Conferences / Symposia, Small Law Firms

The Practice: Conferences and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

This past week, I was in Chicago for a national conference of professional responsibility lawyers. We usually meet in the same city and at the same time as the ABA, as we have many dual members (no, not at the same time as ABA toy tech show — I’m talking about the ABA meetings where real lawyers discuss law and policy). So although I don’t attend the ABA meetings, those that do come over to our conference and vice versa.

One of the benefits of attending national (real) lawyer conferences as a small-firm lawyer with a real practice (not the social media conferences where broke and unemployed non-practicing lawyers hang out in the vendor hall), is that besides learning something, you have the ability to network and develop relationships that may turn into referrals. I hear lawyers talk about not going to conferences because of the cost. The cost, including transportation, hotel, and conference tuition should usually be no more than $1,000-$1,500. If investing that amount of money in your firm is not worth it, then you are doomed to be nothing. Stop reading now and go work on your internet presence….

Now I understand to someone selling $100 documents on the internet as a practice, that this may seem high, but if there’s a possibility to find some people at the conference that may be interested in referring you people to buy your documents, and you wind up selling 10 or 15 of them, it’s a win. Selfishly (and it’s OK to be selfish occasionally), you should always think about attendance at a conference in terms of payback. If you’re building a practice and your minimum fee for any matter is $2,500, attending a couple conferences relevant to your practice and outside of your city should be a given. Payback is also when you learn something that saves your firm money or helps you better advocate for your clients.

And don’t just sit in the back and wish people happy birthday on Facebook. While face to face conversation is somewhat of an inconvenience these days, people still engage in discussion, in person, about things like law, family, hobbies, and if you can’t handle not mentioning it, yes, you can even comment on someone’s iPad. You are there to learn, and market.

To attend a conference for the sole purpose of listening to the speakers is a waste of your time. The purpose of a live conference, as opposed to a webinar, is to meet people. Real people. Before the conference, try and get the list of attendees. Some people do this by incessantly tweeting, “Who’s coming?” Sure, you can do that and join the crowd of those who can’t afford a cab from the airport, or are looking to join the cheap dinner that’s being planned. But a better way is email.

Look at the list, and send a couple introduction emails to those you may want to meet. Don’t sell your practice or say something cheesy — vendors will take care of that. Talk like a real person. When you get to the conference, you’re way ahead of the game, and it helps to avoid the initial uncomfortable feeling that you get when in a room of people you don’t know. If you get to know some of these people, on the night where there is no dinner planned, plan one — and not for the world. Be elitist, take a few people out that you know, along with a few that you believe are good connections — and pay the check. A $500 dinner check may seem outrageous, but not if you’re paying for a table of past or future referral sources. Conferences are an investment in your firm.

And now I want to address something I heard at my conference from one of the Bar’s elder statesmen:

“Young lawyers today won’t be able to build practices like we did.”

Ah yes, the mantra of every internet marketer and coddling coach to the screwed-over-by-my-law-school-crowd: You (must hire me) can’t build a practice by word of mouth and reputation, you must (hire me) vomit all over the internet with SEO (by hiring me) and bow to the God that is the first page of Google (hire me, I can get you there). This lawyer, probably 40 years in practice, wasn’t happy about it, but he bought in to the notion that — tsk tsk, the world is different and that includes the way to build a practice.

The comment bothered me, as this was an older lawyer who has the ear of younger lawyers who are saying, “See, he’s right, we must spend all day on the internet building our practice because even this guy says we can’t do it like he used to do it.”

So as I met a few more people from around the country that will be good referral sources, and came home to do a speaking engagement with a local bar association (did you get that…), I thought more about his comment.

The same crap occurs in every generation. When I started, there was no internet. You “had” to be in the Yellow Pages with a big ad. Except I wasn’t. Those that were received the benefit of calls from “shoppers” and people with no money looking for the best full color ad of “aggressive” and “fight for you” lawyers. Lots of calls, few clients. In the end, the exposure in “the book” was rumored to have the benefit of “paying for itself,” and nothing more. While the internet isn’t going the route of the Yellow Pages, having a goal of being where everyone else is, is called being a “follower.”

The hucksters selling the dream on the internet benefit from perpetrating the lies that more and more lawyers believe — that there is only one way to build a practice these days. The internet is a great and terrible place. Should you be on the internet? Of course. Should you be sitting in your office doing nothing while your marketer spams blogs and you continue to have meaningless conversations with those that “found you on the internet”? Sure, if your goal is mediocrity. Knock yourself out.

If you are part of the crowd that is convinced that the race to the first page of Google is the pinnacle, that you no longer can build a practice “like we used to,” I have news for you: everyone can’t be on the front page. I have additional news for you — people with serious problems and serious money usually know serious people. I’d invest my time in getting to know those people, the types of people that are often asked for referrals to professionals.

A lot of these people go to conferences.

Brian Tannebaum will never “get on board” at the advice of failed lawyers who were never a part of the past but claim to know “the future of law.” He represents clients, every day, in criminal and lawyer discipline cases without the assistance of an Apple device, and usually gets to work (in an office, not a coffee shop) by 9 a.m. No client has ever asked if he’s on Twitter. He can be reached at

(hidden for your protection)

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