EPISODE 13 — Mike Morse — Building the Fireproof Law Firm
Mike Morse is the founder of Michigan’s largest personal injury firm, but he’s hit his fair share of hurdles on his journey to the top. Mike categorizes catastrophic events as fires — make or break moments that can spell the end of a career…or be the catalyst for change.
On this episode of The Game Changing Attorney Podcast, he tells us about two twin tragedies in life — a literal fire and a metaphorical one — and how losing 60% of his cases actually let him dominate the market.
Want to hear the rest of the story? You’ll want to listen all the way until the end on this one…
1:46 – How waiting tables prepared Mike to practice law. “I love hiring people who have worked in restaurants and who have waited tables. I’ve actually thought about writing a book about how waiting tables has made me a successful trial lawyer. If you’re a waiter or waitress working in the service industry, you know how to deal with customers, you know how to multitask, and you know how to read people. So when I would go up to a table — every table is different. Some people want talkative waiters, some people want an informative waiter, some people want to be left alone. You have to be able to read the table, within a second. And that helped me with jurors. So, when I would go in front of jurors and I’d start talking to them, I could tell instantly if they liked me, if they didn’t like me, if they were annoyed to be there, if they were happy to be there.”
2:58 – Like father, like son. “My father was a personal injury lawyer, and I grew up obviously admiring him. Every Saturday as a child, he would take me to downtown Detroit, to his office building. I remember those days fondly. We would ride the elevators up 20-30 floors to his office. I saw his clients — how they greeted him. I would go to depositions with him, and I would sometimes go to court with them. I saw his passion for his clients, I saw his love for the law, and it made me want to be a lawyer. I never really considered anything else.”
4:56 – Overcoming obstacles. “In my first year of law school, during my exam period of first year, my father was down in Mexico giving a speech to other trial lawyers for one of the national trial institutes, and he died of a heart attack at age 49. I talked to him that morning. I got the call that he died in Mexico, and it was probably the single worst event in my entire life. I had two more exams to take. I’m thinking, ‘Do I even want to be a lawyer anymore?’ My law school professors made me take the exams. I had to take the exams. He got me a job my first year at the largest personal injury firm in Michigan at the time, coincidentally, because he wanted me to get real world experience before I worked for him. He wanted other lawyers to teach me other than him, and I still showed up at that job a week later. It was a hard summer missing my dad. I mean, 49 years old. I’m 52 now, and it’s crazy to think about. He’s been gone 30 years, but that was my first — other than my parents getting divorced — that was my first major fire that I had in my life. It was pretty brutal, but I moved on. I finished law school, cum laude. Then I worked for another firm for a few years and later set up my practice in 1995, three years after that.”
7:33 – Taking control of his destiny. “I was young. I was, you know, 1995 I was 27, 28 years old, and I just said, ‘I can’t do this. I don’t want to put my life in anybody else’s hands again I want to start taking control of my own destiny.’ So without a case, I rented a little office. A buddy of mine from law school introduced me to his landlord, and they gave me an office. I rented a desk, I rented a chair, I shared a receptionist. I couldn’t afford a secretary, and I went out to
try to make a living.”
8:45 – Becoming fireproof. “One Friday at three o’clock in the morning, I got a call that my office was on fire. I hopped in the car — I’m getting chills telling the story — I mean I sped to my office and saw the fire trucks there. My secretary was there, and we stood there and we cried. That was devastating. That was three, four, or five in the morning, and by 9 AM, we had managed to set up a tent in the parking lot. We dragged the phones with a really long cord out to the parking lot. My receptionist Jamie (who I mentioned earlier from the restaurant job) was answering phones at 9 AM. My server was protected somehow. We moved it off-site, and my lawyers were able to log in and get their summaries for court that morning and depositions. Nothing was cancelled. Not a phone call was missed.”
10:30 – Advice for young attorneys. “One of my mentors — my deceased father-in-law, Steve — introduced me to a very large advertiser here in town, and he put me on this list. That means I was able to get his overflow, and I recommend this for every young lawyer listening to this podcast. I think that’s one of the best ways to grow your practice — to get the overflow or the B, C, or D cases, and cut your teeth on those.”
13:26 – Putting skin in the game. “When this person fired me again, I was scared — but then, it gave me an opportunity to write the rest of my destiny. I could have taken the cases that were coming in, laid off some people, and had a little firm, and done okay. That was an option, but because my COO and I had such good data and such good process in place, we met
and he said, ‘Michael, you know you’re spending $4 million a year in referral fees. Eventually, we could have those cases and keep that $4 million. We should take that money and put it on TV, and compete in our market’ — in a very, very, very competitive market with over $30 million a year spent on TV advertising — and within a few minutes, it wasn’t a very hard decision. I decided that’s what we’re going to do.”
15:23 – A change of plans. “It was never my goal to be as big as we are. My CEO John tells a story that I think he was number 29 hired into my firm, and I remember during the interview I said I didn’t want more than 30 employees. We hired our 30, and then I said, ‘Okay John, I do not want more than 50 employees.’ He said, ‘Okay Michael, I hear you.’ Then I said, ‘John, I do not want more than 100 employees. I will hurt you if you hire 100 employees.’ And then, ‘John, if you hire 150 employees…’ And we went over 150.”
18:36 – Why keep going? “I’m an entrepreneur, and entrepreneurs are not satisfied. We don’t get complacent, and we always want to improve, and that’s just kind of what’s happening. We adapt, and I love that part of it. I love the problems. I mean, I’ve been in my best element when I’m solving problems. And so, I’m having fun, and if it all ended today, okay. So it was never about the money. It was never about having as many lawyers. It was just: I’m having fun.”
21:00 – You can’t do it alone. “I can’t say how much a consultant or a coach — whatever you want to call them — how important it is, and I know you do that at Crisp and I commend it. It’s so important that lawyers learn about how to run a business, learn what an integrator is, learn what a visionary is. I had no clue, but because I learned, it freed me up to not be everything. Lawyers try to be everything, and you can’t do it. It’s impossible, unless you want to be a 2, 3, 4 person law firm. Nothing wrong with that, but if you want growth and you want freedom to do anything with your kids or write a book or travel or try more cases or whatever it is — you need help.”
23:13 – Being a visionary. “So, a visionary is also known as an entrepreneur in my opinion. That’s the person who comes up with 100 ideas a day, and maybe one of them is good — and usually they don’t have enough time to follow through on any of the ideas, because they’re also working on implementing everything in their business. So, I first had to realize, ‘Okay Michael, you’re the visionary. You’re acting as the visionary and the integrator. You can’t or else you’ll never grow. You keep it up, you’ll hit the ceiling. You can’t bust through the roof by yourself.’”
27:30 – You may need an integrator. “It’s just a rare thing to have a visionary and an integrator work to be the same person. It doesn’t work all that often. It’s rare. It’s a unicorn, and most lawyers listening to this are that — but they’re probably hitting the ceiling and need that second in command.”
28:16 – Finding the right person. “You’ve got to look outside the box. I’ve had people say, ‘You have somebody running your firm that’s not a lawyer?’ Yeah, I do. And thank God. So, it’s really about networking. I mean, John worked in the auto industry. I mean, he didn’t work in law or insurance. He knew nothing, but he was a people person, he was smart, and he had an MBA. You may have to hire a headhunter. Go on LinkedIn. Go on Indeed. Send out emails to every single person — you know, this is what I’m looking for. Be ready to pay.”
30:06 – The Jumbotron Principle. “So, the Jumbotron Principle is basically this: imagine sitting in a stadium, and what you do you’re constantly looking up at the jumbotron. And why? Well, you need to know the score. You need to know how many yards to the next first down. You need to know timeouts — everything. But the coaches and the players are looking to the jumbotron too, just looking at the replays to see how good they look. They’re looking to see how many points they need. ‘Do I need to go for two? Do I need to go for one? Do I need to go for a field goal, touchdown, whatever it is?’ And without the jumbotron, and without somebody telling them these numbers, they’re in the dark. They can’t play the game, and they can’t win. So, before I met John or Gino, I didn’t have a jumbotron. It was black, it was blank. My secretary might say, ‘Michael, we need a new copy machine,’ and I said, ‘Well, is there enough money in the bank for a new copy machine?’ I didn’t know how much money I was making — and I know that sounds crass and weird and strange, but I’ll bet you a lot of lawyers out there have no idea what the numbers really are and how much they’re making. They know there’s money in the bank. Great. I could pay myself, I could pay people, and just make decisions like that — you know, without a budget, without thought. So, John put together a really robust scorecard or jumbotron that talked about how many calls come in a day/a week/a month, how much money is coming in a day/a week/a month, how many settlements are coming in, who’s making the settlements, and what lawyers are making the settlements.”
35:36 – You’ve got to do something different. “When I was fired from 60+ percent of my cases, I had to go on TV. So I watched all the commercials, and I scoured the country, and I didn’t like the lawyer commercials out there. I thought they all sucked. They were vanilla. They were a big commodity. They’re all the same. But I kind of got it, because part of my brain said, ‘Well, if it’s working for them, it works. People don’t care. People like crappy commercials,’ but something in my heart and my gut said, ‘We need to be different because I don’t have a name. I don’t have $10 million a year to compete. So we need to do something different.’”
38:00 – Cherry Garcia instead of vanilla. “One of the bullies has recently run an ad in my local market basically making fun of my commercials saying, ‘I don’t do skits with my mom, blah blah blah.’ I’ve gotten 100 emails just on that saying, ‘Keep your mom and your commercials. He has no idea what he’s talking about. You’re the best, and he’s a bully,’ and that he’s trying to push me around. I’m not changing for him. I’m controlling my own destiny. Being different is the key to finding your message, finding your niche, and not hiring one of these big advertising agencies that’s going to run the same ad in 20, 30, 40 markets, in my opinion.”
40:18 – Growing thicker skin. “Everybody wants to kill the king. Right? And I’m not the king, but we do have the largest firm. I don’t know how my revenue compares to other firms, but we’re doing okay. I’ve had lots of competitors come after me. I’ve had insurance companies come after me — all baseless things. I’ve had the grievance commission come after me. We beat that. People don’t want one firm or one person to be that successful, and I have had to grow thicker skin during this success because the success wasn’t planned, the growth wasn’t planned, and the critics and the controversies that have come with the success weren’t planned. I didn’t like it. Nobody wants to be accused of things and called names and all this stuff, but when you know that you’re doing nothing wrong, it’s easier to sleep at night, and you defend yourself, and you move on.”
43:18 – A passion to teach. “This felt like time to give back to the legal community who’s given me so much. I’ve always loved teaching. I taught at my law school for a few years. My dad was a teacher. I like lecturing. I like talking, and we felt like we had this special information that so many people didn’t have, and it felt selfish to not share. I know that my competitors are going to read it, and in my little market here in Detroit, my one little DMA that I’m in. But I don’t care, I mean, I’m at a point that I just don’t care. I love to go to conferences like the Crisp conference, and I love meeting new people and sharing these ideas and learning and speaking. It’s a passion.”
46:00 – What does being a game changer mean to you? “It means doing things differently.
It means treating your staff with respect. It means being loyal. It means having the courage to stand up for what’s right and be able to have a firm that you’re proud of by sharing everything you can — by sharing your knowledge, by making your community better in any way possible. That is what we try to do. That’s why we set up a foundation to do it. And it’s been a game changer for us in Detroit. It’s just been a wonderful ride. I’m only 52 and it’s still going.”
Fireproof by Mike Morse
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