< back to articles listings

How to Avoid the Tyranny of Choice

by Jay Reeves |

Here’s some free advice: if you want to make your clients happy, don’t give them too many choices.

That may sound counterintuitive. After all, it’s their case. They’re the Ultimate Deciders. Your job is to supply the map, point out different routes to the destination, and let them choose.

But while some choice is better than none, more can mean misery, as psychologist Barry Schwartz showed in his influential 2004 study The Tyranny of Choice

Just the other night, my wife and I fell prey to this tyranny. After hours of scouring Netflix for something to watch – viewing countless Adam Sandler trailers, combing through the Recently Added list, wondering whether to Watch It Again – we finally gave up and went to bed. The sheer number of choices had been exhausting and paralyzing.

Then again, I should have known better. I was introduced to the Tyranny of Choice way back in the early ‘90s, when my hair was abundant, my law practice booming, and my family was run by five tiny tyrants who demanded total submission – especially at breakfast time.


All Hail the Breakfast Machine

I lay most of the blame at the bicycle-pedaling feet of Pee-Wee Herman. After a home screening of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure – with endless VHS replays of the Breakfast Machine scene, which my children found inexplicably hilarious – I anointed myself Emperor of Eggs (and Bacon). Calamity soon followed.

“What do you want for breakfast?” I asked the next morning. 

“Pancakes!” cried Charlie, the oldest.

“French toast!” cried Bo, the next in line.

“Eggs Benedict topped with hollandaise, asparagus and a sprig of fresh mint!” cried Rachel, the troublemaker.

“Whatever Dad wants to fix!” cried Mary Ann, the only compassionate one in the lot. 

“Omee!” cried Rudy, who was pre-verbal but meant oatmeal, the only food he would eat. 

Outnumbered and overmatched, I considered fleeing. But there was no escaping this ravenous brood. And then, just when things started to get ugly, inspiration struck.

“How about ice cream?”

“Yay,” cried all except Rudy, who began sobbing as he continued to demand Omee.


The Genius of Monty Hall

Of course I knew ice cream was not a sustainable solution. But how to climb out of this breakfast hole I’d dug for myself?

The answer, it turned out, lay in the superb education I received at the University of South Carolina Law School. In Contracts 101, our professor used the game show Let’s Make a Deal to illustrate the principles of offer and acceptance. In the final round, contestants aren’t given unlimited doors to choose from. They can only select Door Number One, Two or Three. 

And Eureka! The Emperor of Eggs (and Bacon) was back in business.

“Which of these three delicious and nutritious cereals do you want for breakfast?” I asked, channeling the masterful Monty Hall as I gestured to the boxes on display.

“Fruit Loops!” cried Charlie. 

“Lucky Charms!” cried Bo. 

“All of them!” cried Rachel, still causing trouble.

“Whatever Dad wants!” cried Mary Ann, still the sweetest. 

“Omee!” cried Rudy, but I was prepared for him too, with a packet of Quaker Oats Brown Sugar & Cinnamon oatmeal in his bowl and ready for the microwave. 

And a happy breakfast was had by all.


Too Much Freedom Can Be Dizzying

But those were simpler times. Today, one can spend weeks browsing the cereal aisle at Harris Teeter. And don’t even think about shopping for toothpaste unless you’ve got paid leave. 

For lawyers, this poses a dilemma. How to balance your duty to keep your clients “reasonably informed” and “abide by [their] decisions concerning the objectives of representation” while not being merely a potted plant?

One way is to embrace your role as counselor.

Just because there are lots of options doesn’t mean they’re all good ones. Explain why Frosted Flakes may taste great but All-Bran is better for your heart. And yes, even though you can choose to eat all Boo Berry all the time, it’s not advisable – and might be grounds for withdrawal.

And if all else fails, keep a box of instant oatmeal handy.


Jay Reeves practiced law for nearly 40 years in North and South Carolina. He has a thing for Cinnamon Toast Crunch. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World and runs Your Law Life LLC. He is available for talks, in-house Zoom sessions, and confidential consultations on anything from breakfast choices to branding your firm.

About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

Read More by Jay >

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Newsletter Signup