Building a brand and making it on CNN

Young lawyers are constantly learning about marketing by building a brand within our profession. Not very many young lawyers, however, have had the success to where they have been picked up by CNN’s car service and interviewed as an expert on national television.

But that’s what happened to Alex Tanouye, a partner in the Estate Planning and Administration group at Pasternak & Fidis PC in Bethesda. He landed an interview on CNN’s “The Situation Room” following Prince’s death, where he was asked about the probate of Prince’s estate in the absence of a will. The piece containing Alex’s interview is available here.

Alex is a relatively young attorney, having graduated from the University of Maryland Carey School of Law in December 2005. I recently spoke with Alex about how he came to be interviewed on CNN, the interview experience and advice to young attorneys about building a brand so that others can be in position to receive a call to be interviewed.

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JR: So for starters, tell me a little bit about your practice.

AT: For the past several years it’s been about 50 percent estate and trust disputes and litigation and the other 50 percent estate planning work. I worked for Virginia McArthur, a D.C.-based estate planning attorney, while I was in law school. I’ve done nothing other than trusts and estates since before I graduated and passed the bar. I was lucky to discover the practice well before I finished law school and I was able to tailor the second half of my law school curriculum based on my interest. The litigation part of it I started doing while I was at LEB [Lerch Early & Brewer Chtd. in Bethesda] about 5 years ago.

JR: And in addition to being a lawyer, you’re also a musician?

AT: I started playing guitar when I was in 7th grade or so. I initially went to music school at Loyola University in New Orleans, intending to major in guitar performance. The problem with that whole plan was that I was largely self-taught, couldn’t read music, and knew no music theory before I applied to school. I passed my audition and went for the first year, it became evident to me shortly after I started that they were really training people to be music teachers, which was not what I wanted to do. I then transferred to [the University of] Maryland and got a liberal arts degree.

JR: So it sounds like this was the interview you were born for.

AT: [Laughs] I still play guitar every day, but music is something I do for relaxation and enjoyment; it’s a hobby bordering on obsession. I played in bands and gigged for a while during college, but it’s always just been something I did for fun. Prince was a very good guitar player; I would have been happy to talk about that with the reporter!

JR: Turning back to marketing, what are some of the ways that you have marketed yourself and your practice so far?

AT: I make it a point to get out and meet other practitioners, be it lawyers, accountants, financial advisors and valuation experts. I try to identify people I think I can help from a professional perspective. I think the most important thing I have done that has been fruitful is always to be helpful, and provide advice when requested, to other practitioners, and let them can bounce ideas off of me. I always make time for calls from people I think I can help.

JR: Tell me a little bit about the call to be on CNN. Did it come out of the blue? Who reached out to you?

AT: They contacted the firm looking for somebody in the D.C. area who could provide some insight and analysis as to what happens when someone of Prince’s celebrity dies without a will, and where there is a lot of money at stake. They were looking for somebody who could give them some general legal information on intestacy, particularly with respect to Prince and his estate. They called us on Monday, which was the day the piece ran, and the day of a hearing in Minnesota where Prince’s full-blood sister petitioned for the appointment of a special administrator. I think they were looking for a trusts and estates lawyer to provide a little bit of analysis and context as to what that process would be like.

JR: Did they tell you in advance what they were going to ask you about?

AT: No. I think at the point they called me they weren’t sure what the angle was. They were looking for somebody who could go down there and answer general questions about the unfolding scenario and as the piece took shape they would find a way to fit it in or omit entirely what I said. I told them I’m not licensed to practice in Minnesota so I couldn’t speak to the proceeding there, but that I could identify the legal and practical issues likely to arise. They were not looking for anything specific to Minnesota law, they were just looking for information on what happens when someone die without a will and where there is likely to be conflict.

JR: Where did the interview take place?

AT: It was at CNN headquarters in D.C. They sent a car to pick me up, and during the ride down there I was doing research on my phone. I was able to get a copy of the petition that was filed and I did some basic reading on what a special administrator does in Minnesota. I am familiar with the law in Maryland on this, so I focused on learning how the office is different in Minnesota.

JR: Now, be honest, was the purple tie intentional?

AT: [Laughs] No. [My wife] Daphne gave me that tie during our first Christmas together. That’s really the only nice tie I own. That’s the one I put on when I have to wear a suit. If I have to be in court two days in a row, it’s the one I put on the first day.

JR: How much makeup did they make you wear?

AT: They put some kind of powder on my face with a brush so I wouldn’t be shiny. That was it. It was put on in less than a minute-and-a-half.

JR: How long did you actually answer questions and how much time did you actually end up appearing on air?

AT: The interview process was about 20 minutes. I talked with the reporter and his producer informally about the issues for about 10 minutes before the camera started rolling. I think my voice is on the piece for about 15 seconds. There was a chance I’d go down there and do all this and it would be completely omitted from the story.

JR: On the whole, what was the most fun part about the experience?

AT: The most exciting part was when we turned on the TV in the conference room [at the firm] and waited to see if I would appear. I was relieved when I heard my voice for the first time. Right before my statement, there was lengthy discussion about roasted beets and minestrone; two foods that Prince apparently liked. At that point, it appeared the story was about over and I thought I was on the cutting room floor. To end up on TV even for a little bit of time was cool. I was relieved that the statement they put on there wasn’t something that sounded dumb. I was happy with what they included.

JR: Finally, do you have any other words of wisdom for young attorneys about how they can build a brand and land their own minutes of fame as a subject matter expert on national TV?

AT: It really helps to do work that you enjoy and find interesting. I say that because when I got to work that day, it was Monday morning and I had my whole workday planned out. I had no idea I would wind up at CNN a few hours later being interviewed for a story about Prince. There is no way I would have been willing to be interviewed on an international TV network on a story that I didn’t have much particular information about if I was doing work I didn’t find interesting and if I wasn’t prepared on a basic level with what could happen. I find it easy to talk about work because I love doing it and find it interesting. Doing work that you like makes it a lot easier to talk about it, whether that’s on TV, in an elevator, at a networking event, or even in an informal conversation with another lawyer or professional. I think when you get an opportunity to present yourself to a large audience and talk about something you’re interested in, it’s always worth doing.

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I’d like to thank Alex for taking a few minutes on a busy Friday to field a call from me and not hanging up on me when I asked him about wearing makeup.

Finally, as a point of personal privilege, I want to thank The Daily Recordfor selecting me as a Generation J.D. award winner at this year’s Leadership in Law awards.  The awards dinner was a very special night. It is a true honor and one that I do not take lightly.

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