What We Can Learn From The Don

Wisdom can come from any source, even the movies. Take The Godfather, for example. The crime family saga offers three tips that resonate with my Stoic sensibilities:

1.) Never let them know what you’re thinking. 

In an early scene in Godfather I, Don Corleone and his son, Sonny, have an encounter with a possible business partner. During a tense negotiation, Sonny explosively challenges the potential adversary, and unwittingly reveals family strategy.

After the meeting, the Don scolds Sonny, saying something like, “What’s the matter with you?! Never let them know what you’re thinking.” 

The message is obvious–keep your mouth shut to keep your options open.

This is great advice for lawyers. We all know that lawyer who’s a bit like Sonny— hot-headed, and quarrelsome, given to diatribes about the rightness of their case. They show their cards before they need to, and they always let you know what they’re thinking.

When these lawyers accost you with one of their sanctimonious lectures, see it as an opportunity. Smile and say, “you may be right,” or “we’ll see…” rather than debating the point and revealing your theory. Like Don Corleone, listen more and speak less. 

A mentor of mine once reminded me that nobody ever got into trouble listening. Great advice! My ego urges me to shoot back when challenged. It pushes me to prove my point, even at the expense of the case. While there is a time and a place to argue a disputed point, that place is in the courtroom, not in the courthouse hallway. Instead, I take a deep breath and listen closely to gather critical intelligence. You can’t do this when you’re busy talking.

2.) This is business. It’s not personal.

In another scene, hot-headed Sonny is again scolded–not by his father this time, but by his consigliere brother, Tom Hagen. Referencing the Don’s philosophy, Hagen decries, “this is business Sonny, not personal.” 

Lawyers should heed this wisdom as well. Choose your actions thoughtfully, not reactively. If somebody takes a cheap shot, don’t react with rage and self-righteousness. Instead, look for opportunities to turn it round to your client’s advantage. Make it business, not personal. 

As a young lawyer, my doctor treating me for “stress belly” reminded me that I was not getting a divorce, but rather helping others who were. 

“Well, I have a stressful job; I’m a divorce lawyer,” I told him.

“Ah, you’re getting a divorce?” he said.

“No, you’re not listening to me, I’m a divorce lawyer,” I said.

“No, you’re not listening to me,” he said. “You’re a lawyer; you’re not getting a divorce.”

This small correction in thinking has made all of the difference.

The point is, don’t take it personally. 

One of the dangers of the practice is overidentifying with the client, thus losing your objectivity. We’ve all done this from time to time (admit it, you have too!). Certain clients are masters at manipulating us to join them in their sinking boat, seeking company into the murky water. Don’t take the bait; you’ll both drown. 

Balance your empathy with objectivity. You need to care… but not so much that you forget your role as a lawyer. A guaranteed way to get wet.

3.) This is the business we’ve chosen.

In Godfather II, Michael Corleone complains to a fellow gangster, Hyman Roth, about a recent attempt on his life (which Roth orchestrated).

Roth responds to Michael’s complaints by reminding him, “this is the business we’ve chosen.” The point is that we need to accept the shit, along with the pony. Don’t whine. I remind myself often: I choose to be a lawyer, despite the many challenges. Nobody forces me to practice law. I remember to be grateful for the privilege of helping people through one of the worst times of their lives. 

As family lawyers, we deal with difficult circumstances. I pity miserable lawyers, those who endlessly complain about unfair judges or aggravating clients. It always reminds me of Mr. Roth’s quote. If you don’t like the practice with its occasional distastefulness or disappointments, do something else. But if you choose to practice family law, don’t complain. 

As Marcus Aurelius observed in his Meditations, “Don’t allow yourself to be heard any longer griping about public life, not even with your own ears.” 

Timeless advice from the Don

Godfather screenwriters, Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, must have read history because the Don’s wisdom mirrors the philosophy of the great Roman Stoics. Underlying that wisdom is the notion that we need to control our emotions, think, and reframe adversity as opportunity. 

Like the mob life as depicted in this movie, our profession contains many perils (hopefully getting rubbed out is not one of them). You can either accept the challenges with strength and dignity or slink into negativity and misery. Success comes to those who can master their emotions and think their way through the daily difficulties. 

To be a successful lawyer (or human being for that matter) be like Don Corleone: Keep your mouth shut, take the shots, and don’t complain. Timeless advice. 

Published July 15, 2020

About the author

sidebar-Steven

Steven N.Peskind

Principal Attorney

To be successful, a lawyer must have insight into the whole human catastrophe and be able to effectively traverse the legal system. It is the intersection of these two disciplines that fascinate me. I have been a lifelong student of both human nature and the law, and have created this blog to help others following my path.

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