Relaxing whilst doing Competition Law is not an Oxymoron

Speaking slots for sale

with 6 comments

I landed in Brussels this morning at 7 am after an intense week of cocktails antitrust events at the ABA’s antitrust spring meeting in DC. I’m knackered (I also have to recover from the sight of 2,700 antitrust lawyers under the same roof) and have lots of catching up to do, so let’s keep it simple today:

Nicolas’ Friday post criticized several pricing practices in the conference market, namely excessive pricing and lack of pricing discrimination in favor of academics and students.

This is not a new topic; some of you might remember that many posts ago I proposed an algorithm for competition conferences, positing that “the likelihood of getting to listen to new and interesting stuff is inversely proportional to the combination of three cumulative variables: the price of the event, the number of attendees, and the number and lenght of slide decks. It’s generally not a good sign if an event is pricy and crowded. The ones with a greater chance of not being interesting at all are those for which you have to pay in order to be a spayeaker (yes, there are plenty of those!)”.

I discussed Nico’s post with a few sensible people over the w-e, and the discussion quickly came down to one sole issue: the ‘funny’ (not as in haha, but as in questionable) but prevalent practice of paying for speaking slots, which I had only touched upon in passing in my previous post.

I would argue that paying to speak is essentially a marketing trick based on misleading the audience. Let me prove my point: how many spaykers do you think would want to appear at a conference if the audience had transparent information about who’s paying for the slot and who’s not?

If you’ve something interesting to say, you should get paid for it (not so difficult, even Sarah Palin gets paid to speak) or at least be invited to speak for free.  Note also that people who pay to speak would not normally (there are of course exceptions) give objective overviews of the topic at issue; their presentation would tend to be a more or less obvious sales pitch. I’ve nothing against lawyers advertising themselves, but, as in other contexts (some might think of search engines), it’s generally good to be able to tell what’s advertising and what’s not.

The most obvious way to address this “market failure” and push for a merit-based allocation of speaking slots would be to have lawyers stop paying (smart, uh?), but since self-regulation is unlikely to work, I would suggest, for a start, that public officials refuse to appear in conferences where people pay just to sit with them.

What’s your take?



Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

15 April 2013 at 5:06 pm

6 Responses

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  1. Fully agreed!

    Plus, if law firms jointly decided to stop paying, this would look awkward from an AT perspective.

    Nicolas Petit

    15 April 2013 at 5:59 pm

  2. Well it isn’t as if there is no way at all to tell who is paying and who is not. Event sponsors essentially buy panel slots (amongst a few other privileges). We all know that and it doesn’t deter them. Whether this covers all of the paid-for slots is hard to tell however. I agree with your point about the mainstream conferences becoming less and less interesting (and prohibitively expensive).


    15 April 2013 at 7:29 pm

  3. It seems to me that a lawyer speaking at a conference is always advertising his services, whether he pays for his slot or not. The same is true of economists and – arguably – of academics and enforcers.


    16 April 2013 at 10:30 am

  4. I agree that the tendency to request speakers to pay in order to appear in a conference can be problematic, mainly because speakers are no longer selected on the base of merits. However, there is a significant number of alternative conferences, e.g. by the ABA, which are all run on the basis of peer review of panel proposals and independent of any sponsoring. This does at least allow for some counter-balancing effect and provides for access of speakers to the conference market (although mainly outside of Brussels).

    I do however not share the concern that paid or sponsored speaking slots are less objective. To the contrary, I would guess that also those speakers will mainly try to make the best out of the slot and to impress with specific insights or thoughtful analysis. This is in the end the best marketing.

    David Mamane

    16 April 2013 at 5:18 pm

  5. I agree 100% with the negative correlation between quality of a conference and price & number of attendees, at least for those who are familiar with the topic. But, are they representative of the average attendee? Would anyone pay to speak to them?
    We all have our favourite Brussels evening seminars with open debates – I guess that we secretely hope that they will not become too popular?
    On the paying speakers. In a two-sided market, you may want to charge both sides, an argument that is likely to sound familiar to most lawyers of the payment industry. Actually, the following argument could be run: those who pay the highest price should be the ones who are most likely to be hired by attendees (and therefore, it is not that likely that the mechanism is inefficient).
    Now, a more tricky question is why not-for-profit organisation do not run less expensive conferences for good lawyers and in-houses? Well, perhaps for the same reason that not-for-profit scientific societies did not launch less good reviews, leaving the door open for for-profit publishers. One could argue that not-for-profits tend to organise excellent things, but dedicated to the top… and do not want to invest their (time) resources doing less interesting things? Again, there are a number of exceptions!


    16 April 2013 at 6:31 pm

  6. Private practicioners don’t go there for the content, but to advertise themselves as speaker or attendees. Speakers pay more than regular attendees because they have more chance of winning clients.

    But why do in-house counsel go? Because they like to be flattered by lawyers? Because they were convinced by the (aggressive) marketing of the event? Because they are not the ones paying (but their employer is)? Because they want to meet the regulators who attend these events (less and less)? Because they want to get out of the office for a day?

    As soon as in-house counsel stop going, private practicioners will stop paying to speak and to attend.


    16 April 2013 at 7:06 pm

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