Lawyers and Salesmen

One of the things I’ve learned in life is that the salesmen for a company will be the most honest with you about their company. That’s not to imply that salesmen are all honest in their sales pitch. That’s not what I mean. I’m talking about life inside the company. Ask a sales guy, who is not selling you something, about his boss and his co-workers and he’ll usually give you the unvarnished truth. Often, they are the guys who know the flaws best, because they have to work around them to make deals.

That’s the thing with salespeople.  They work for themselves, even though they take a salary and are employees. Some portion of their pay, maybe the bulk of it, is derived from their performance as a salesman. All salespeople have quotas and have to produce. Otherwise, they get fired. There’s no hiding in the bureaucracy for them. That means self-deception is not of any use to them. They have to know the defects of their firm and its products in order to mitigate them in front of clients.

The weird thing about salesmen is they never assume they are the cleverest guy in the room. Paranoia is a healthy trait in sales, as there are a million little things that can scuttle a deal. Working from the assumption that there could very well be someone in the room who knows something you don’t is a good way to avoid surprises. You ask more questions and you listen better. If you’re walking around thinking you are Wile E. Coyote, a safe could fall on your head.

I used to fish with a guy who made his living selling cars. He got into it as a way to pay for college. He would sell cars on the weekend and at night, while going to school during the day. When he finished college, he found that he could make a better living selling cars than anything else so he kept selling cars. Eventually he settled into selling BMW’s and Mercedes. He was able to make a nice, middle-class living at it, without too much stress.

Making small talk one day I mentioned something about lawyers and he laughed and told me that lawyers are his best clients, followed by stockbrokers. I naturally assumed it was because they made a lot of money and had expensive tastes. That was not it at all. He told me that overselling a lawyer was one of the easiest things to do in car sales. They walk around thinking they know everything and so they fall for every car sales trick in the book.

I’ve been thinking about this watching the political ructions. Donald Trump is a salesman and a very good one so he is doing extremely well as a novice politician, because politics is about sales. His competitors are mostly lawyers, who never took him seriously, because they are lawyers and smart. Everyone knows this so surely the smart lawyers will have no problem with the sales guy and his cheap theatrics.

The commentariat is similarly full of lawyers and people who went to law school. The funny thing about media lawyers is they rarely ever did real legal work. Those that did work in the business got out quickly and signed on for TV work. The other chattering skulls popped out of prep school and then went onto a private college, majoring in a soft field like political science. Like the lawyers, they walk around thinking they are the smartest guy in the room and they have been wrong about Trump at every turn.

To some degree, this is due to the difference between fields that reward the right answer and fields that reward clever answers. There’s no right answer as to why the French decided to attack uphill in the rain against the forces of Henry V at Agincourt. On the other hand, there is only one answer to the question of how many one centimeter spheres can fit into a one meter cube. You either have the correct answer or you do not and you have to show your work.

Where I’m heading with this is that lawyers probably suffer from the Dunning–Kruger effect because they were always the cheekiest and cleverest person in the classroom. They have high verbal skills and pretty credentials so they naturally assume that means they are brilliant. Steve Sailer points out that Barak Obama went from wall flower to social butterfly once he got into Harvard Law. His acceptance letter bestowed on him the sense he was the smartest guy in the room.

Now, the guys in the sales department have a different experience. They also have high verbal skills, but they spend their days losing many more deals than they win. They face the reality of their limitations every day. They also know that if they don’t sell, they don’t eat. There’s no failing up in their business. It’s why the sales guys can feast on lawyers. They have no illusions about themselves.

It’s another reason to wonder if the recipe for the managerial state contains ingredients that poison the stew. Failing up is a feature of the managerial class. They go from one failure to the next, rarely ever answering for their blunders. The economic team that advised Obama on the stimulus, for example, landed cushy positions in the academy. Tim Geithner is making millions influence peddling for Wall Street. This despite being 100% wrong about in their predictions.

A system based on mediocrities walking around convinced they are the smartest people in the room will inevitably become unstable. The unforced errors we are seeing could simply be a feature of a system that lacks a way to police the ranks. Instead, it rewards the most ruthless bureaucratic operators who are skilled at things useless to preserving the system. In many cases, like we saw with the housing bust-out, the most skillful members of the managerial class cause the greatest damage to it.

37 thoughts on “Lawyers and Salesmen

  1. I once knew someone who sold cars. Their best trick was to take the customer for a drive in the customer’s own car, and take them through a nearby industrial estate with grey walls and pot-holed roads. If there were any flowers growing there they would be scrubby weeds under miserable brick walls.

    However when the customer got into the test drive car the route would be over good roads in pleasant areas. The flowers they passed were gorgeous, in well-tended gardens. The result was that somehow the customer liked the new car a whole lot better than their old one. A sale usually ensued.

    Some would say politicians do the same.

  2. In the past, war was the equalizer. Mediocre leaders would lose wars. In modern Western Civilization, our politicians don’t generally live under the threat of military defeat.

  3. After 30+ years in the private sector, I work for one of the worst state governments in the Union. The passive corruption is legendary. The apparent by-word for why some bureaucratic hoop hasn’t been jumped through after 3 months of trying to just hire someone is, “It’s a process.” The reason why you can’t pay the contract vendors for almost 8 weeks when a lack of the State’s signature on the paperwork was discovered? “It’s a process.” It’s a process filled with mediocrities that have failed their way up to the highest levels of administrative bureaucracy. Some of them are so heavily medicated that they speak more gibberish than Joe Biden. They ALL talk that way, so no one notices that it’s INSANE. I think many of them once were normal people with normal I.Q.s but living in a madhouse will drive one mad out of necessity in order to get anything done.

  4. Lawyers, stock brokers, and car salesmen all work by building a “frame” around their proposition. When the lawyer prevails because of a good “framing” of his argument, he will consider himself omnipotent, as the weight of the law has just declared him correct. When the broker makes a trade, which was closed by his “framing” of the reasons to buy, and the shares rise in value for the customer, then the broker will consider himself an oracle, able to predict the future. When a car salesman “frames” the product appropriately to induce the customer to buy the car, there are no illusions, the salesman simply sees himself as a good salesman. All of this is why one will enjoy the social company of car salesmen over lawyers and brokers, every time. All salesmen must have a good sense of how to “frame” the argument for the sale, but, of the three, only the car salesman always understands and accepts that he is not changing the world here, simply doing his work, applying his skills, and going home at the end of the day. Some lawyers and brokers get it, too, but most get sucked in to believing that they are really special people, some sort of gift to the rest of us.

  5. So,where do I fit in? I grew up on my father’s used car, buying and selling anything that moved – and some that didn’t – and continued doing that on my own while putting myself through undergraduate & grad school as well as law school. Am I the smartest guy in the room who knows all the sales tricks or a blathering dumbass who has forgotten all he ever knew about human nature? One of the great mysteries of the universe.

  6. One more point, though this is somewhat technical. I checked their bios using wikipedia. Trump’s adversary’s are not mostly lawyers.

    Not counting the Republicans who never made it out of the undercard debates, Hilary Clinton, Cruz, Rubio, and Chris Christie are lawyers.

    None of the other candidates aren’t. Sanders, JEB Bush, Kasich, and Carson are not lawyers and only Carson of this group attended graduate school. Fiorina dropped out of law school.

    You probably meant to include the various consultants, operatives, and other hanger-ons. Some of the media talking heads have law degrees.

    • You’ll notice that the candidates who “matter”– Clinton, Cruz, Rubio– are all lawyers.
      Generally speaking, lawyers make crummy Presidents. It’s no coincidence that the two greatest Presidents of the 20th century, Eisenhower and Reagan, were not lawyers. Woodrow Wilson was the worst of both worlds– a failed lawyer who went on to be a truly awful Presdent.

  7. Wretchard would say that eventually the managers use up all the design margin and fail. The Chinese probably meant the same thing when they spoke of “losing the Mandate of Heaven.” Ibn Khaldun thought that every ruling class eventually becomes fat, lazy, and preoccupied by trifles, then fails.

    Me, I like Darwin. When a species thoroughly dominates its niche, sexual selection predominates over natural selection. All of the preening and posturing in our society seems to fit the category of sexual selection pretty well.

    But in a species as genetically diverse as humans, there will always be a segment that plays the part of the new apex predator. Eventually the coyotes come for the peacocks. Which is really just Khaldun with Science! added in.

    As always, great work, Z. You are running ahead of the pack.

    • el baboso, I agree; Z-Man and Wretchard are indeed ahead of the pack.

      I’ve been searching the web for wisdom for about 15 years now, and these two are the best.

      • I know what you mean by searching for wisdom on the web. This is my first visit here, and so far I like what I read.
        But over the years, since about 2008-9, I’ve come to rely on when I long for insight in matters relating to our culture and politics. Unhappily, its host, Lawrence Auster (d. March 2013) is now singing with the angels. But he’s left the site intact with everything archived and cared for by close friends. There is no activity on it, but the search engine works remarkably well. Just enter, for example, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and find out how anyone could have predicted what a disaster it would be. Or libertarianism — wow.
        But maybe you know the site already.

        • Auster is indeed a giant. I have only read a limited selection of his work, but that which I have read, was uniformly brilliant.

    • If you like Ibn Khaldun, I’d recommend Peter Turchin’s “War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires.” He uses Khaldun to spin a neat, not-altogether-convincing theory of imperial ascent and decline.

  8. The whole chattering class phenomenon fascinates me. How did these glorified stenographers ever get the idea they are geniuses? Yet, I keep hearing how Trump loses to Clinton in every head to head poll. How and why is that even possible, and how could the chattering heads believe it? No bubble is that big, surely?

  9. Interesting how all those conservatives talked about Obama thinking he is super smart and how wrong it was to elect someone so inexperienced. And so they now want to elect a Harvard educated one term Senator that is the “smartest guy in the room”. Some people never learn.

    • The similarities between Cruz and Obama are indeed eerie. Both are pseudo-intellectual idealogue single-term junior Senators who have never done anything productive in their lives (Obama was a “community organizer” and university lecturer, Cruz was a career bureaucrat), come from internationalist backgrounds (Obama born a Kenyan-American, raised in Indonesia and Hawaii, Cruz born in Canada, and is a Cuban-Canadian-American who actually had to renounce a foreign citizenship before he could run for POTUS) with oddball fathers (Cruz’s dad fought on Castro’s side during the Cuban Revolution and fled from Bautista, Obama’s father was an alcoholic polygamist).

  10. “French decided to attack uphill in the rain against the forces of Henry V at Agincourt.”

    really? I thought it was super muddy fields, mostly level, just after the rain. The French men-at-arms got bogged down & shot full of arrows. The English archers were on the hills, but a few French only went after them once and got pole-axed (literally) by the archers. or perhaps I’m wrong. Wasn’t there

    • I was going off memory, but I think the French crossbowmen got rained on which made their crossbows ineffective. But, I could be thinking of Crecy or another battle. What’s always stuck with me about this period is how the French were so slow at learning how to contend with the superior English tactics and ranged weapons. It may be why I imagine heavily armed French men-at-arms charging up muddy hills.

      • Your larger point about slow learning is correct. All of those battles featured the War bow (longbow). A superior weapon for which the French had no answer. The French crossbowmen were available & fairly effective, but nobody ordered them forward for most of the battle. Terrible generalship.

      • The English arrows actually used iron points which were ineffective against French steel armor. The French did get stuck in the mud, and ran over themselves because of the natural bottle neck in the field. So the English archers finished them off by hand. There was more luck than skill to the English outcome at Agincourt. UKer – bring on the hate mail! 🙂

        As an engineer, I’ve never thought very highly of salesmen. We spend years in University completing an engineering degree. They come along out of high school in a nice suit. We come up with the idea or product. They sell them and make a commission off it and we never see a penny other than our normal salary. They drive a nice big BMW wile we’re driving a 10-year old Opel. Something not quite right about that.

        • Retired now, but oh so many times in my career as a sales engineer, out in the field, face to face with the customer, I had to cover for flaws in products designed by the engineer who was then comfortably home with his family. And this: At Agincourt, “The English and Welsh archers carried a more powerful bow than their fathers and grandfathers under Edward III and the Black Prince. Armour piercing arrow heads made this weapon more deadly than its predecessor, stocks of thousands of arrows being built up in the Tower of London in preparation for war.” ( I recall reading in another account that there were instances of the English arrows actually going through the knight and into the horse thus attaching the two.

        • Agincourt was a classic case of interrupting something that didn’t need to be interrupted. Henry the Fifth was going home, as quickly as he could as his invasion and attacks further south had yielded little reward and most of his surviving army had already gone back to England as it was harvest time: soldiers then were recruited from the land workers and having food through the winter was more important than the king’s glory.

          The French should have let them go as the retreating English were no threat, but they had visions of glory too and wanted ransom money. The French flew the oriflamme which was a flag signalling ‘no prisoners’ but the attraction was to grab an English lord or even the king and make a fortune from ransoming them (actually, Henry’s forces did the same, and people having grabbed a French knight would retreat to the back to defend their capture. For a small force that selfish action could be disastrous.) On a rain-sodden battlefield and much too narrow, the French despite superior numbers had to try and attack in three waves. The rear force was unprepared (off exercising their horses) the leaders quickly got bogged down, the second wave ploughed into the back of the front force, and as the English had kept their bow strings dry they rained arrows on the hapless struggling riders.

          The English archers probably got through their arrows in a couple of minutes, but they carried hammers, not swords, and would step forward to deliver a deadly blow to the head of each knight.

          It was a famous, if unexpected victory for Henry and put much needed money in the English economy with the ransoms gained.

          • Yes Karl, indeed it was luck, but then a lot of battles turn out that way 🙂 And I would never hate you. Honest.

          • I’m sure the BBC has done something along this topic. Don’t they have some sort of team that investigates these events, from a scientific or archeological perspective indented to validate the history vs. legend?
            The “hate mail” was in jest. 🙂 I too enjoy the banter on this blog site.

          • IIRC, the BBC did something on the question of the long bow’s effectiveness against French armor. I recall watching a show featuring older men in tweed shooting arrows at period metal armor. My recollection is they determined that the long bow was not all that effective against men in plate armor, but would have been devastating to opposing archers, light infantry and animals. I also recall them having young guys try to run through a bog in armor, but that may have been something else. Watch enough of these shows and they tend to run together.

          • The developments in armour-piercing arrows was offset by opponents having better designed plate armour to deflect arrows away.*

            In a way, that sums up the whole story of the development of war not only then but now.

            *The legend of the English longbowman prompted Wellington, before embarking to lead the fight against Napoleon’s armies in the Iberian peninsula, asking for a division of bowmen to help him. He was disappointed to learn that none had existed for a long time…

        • Karl, the funny thing about sales is, everybody who isn’t a salesman complains how salespeople have such fun, easy jobs and make so much money. I ran a sales department for many years, and wasn’t shy about telling anyone else in the company that anytime they wanted to try doing the fun, easy, high-paying job, my door was open, and all they had to do was walk in and I’d figure out a way to give them a shot at it. Can you guess how many people walked through that door during the better part of a decade?

    • The Agincourt comment thread brings out a point I was going to make about one of the throwaway lines. It was a familiar argument about the inherent superiority of STEM, because after all STEM involves mathematical equations to which there is one right answer, while look at Agincourt, there is no right answer! This sort of argument comes up on Marginal Revolution all the time. Its become something of a trope among engineers.

      Of course it is completely untrue. There are right answers to Agincourt. The French either attacked in the rain, or they didn’t. There was either a hill or there wasn’t. Even with their tactics, they either were good tactics or not. These aren’t matters of interpretation.

      The thing with history is that since it deals with actual events, its hard to determine even basic facts about the events. They depend on eyewitnesses. With lots of medieval battles there isn’t even reliable documentation about their location. You have to look at other battles to see if the French tactics made sense or not. Actually, throughout the period pretty much nothing could withstand an armored charge in an open field. Usually the defenders broke and tried to run away. That particular day it didn’t work, for a number of factors. It is true that the French weren’t under their “A” leadership, the French King was literally mentally incompetent. They should have left the English continue on their way, they were heading back to Calais and didn’t pose much of a threat at that point.

      And much of the commentary on lawyers is unfair, since jury trials are exercises in nailing down facts that are uncertain or ambiguous. Of course this applies to prosecutors and defense trial lawyers. Many lawyers, including the most highly paid, are in effect salesmen. I may be missing the point.

  11. I like to think of our problem with the elite class differently. I think it’s basic nepotism. We all have idiots in our family that cannot survive in the real world, and we would take care of them if we could, but we can’t so they sort of flounder through life getting by on luck and family “loans”, but the elites are different. They can protect their idiots.

    They tuck them away in high paying, but unimportant jobs in the bureaucracy, non-profits and the like, since the bureaucracy is now full up of idiots things start to go wrong, and no one can figure out just how it became this incompetent. The idiots will create a crisis, that will fitness test them, and if they can’t perform they’ll lose their position, they’ll be purged. The crisis will also allow those who aren’t in the elite, but are competent rise and become the new elite class. The new elite class purged of nepotistic idiots will now function as it should, for a time.

Comments are closed.