I do not generally speak for free at for-profit events. I will speak for free at not-for-profit events, such as those organized by the OBA or Law Society. I find Osgoode Professional Development a bit of a hybrid, since it’s run mainly to raise funds for the law school, though its educational content is good. Anyway, so far I have accepted their invitations.

    For the for-profit folks, my preference is not to speak for them, since they don’t pay. However, if it’s the only way I can get into a conference I really want to go to, then I will sing for my supper.

    I do think that Mitch answered Angela’s question, though: if most of us speak for free, it risks harming the market for those who need the money. And would those of us who do speak for free out of a sense of professional duty, or to publicize our expertise, or both, be as happy to do so if our co-presenters were being paid?

    It is at least a bit of an odd market.

  5. Lawyers who deliver presentations at no charge (which, by the way, is the backbone of the highly lucrative CLE industry) may choose to do so out of a sense of professionalism, or out of a commitment to pro bono, or for the purposes of marketing their services. I’ve got no difficulty with that, and I applaud each of these motivations.

    Ask lawyers to deliver their legal services at no charge, however — routinely, as a matter of course — and I expect they would sing a different tune. This is the equivalent of what professional speakers like Mitch and me are up against. And lawyers are frequently the ones doing the asking.

    I was approached just this week by a global professional firm network — well over 100 firms worldwide in law and other industries; well-known and very successful firms — asking me to deliver a presentation at an upcoming conference regarding the future of the legal profession. The network offered no fee for my services, merely transportation and accommodation costs — I was told it would be a good “marketing opportunity.” Hands up, all the lawyers here who would handle a case for free on the assurance that next time, someone will surely pay them for the work they’ve just witnessed as a “marketing opportunity.” I respectfully declined, as I expect you would as well.

    I also deliver presentations pro bono — I’m giving two next month, one to law students and another to post-graduate court clerks, as part of my personal commitment to helping out the next generation of lawyers. But when I’m speaking to a for-profit entity or at a for-profit event, and I’m one of the speakers whose presence encourages people to show up, you can be guaranteed that I’ll be charging a fee, and a fair one.

  6. The distinction between the for-profit & not-for profit providers is generally a valid one, allowing for fudging if the profit is for a valid – lots of wiggle room there – purpose.

    Those of us who provide free content to CLE/CPD are usually speaking (or writing) about something to do with the content of the law rather than the practice of law as a business. In my experience, those who speak about the latter at the CLE/CPD conferences put on by bodies other than the private industry for-profit companies are usually addressing their remarks (whether they know it or not) to the less experienced members of the profession. They’re not competing in any meaningful sense with speakers like Mr. Kowalksi or Mr. Furlong; nor should speakers such as either of the former worry about bread being taken out of their kids’ mouths by talks of that sort.

    I’m going to assume we’d never hear either of them stand up and say something to the effect of “I have to admit this paper, which I’m about to read (and not very well at that) was written by Ms or Mr. X of my firm” not mentioning that whatever expertise Ms or Mr X has isn’t in the subject matter of the paper.

  7. John G:

    I figure that, on the whole, to date, I’ve garnered no professional (financial) benefit whatsoever from any of the time I devoted to providing CLE. On the whole, it’s been a professional (but not a personal) loss. I include in this all the time I’ve spent writing material for law journals.

    I’m still able to garner chuckles by telling the story of how, after I took the time to explain to newspaper reporter why he was wrong in criticizing something an insurer did – he accepted my explanation and mentioned it the next day – a senior person at a client called one of my (then) partners to complain that I was telling the public how to succeed in actions against the insurers. To explain why the writer was wrong, I had to explain what would have had to happen for the writer to be right.

    Go figure (g).


  8. Great blog.

    I retired from a career as a pension and benefits lawyer where I spoke and wrote papers to become a benefits journalist who could not have put out a magazine if others did not write for free. Now as a freelance workplace journalist I don’t ever write or speak without a fee.

  9. A refreshing debate.

    Having worked at a non-profit CLE organization and directed marketing programs at law firms, I’ve tallied the hours that lawyers invest in these presentations. The billable time equivalent spent on a good CLE paper can be worth thousands, if not more.

    While conducting market research, I’ve heard feedback from clients who are reassured their lawyers speak/write/teach about their specific areas of law. Some clients are even willing to pay premium fees because of the perceived value of the lawyer’s expertise.

    From my experience, lawyers who promote their aptitude by writing or speaking often represent the best in their chosen specialties. They may not be paid directly for their efforts, but there is a pay-off in terms of reputation building, ability to command fees and increased expertise as a result of the research involved.