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  • April 22, 2022

    What ‘The Godfather’ Taught Me About Practicing Law

    In celebration of the 50th anniversary of ‘The Godfather,’ Emily Kelchen reflects on legal lessons she learned from the movie. While the characters in the movie may care more about skirting the law than following it, there are still moments in the film that carry important legal lessons.

    Emily S. Kelchen

    This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of The Godfather. The gangster flick is consistently rated as one of the greatest movies ever made, and its popularity has only increased with age.

    Although the characters in the movie care more about skirting the law than following it, there are several moments in the film that carry important legal lessons.

    'I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse'

    When Vito Corleone says, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” it is unclear whether he is being generous or threatening.

    Emily Kelchen Emily Kelchen, U.W. 2011, is the founder of Kelchen Consulting a government affairs and legal marketing company in Clinton, Tennessee.

    Later in the film, Michael Corleone fills in the blanks. He tells his girlfriend Kay, “My father made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.” Kay asked, “What was that?” And Michael explained, “Luca Brasi held a gun to his head, and my father assured him that either his brains or his signature would be on the contract. That’s a true story.”

    While we hope most lawyers aren’t holding a gun to anyone’s head – after all, brains certainly don’t belong on a contract – we are often called to the negotiating table. Like the Corleones, we must be clear about our clients’ expectations and what the outcome will be if our clients are not satisfied.

    'It's not personal, Sonny. It's strictly business'

    Santino "Sonny" Corleone dies because he is a hot-head that can’t control his emotions. He lets his anger cloud his judgment, and it costs him his life.

    This is an important lesson. Though our business is often personal, and passion is important, keeping your emotions in check is critical. Going with your gut or lashing out can lead to costly mistakes.

    'You’re not a wartime consigliere, Tom. Things may get rough with the move we’re trying'

    Tom Hagen, Vito Coreleone’s adopted son, is consigliere and head lawyer of the Corleone family. Hagen is a cunning and loyal advisor that every member of the family counts on.

    However, when Michael is plotting his revenge against the other families, he makes some staffing changes: “Tom Hagen is no longer consigliere. He’s going to be our lawyer in Vegas. That’s no reflection on Tom, it’s just the way I want it.” Then to Tom: “You’re not a wartime consigliere, Tom. Things could get rough with the move we’re making.”

    As attorneys, it is important for us to develop new skills and keep abreast of changes in the law so we can serve our clients well. It is also important to know when to take a step back, and how to gracefully accept the fact that your client may be better served by referring them to someone else.

    'Leave the gun. Take the cannoli'

    This is one of the most often quoted lines in the film, and the actors involved claim it was half​​ ad-libbed​​. It resonates, because it speaks to one of the main themes of the film – the push and pull between family and work for “the family.”

    Struggling to find a healthy work-life balance is something lawyers are all too familiar with. Knowing when to lean in and when to take a step back and relax is something we must all try to get better at.

    Write for the Nonresident Lawyers Division Blog

    If you, like many members of the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Nonresident Lawyers Division, enjoy watching a good movie or TV show or losing yourself in a book during your downtime, we would love to hear about it. In addition to featuring posts about legal-themed vacation destinations, the NRLD blog is now accepting articles reviewing or discussing legal issues in popular books, movies, and television shows.

    We also welcome posts covering substantive law topics. Posts that compare how legal issues are handled in your jurisdiction compared to Wisconsin are particularly of interest.

    Articles on this blog are typically 500+ words long, with any needed citations appearing in text or by hyperlink. Please reach out to NRLD board member Emily Kelchen if you are interested in writing.

    This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Nonresident Lawyers Blog. Visit the State Bar Divisions page or the Nonresident Lawyers Division webpage to learn more about division membership.




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    Nonresident Lawyers Blog is published by the Nonresident Lawyers Division and the State Bar of Wisconsin; blog posts are written by division members. To contribute to this blog, contact Emily Kelchen and review Author Submission Guidelines. Learn more about the Nonresident Lawyers Division or become a member.

    Disclaimer: Views presented in blog posts are those of the blog post authors, not necessarily those of the Section or the State Bar of Wisconsin. Due to the rapidly changing nature of law and our reliance on information provided by outside sources, the State Bar of Wisconsin makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content.

    © 2022 State Bar of Wisconsin, P.O. Box 7158, Madison, WI 53707-7158.

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