Alumni Spotlight: Steve Lichtman (1995-1997; New York)

April 1, 2024

Cleary Gottlieb alumni often reflect upon their time at the firm with fondness and gratitude.

Steve Lichtman (1995-1997; New York), television writer and producer, shares some of his thoughts below.

When were you at Cleary, what group were you in, and why did you choose Cleary/the group?

I was a summer associate at Cleary in 1994 and an associate from 1995 to 1997. I worked in corporate on a variety of transactions, the most memorable of which was an IPO for a Chilean winery. (I’ve continued my due diligence on the global wine industry, unbilled, to this day.)

I chose to work at Cleary because of its history and culture, the international scope of its practice, and, most of all, its people. I was also a great admirer of Evan Davis, currently senior counsel based in Cleary’s New York office. I didn’t intend to be a litigator but the fact that someone like Evan was at the firm was meaningful to me. It was also important to me that Cleary had already embraced diversity long before it was common among big law firms.

Tell us about your professional journey and how you made the decision to leave legal practice to become a television writer and producer.

It’s, appropriately enough, a dramatic story of unexpected opportunities, obstacles, and setbacks, and ends with a cliffhanger.

I left Cleary to work in business and legal affairs at Atlantic Records, which at the time was part of Time Warner Inc. It was a great opportunity to combine my passion for music and the entertainment industry with my training and skill as a lawyer. As the newest lawyer at Atlantic, I was assigned to negotiate low-priority deals no one else wanted to bother with. The next thing I knew, I was one of the more knowledgeable people in all of Time Warner regarding the digital distribution of music and the digital space generally. I eventually was internally promoted by Time Warner’s CFO and General Counsel to be a part of something called Time Warner Digital Media, which was set up by the company’s then-CEO Jerry Levin to bring the entire company into the digital age.

The morning I was supposed to start I received a call at home from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. It was Chris Bogart, Time Warner’s General Counsel. He told me that Time Warner and AOL had just announced they were merging, Time Warner Digital Media, and the job I was supposed to start in a few hours no longer existed… but that we’d figure something out.

Well, we never really figured anything out. The so-called “merger of equals” was really an acquisition of Time Warner by AOL, and the AOLers generally looked down on anyone connected with Time Warner. I had a lot of downtime to think about what I really wanted to do with my life, and the roads not taken. For me, the main road not taken was trying to write for television.

I eventually negotiated a modest severance package — more of a papier-mâché parachute than a golden one — and on September 1, 2001 my wife and I loaded up our car, left our Lower Manhattan apartment, and headed out for L.A. for what was supposed to be a month-long cross-country drive. But that’s another story.

In your current role –

What do you enjoy the most about your job?

I love that as a writer and producer of TV drama, pretty much everything is research (and deductible!). It’s all grist for the mill, which encourages me to be more observant of the world around me. Especially people and their motivations, and how they behave and interact. I also love having an excuse to go down rabbit holes on things that obsess or fascinate me in search of story or character gold. I love how writing for TV is alternately an intensely solitary and an intensely social and collaborative job. I like my alone time, just me and my laptop or legal pad. But I also love the “let’s put on a show” excitement of spending 14 hours a day on a set producing scripts I’ve written with incredibly talented actors and craftspeople who, more often than not, elevate your work and make you seem much smarter and funnier than you are.

What is the biggest misconception about your job?

That it’s glamorous. It has its moments, for sure, but most of the time it’s a grind. You have to show up every day, sit down, and do the work in the full knowledge that what jazzes you as you’re writing it today may well make you cringe when you re-read it tomorrow. You really have to love the process.

What has surprised you?

How much the entertainment industry has changed over the 20+ years I’ve been a working writer in Hollywood. How the radical transformation in how entertainment is distributed and consumed (especially by people under, say, 40) has radically transformed how entertainment is produced and what’s produced — and the challenges that pose for anyone who wants to start or maintain a career anywhere in the entertainment-industrial complex.

Do you have a favorite project you have worked on?

One of my first staff writer jobs was on an ABC dramedy called Eli Stone. It was about a ruthless lawyer on the verge of making partner who starts having crazy hallucinations and dreams, typically in the form of elaborate musical numbers. These visions upend his life and law practice, force him to confront who he really is and wants to be, and eventually lead him to do unexpected and extraordinary things he didn’t know he was capable of and that inspire those around him. I was lucky in that working on Eli gave me the chance early in my career to work closely with and learn from Greg Berlanti, the show’s creator, who’s gone on to become one of the biggest producers in Hollywood. And many of the other writers on Eli are still my best friends in the business 15 years after the show ended.

Many of your shows (The Good Wife, Rizzoli & Isles, Bluff City Law) focus on the law. How did your legal background influence your work?

First, it gave me a capacity for hard work and delayed gratification that are essential to building and sustaining a career in Hollywood! More substantively, the clear thinking and clear writing essential to success as a lawyer are also crucial to screenwriting. Yet, there was one aspect of my legal background I had to jettison quickly. I had to learn the hard way that while issue-spotting and seeing problems around corners are highly valued around law firm conference tables, they are not a path to success or popularity in a writers’ room. It’s essential, especially early on in the building of worlds, breaking of stories, and development of character arcs to embrace the “Yes, and” ethos of improv comedy and stifle the often necessarily “No, but” mindset of lawyering.

As a television writer and producer who has achieved recognition, including a nomination for a Writers Guild of America, USA award, what advice do you have for a Cleary associate who may want to pursue a similar career path? What should they consider when transitioning into a different field?

Anyone working as a lawyer at Cleary has obviously excelled at academics throughout their lives and been on what for better or worse is a path that has been laid out for them. Climbing the rungs of a ladder that’s already built. It doesn’t work quite that way everywhere, and definitely doesn’t in Hollywood. The path isn’t laid out for you. It’s not a straight line. It’s more of an improvisation, and the ground beneath your feet isn’t always solid. Things can suddenly break your way and things happen fast. Until they don’t. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. I think it’s essential to have a five-year plan, and to be prepared to take assistant-level jobs that may not gibe with your image as a graduate of an elite college, law school, clerkship, and law firm.

What advice would you offer any young associate that you wish someone had offered you?

First, try to connect, not impress. Good work will speak for itself. Be someone other people are happy to see when you pass in the hall or knock on their door. And to the extent possible, always try to have a solution ready to pitch whenever you have to point out a problem or explain why something doesn’t or won’t work.

And if you can share with us, what’s next for you?

I’m always pitching and writing pilots for new TV shows. I also think non-IP-driven features are due for a rebound and am working on some exciting screenplay projects.

Learn more about Cleary’s global alumni network here.