In-House Counsel, Media and Journalism

Inside Straight: Sucking Up by Writing Down

Few folks use proposals for co-authorship to advance their careers. More should.

What am I suggesting?

Come up with a thesis for an article. Call somebody who matters to you, and propose that you write the article together. Write a first draft of the article, send it to your co-author to solicit revisions, and then publish the piece.

For whom might this work? Anyone who’s looking to curry favor.

For business development purposes, an outside lawyer might call a client or potential client and suggest co-authoring a piece in the client’s field of expertise. For career development purposes, a law firm associate might do the same with a partner, or an in-house lawyer might do the same with a business colleague or a supervisor. Few people would be offended to be offered co-authorship credit for an article, and many would be delighted to be given the opportunity and later to take partial credit for a published piece.

Why is this tactic used so rarely?

First, it’s hard. Everyone wants to do client development when it involves joining a client to enjoy a fine meal, play a round of golf, or watch a sporting event. But no one wants to do client development when it involves ginning up a thesis, doing some research, putting fingers to keyboard, and producing a noteworthy finished product.

You should view that as opportunity knocking: You’ll face less competition when you use co-authorship as a business development technique.

Why else don’t people co-author articles? Because it’s dangerous. If you’re writing an article with someone else, you can’t be sure how involved your co-author will become. In my experience, many solicited co-authors in this situation do very little. Some never read your draft and simply tell you to publish it. (Purists would say this poses an ethical issue: Should someone receive authorship credit for an article that he never read, let alone wrote? I’m sensitive to this charge and have certainly seen it redound to the detriment of people in fields other than law. In the legal field, for whatever reason, no one seems to object to this practice. I’m not taking sides here; wrestle with your conscience and decide how you want to handle this.)

Other co-authors will take a run through your draft and propose a few small changes.

And yet other co-authors will take it seriously when they’re appending their name to something that will appear in print. (Back in the 1980s, the National Law Journal refused to publish articles written by associates alone; this was presumably a form of two-bit quality control. The NLJ thus rejected an article that I’d submitted unless I found a partner willing to serve as co-author. I went back to a senior partner at my firm — who had previously reviewed my draft article and commented on it — and asked him if he’d like to sign on as my co-author. He agreed, and asked me to send him the current draft of the piece. I asked why: “You’ve already revised it.” “Yes,” he said, “But before this was going to be your article, and now it’s going to be mine, too.” See Neil E. Falconer & Mark Herrmann, “Legislation Enacted in November Alters Law Governing Removal,” Nat’l L.J. 18 (Mar. 13, 1989).) (That puppy was not exactly a client magnet.)

If your co-author actually cares about the quality of your draft, then this project will present both risk and opportunity. The opportunity arises because you’ll be working together with someone who will observe closely your facility with ideas and words. That’s an awfully good way to impress a client or colleague. The risk arises because you’ll be working together with someone who will observe closely your facility with ideas and words. If you’re going to walk this path, walk carefully.

There’s another risk for associates who choose this path to try to find a senior mentor or advocate within a law firm. Some partners are fair; others are not. When you propose to some partners that you write an article together, they’ll like the idea and give you full co-authorship credit. Other partners will decide that it’s unseemly to co-author an article with an associate and will relegate your effort (and your name) to a footnote, thanking you for your “research help” on the article that you in fact wrote from start to finish. When you choose a co-author, choose carefully.

What’s my own experience with this?

In the partner-associate setting, I never voluntarily chose to enlist a more senior co-author to write an article with me. (I worked with a senior co-author only once, when the NLJ insisted.) But it seems to me that this idea could work, and people more politic than I was might well put this concept to good use.

In the business development setting, I co-authored several pieces with clients or potential clients. Their input ran the spectrum that I described above, from just barely being involved in the writing process to participating fully. The payoff varied, too, from never hearing a business-related peep from an in-house co-author to being given the chance to compete for substantial business.

And now, sitting in the client’s chair, I haven’t yet been approached by anyone about co-authoring anything. (I currently have two projects in the works that involve co-authors. The first involves a long-term contractual commitment to which I agreed before I went in-house. The second involves an idea I suggested to an outside lawyer with whom I’d written articles before and for whom I have great respect.)

One last thing: This column focuses exclusively on the self-interest involved when you co-author an article. That’s obviously not the only reason to write, or to co-author, publications. Co-authors typically add real value to publications, although that may be more true when you pick co-authors based on their substantive knowledge, rather than what they can do for your career. Moreover, it often makes sense to publish your thoughts simply to share an idea with the public or to participate in an on-going debate. Please don’t put me too firmly in the Samuel Johnson camp: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (affiliate link).

You can reach him by email at

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