Professor of Law and Director of Legal Writing
After watching the end of Game of Thrones this summer, I’ve been thinking about the connection between great television shows and leadership in the law. But first, a bit of context. I love watching television. It started early. In the 1980s, nearly every day after school and work, my mom, sister, and I sat down to watch “our” soap opera (As The World Turns) on the VCR. We were immersed in the narrative of the show, always wondering what would happen to the characters next. The show had drama: mean people, nice people, and many reversals of fortunes. As it turns out, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was also a fan of soap operas; he once remarked to fellow Justice William Brennan that one can learn a lot about life through soap operas. After the daytime soap opera heyday was over, I began to avidly watch several shows that came about in the so-called “golden-age” of television, shows like The Sopranos and The Wire, science fiction shows like Firefly and Battlestar Galactica, and other shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and its spin off Better Call Saul. Right now, I am watching Big Little Lies and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (both touch on legal issues).
Great television shows connect to law leadership because they teach us about what motivates people, how people deal with conflict, and why and how good people make terrible decisions. I believe that many leadership skills can be cultivated through observation. That observation can happen in real-life, but there are also valuable lessons to be learned from televised fiction. Good leaders know how to project charisma in a way that motivates people. (Just think about Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow from Game of Thrones.) We can also learn about conflict management from watching television drama. And finally, watching a story unfold in a great television show causes us to deeply empathize with flawed characters who do not always do the right thing. Empathy is an important skill for interfacing with clients, many of whom need legal counsel because they did not do the right thing.
It is good leadership practice to find downtime to give our brains a rest and to think about things that are unrelated to our work. Many successful professionals read, exercise, meditate, and do other hobbies. After an intense day, I savor the ability to lose myself in the narrative of a great television show. It is a wonderful experience–to get involved in fictional people’s problems and not have to think about my own stressful issues. But even when I am getting lost in someone else’s story, like Justice Marshall, I learn a lot from watching television.