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Professional Development

Cinema's Lessons for Lawyers

Jeffrey B Cohen

Cinema's Lessons for Lawyers
M_a_y_a via iStock

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That’s part of your problem: you haven’t seen enough movies. All of life’s riddles are answered in the movies. 
—Davis/Grand Canyon

Steve Martin utters that line when he portrays a character in the underrated 1991 classic Grand Canyon. If you haven’t seen it, you should. It doesn’t have any superheroes or wizards, but it’s still damn good. It’s a line that I have taken to heart. The blueprint to building a successful, fulfilling, and all-around incredible life is hidden in the movies. It’s up to us to find that hidden treasure. Finding hidden treasure is something with which, cinematically, I do have some experience.

To that end, I’d like to share some nuggets of cinematic wisdom that I rely on in my legal practice.

Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you, hmmm? And well you should not, for my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. 
—Yoda/Star Wars: Episode V—The Empire Strikes Back

David had a slingshot. Yoda had the Force. I have the law. I can aggressively represent and further the interests of one individual artist against a multi-billion-dollar mega-media corporate Death Star. How do I do it? My ally is the law, and a powerful ally it is. Understand the power of the law. Respect the power of the law, and don’t let its dark side seduce you. Like fire, it can keep you warm or burn down your house.

Yoda taught us that if we master our powers, it is foolish to be intimidated by our opponent’s size. He was the most powerful Jedi in the galaxy, and look at him. All the romance lies in slaying the giant anyway. Just ask David.

Why do you hurt me, Michael? I’ve always been loyal to you. 
—Tom Hagen/the Godfather part II

My all-time favorite portrayal of an attorney on film is Robert Duvall’s role as Tom Hagen in The Godfather Part I and Part II. When they didn’t bring him back for The Godfather Part III, I knew that one would be a stinker. Tom was an Irish street urchin who is magnanimously adopted by the Italian Corleone family. He learns to speak fluent Italian, is privy to intimate secrets as the family’s consigliere, and is the brother to the Don, Michael Corleone.

However, he is unceremoniously stripped of his position because Michael does not consider him a “wartime” Consigliere. In a moment, at the client’s whim, he is fired. We must never lose sight of this insider/outsider nature of our role as counsel.

We are the ultimate insider, but we are still separate from the client. If you tether your self-worth to your client list, you are in for a world of hurt when the worm turns. You must faithfully represent your client with wisdom and perspective while maintaining an identity separate from the client. It will make you a better lawyer and help keep you sane.

Well, it’s no trick to make a lot of money . . . if all you want is to make a lot of money. 
—Mr. Bernstein/Citizen Kane

The American Film Institute lists Citizen Kane as the greatest film of all time for good reason. It’s profound, fun, and does a remarkable job illustrating the infinite emptiness of having money without love and power without purpose.

We examine Charles Foster Kane’s life: his limitless cash, his prodigious power, and his crushing emptiness. We stare into the abyss of his life, and it stares back into us.

As lawyers, it is easy to become trapped in a never-ending pursuit of wealth and more wealth, of power and more power. That hamster wheel spins fast once you get it going.

Citizen Kane teaches us that, rich or poor, life goes by faster than we realize. If you didn’t help anyone along the way, does that magnificent pile of cash next to your tombstone really matter?