Tom Wallerstein

I have long spent my Sunday nights watching HBO. When I graduated from law school, The Sopranos was in its first season. More recently, I’ve been enthralled by Game of Thrones. For those who aren’t fans, Game of Thrones is a medieval fantasy series which won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series, and a Golden Globe Award for “Best Television Series – Drama.” I guess this post needs a spoiler alert, because what follows are some legal lessons I think can be gleaned from the hit series.

That being said, let’s take a look at the six lessons that the legal world could learn from Game of Thrones….

1. When you play the game of thrones…

Cersei Lannister gives threatening but sage advice to Ned Stark that forms the title of the series: “When you play the game of thrones you win, or you die. There is no middle ground.”

Deciding to open your own small firm or solo practice, and to be responsible for generating your own business, has the same “win or die” implications. If you can generate business, making a profit is pretty simple. Dewey notwithstanding, it’s rare that a firm generates a lot of business but can’t become profitable due to excessive overhead or mismanagement. So, if you can generate business, running your own practice will almost surely be a “win.” On the other hand, if you can’t generate the work, your business will surely “die.” There isn’t much middle ground.

2. Be careful what you wish for…

Viserys Targaryen constantly beats and berates his sister Daenerys, insisting that he be awarded the crown he thinks he deserves. He finally goes too far and threatens Daenerys’s unborn son, screaming, “I want my crown!” Khal Drogo kills Viserys by pouring molten gold on his head, giving him in death the golden crown he sought in life.

For some Biglaw associates, making partner is the golden crown for which they strive. But some junior partners are disappointed by their newfound success. Often, making partner entails a whole host of new pressures to generate business, sit on committees, and take on other management tasks, all while maintaining the same or higher billable hours as when they were an associate. Non-equity partners who earn a fixed salary might find that, with all their new responsibilities, the amount they make per hour might not dramatically increase.

Finally, to some extent, making a lateral move as a junior partner with no book of business may be more difficult than making a lateral move as a senior associate. Admittedly, making partner isn’t quite the same as having boiling gold poured on your head, but the broader point remains to consider carefully what you wish for.

3. No one is too big to fail.

I got hooked on Game of Thrones when, in the last episode of the first season, Ned Stark was summarily beheaded. I was impressed that the series was so bold and unorthodox as to kill off the guy I took to be the main character of the series.

The beheading of Ned Stark can remind us of the simple lesson that no firm is too big or important to fail. Mark Herrmann recently made this very point, rattling off a list of names which, taken together, cannot help but make us shake our heads: Brobeck, Coudert, Heller, Thelen, Howrey, and Dewey. Once upon a time, lawyers thought firms like these could never collapse. Like Sookie on True Blood or Vince on Entourage, we thought these firms were so important that we couldn’t imagine their absence from the scene. Alas, like the Starks, we now know better.

4. Power is power.

Perhaps my favorite scene from the series is when Lord Petyr Baelish, aka Littlefinger, confronts Cersei, and tells her that he knows her darkest secret. He brashly reminds her that his “knowledge is power.” Cersei orders her guards to seize Littlefinger, and casually orders that they slit his throat. When they move to obey, Cersei reconsiders, and just as casually says, “Stop, wait. I’ve changed my mind. Let him go.” She then orders her guards to retreat and turn around, which they do.

As Littlefinger gasps for breath in horror, Cersei corrects him: “Power is power.”

The lesson is that however much we like to talk about the new economy, and smaller firms and boutiques displacing Biglaw, the reality remains that large, powerful firms have inherent power and capacity. When faced with litigation involving tens of millions of dollars at stake, and tens of millions of pages of documents to be reviewed, an Am Law 100 firm will often be a reasonable choice.

Efficient, supremely qualified boutiques certainly have their place — thank the old gods and the new, as they say in Winterfell. And I would be the first to proclaim that knowledge is power in the sense that well-honed trial skills employed by solo and small firm attorneys can be a formidable weapon. But we shouldn’t get carried away with exaggerated pronouncements that “Biglaw is dead.” Knowledge may be power but, as Cersei reminds us, power is power, too.

5. Don’t underestimate the little guy.

On the other hand, even though “power is power,” that doesn’t mean size is everything. Tyrion Lannister is smaller than the other characters in the series, but he often manages to outmaneuver his more powerful adversaries. Do I really need to explain the lesson on this one?

6. “Never forget what you are.”

Tyrion not only accepts his small size, but he embraces it and makes it his strength. He says in the first episode, “Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”

So, too, can small firms embrace their limitations and make them their strengths. For example, my firm generally does not help with business formation or dissolution or engage in general transactional work. Rather than try to be all things to all clients, we tell them that we don’t do X because we specialize in Y. Our lack of expertise in certain areas becomes a marketing strength that emphasizes our specialized focus on litigation.

* * *

Admittedly, sometimes I have a hard time not thinking about my cases, my practice, or my business. Fortunately, or perhaps not, once in a while you can get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right. Sometimes even watching TV can give you ideas. I’m already looking forward to the third season of Game of Thrones. With its focus on deep, epic themes, I’m hoping for many more legal lessons to learn.


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 tomwallerstein@coltwallerstein.com.


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