Once upon a time there lived a fisherman named Jay Dee. Every day Jay went to Lake Beeglaw to fish. Lake Beeglaw was the biggest lake in the entire country, and it was home to the biggest fish. Just one fish from Lake Beeglaw could feed a family for weeks. Consequently, Lake Beeglaw was the most popular fishing lake in the country.
But fishing at Lake Beeglaw was hard for Jay. Because the lake was so popular, Jay had a very difficult time even finding a place to cast his line. Jay had only a small canoe, and the bigger and more established fisherman all had big commercial boats. Whereas Jay used a simple fishing reel, many of the other fishermen used nets. Jay sometimes went weeks without receiving a bite, much less catching a fish.
One day, Jay decided to leave Lake Beeglaw and find another, less crowded lake…
Jay found a new, smaller lake that he had all to himself. Jay was happy that he didn’t have to try to compete with the top commercial fishermen. The fish in the new lake were a lot smaller than the fish in Lake Beeglaw, but Jay caught far more fish now than he had ever caught in Lake Beeglaw. Jay was happy.
Two of Jay’s friends who were still fishing in Lake Beeglaw saw what Jay had done, and they, too, wanted to fish at Jay’s new lake. Jay was nervous. Jay thought, “If my friends fish in my lake, they will catch all the fish!”
But Jay was lonely. He missed the hustle and bustle of all the fishermen at Lake Beeglaw. And unless he let his friends join him, he would not have anyone to talk to. So Jay let his friends fish at his lake even though he worried that there would not be enough fish to go around.
When Jay’s two friends joined him, the amount of bait in the water tripled. This attracted many more fish than when Jay was fishing alone. To Jay’s surprise, once his friends joined him, Jay started catching even more fish than he had before. Jay was delighted, and he lived happily ever after.
* * *
I made up this fable to remind myself about karma. Being competitive can be very positive, but jealousy and insecurity are negative, defeatist emotions that only hinder us. Like fungus that thrives in the dark but withers in the light of day, those emotions lose much of their power when exposed and confronted head on. Let me explain by way of example.
A couple years ago, I read with concern a story about a new law firm that opened in San Francisco. The guys who opened the firm had a story that was similar to mine: former Biglaw associates with strong pedigrees striking out on their own with lower rates.
Everything about this new firm made me nervous. They specialized in employment litigation, an area that my own firm was also aggressively marketing. Their website looked great. Their experience and pedigrees were impressive. All my natural insecurities surfaced.
When confronted with a competitive threat, our first instinct is avoidance because if you’re here alone, there’s no one to compete. So we rationalize: “We don’t care about them. We’re better than they are. We’re smarter than they are. They can’t do what we did.”
But I forced myself to remember my fable, and that more fishermen in a small pond means that more fish would be attracted. So, I reached out to the new firm and offered my help. My partner and I shared ideas about malpractice insurance, about IT, marketing, whatever. I took it on faith that trying to help my competitors would, somehow, help me in the long run.
Once I met the guys, we hit it off and it was pretty hard not to like them. We had a lot in common and, when we offered them our help, not surprisingly, they responded in kind by offering to help us. Before long we were meeting somewhat regularly to share ideas and offer mutual encouragement.
Fast-forward two years. Those erstwhile competitors, now friends, have referred several potential matters to us. And we have referred several potential matters to them. I suppose it is conceivable that there is some client out there who will hire them and who would have otherwise hired us. In other words, I suppose it’s possible that our help caused us to lose a fish. But that remote possibility is easily offset by the number of new fish attracted to us by virtue of the extra fishermen.
This dynamic has repeated itself over and over in my life. When I first considered blogging about small law, I worried about revealing secrets of my firm’s success. What if my advice was good, and other firms followed it and succeeded? Would that cost me clients? Would we lose our advantage by sharing that which made us different?
But I remembered my fable and my faith in karma. There is no shortage of potential clients out there. And my advice, such as it is, isn’t exactly the Da Vinci Code or the recipe for Coca-Cola. It simply isn’t realistic to worry that any particular client would decline to hire my firm merely because I offered advice intended to help another firm.
I recognize that helping others doesn’t always benefit the helper. Sometimes business is cutthroat. Maybe those extra fishermen will steal your bait or, worse yet, steal the fish you catch. Karma is more an aspiration than a prediction; I can’t prove that it’s true. But true or not, naïve or profound, I’m certain that trying to help others feels right and makes for a more pleasant existence. Hopefully, it also will lead to business success. Happy fishing.
Tom Wallerstein lives in San Francisco and is a partner with Colt Wallerstein LLP, a Silicon Valley litigation boutique. The firm’s practice focuses on high tech trade secret, employment, and general complex-commercial litigation. He can be reached at email@example.com.