Fear, Ego, and an Endless Cycle of Poor Decisions

I live in a small town in northern Michigan called Traverse City. It’s a quaint, picturesque town of 17,000 residents, although the population, hustle and bustle of the area swells during the summer months. People flock from all over the world to enjoy the beauty of Lake Michigan and the incredible food, wine and craft beer scene that this region offers.

Over the last five years (my family has lived here two years), Traverse City has experienced tremendous growth, both in its primary industries of tourism, hospitality and agriculture, as well as new industries such as technology. There’s even a new tech incubator here, and an angel fund that was formed to help attract and cultivate the growing number of startups in the area.

The entrepreneurial scene is booming. Interesting and creative new businesses are opening every week here. Young people and young families looking for a different way of life continue to migrate here from busy urban areas at a steady clip. They’re building businesses around their lives, rather than lives around their businesses. A risk taking ecosystem and ethos has taken hold.

But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, it wasn’t at all this way just a few years ago. And it didn’t happen by accident.

It required bold action by individuals to establish and nourish Traverse City’s growing entrepreneurial ecosystem. It took people willing to start businesses and do things that had never been done before in this town. As you might expect, those early movers were met with resistance. “You can’t do that here,” “That will never work,” and “That’s not the way things are done,” were common refrains.

It takes a lot of grit and gumption to push forward in the face of doubt and criticism. It would have been much easier for many of Traverse City’s first wave of new, would-be entrepreneurs to lessen their ambition and just open up another ice cream shop in what was, at the time, a sleepy tourist town. After all, an ice cream shop is a proven concept. You can make a living operating an ice cream shop. If you decide to open up an ice cream shop, you won’t hear “That will never work here.”

In 2013, friends of mine in Traverse City had a crazy idea – at least they were told it was crazy at the time. They owned and operated two successful establishments in Brooklyn, a restaurant and a bar. They had recently started a family and decided that they wanted a change of pace and so moved from New York City to Traverse City. Upon arriving in Traverse City, they purchased an old, dilapidated market with a large parking lot out front in a relatively undeveloped part of town. Their idea was to open up the parking lot to food trucks and they built an open air bar with dining space for patrons. Customers would buy food from the food trucks and drinks from the bar – at least that was the idea.

There were a few problems with their idea though. There was only one food truck operating in Traverse City at the time. And the city’s zoning ordinances didn’t make it easy for additional trucks to get started. So they didn’t know if there would be demand. And even if there was demand they couldn’t be sure there would be supply to meet it.

The only thing they really had going for them was intuition, guided by experience. What happened next could be called luck. Around the time their new establishment opened, the city passed a new ordinance loosening restrictions on the operation of food trucks in town. But if it was luck, it was of the variety described by Thomas Jefferson when he said, “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.”

Today, four short years later, The Little Fleet is (and has been almost from its inception) a thriving, growing business. The funny thing is that since The Little Fleet opened, several business owners in town have tried to open something similar, but none have succeeded. The Little Fleet is always packed, so you’d think that offering an alternative would work. But it hasn’t worked. Attempts at imitation have all failed.


If you’ve hung on with me this long, you’re probably wondering what the heck all of this has to do with lawyers, law firms, branding and business development. I think there’s a lesson in Traverse City’s experience that our industry can learn from.

When it comes to marketing, promotion and business development tactics, lawyers and law firms too often operate from a crouch of fear. They sit back and survey the market, only changing their behavior once the behavior has, by consensus, been established as a “best practice.” As a result, they do things that are the equivalent of opening up an ice cream shop rather than a food truck lot and open air bar.

Worse yet, they make decisions driven by ego, rather than data and intuition. They see their colleagues and contemporaries featured in some meaningless “greatest lawyer” vanity publication, and they insist on being included, too.

A remarkable (and lamentable) thing happened in the City of Detroit several years ago. One of the top personal injury lawyers in the area started running ads on billboards around town. In less than a year virtually every billboard in town was snapped up by other PI lawyers and soon featured nearly indistinguishable “tough lawyer” glamour shots paired with 1-800 phone numbers. There is no way this phenomenon was the result of data driven decisions. Marketing dollars can be deployed in far better ways than billboards. It was all the result of ego.

The point is that too many lawyers are in a state of inaction due to fear of what others will think of their decision to act differently. And when they do act, it’s only after a behavior has become so well entrenched as a best practice that it has lost its effectiveness and relevance. By the time they jump in, the sea is filled with others kicking and thrashing for attention. Even worse is when their actions are ego-driven, and they invest time and resources with no regard to return on investment, but rather do so because it’s what others they’re chasing are doing.

It’s the first movers in any market that garner the attention, and establish loyalty among audiences. It’s the original food truck lot, not the imitators who tried to jump on board the bandwagon.

Recently I’ve started talking about my intuition that Instagram will become an important platform for lawyers and law firms in the coming years. It’s only natural that a platform with over 700 million users worldwide, that allows individuals and brands to freely disseminate content, can be leveraged to great effect by businesses. It already is being successfully leveraged by many brands, in fact. But when I mention Instagram as a platform that lawyers and law firms should start storytelling on, the reaction I often get is doubt and skepticism. I believe that will soon change, however.

Before long some firm, or some lawyer, is going to realize the power of the platform, take a chance, and reap the rewards. And then others will follow. But for many it will be too late. They’ll be getting up to speed on the platform at a time when the first movers have moved on to the next thing. And the cycle will repeat.

Instagram is not special or unique. It’s just a modern metaphor for the many marketing and business development strategies and tactics that too many lawyers have missed the boat on due to decisions (or indecision) driven by fear and ego.

If you want to change your practice, you need to change your behavior, irrespective of what everyone else in the legal market is doing or saying. To be noticed, you must be bold.