The law according to Tom Hagen

By Vrinda Maheshwari

It might seem ironic that The Godfather movies contain lessons for lawyers, given that they glorify the fact that its protagonists are above the law. But as Tom Hanks says in You’ve Got MailThe Godfather has lessons for everybody. We can learn a lot from Tom Hagen, the original mafia lawyer played to perfection by Robert Duvall in the first two films of The Godfather trilogy.

Tom Hagen is the consigliere of the Corleone family. In Italy, consigliere has a technical meaning, loosely translating to the director of a corporation. It is largely due to Mario Puzo’s characterisation of Tom Hagen and its subsequent popularisation in the media that the word has come to mean lawyer or trusted advisor. Interestingly, he is never avvocato (lawyer); he is consigliere (advisor). The character is said to be based on two real-life personalities – Frank DeSimone, who began as a lawyer but ended as a mafia boss in Los Angeles, and Joseph Gallo, who was the consigliere to the Gambino family. But his character seems too complex to be an amalgamation of just two messed up people. We see him at the beginning of The Godfather, carefully handling the guests who come to confer with the Don at his daughter’s wedding. He advises and assists the Corleone family as we witness their ups and downs, from the rise and fall of Vito Corleone, the Don, and through the trials and tribulations of Michael Corleone, the Don’s youngest son.

Joseph Gallo. Image here and on article banner originally published at
Joseph Gallo. Image here and on article banner originally published at

Orphaned when he was ten, Thomas Hagen would have spent a life of destitution, had he not saved the Don’s eldest son, Sonny Corleone’s life in a brawl. Sonny takes him home and Don Corleone raises Tom as one of his own children. After Genco Abbandando dies, Hagen takes over as the consigliere, despite his Irish-German ancestry (which made him an anomaly in the all-Sicilian mafia). He is constantly reminded of his outsider status, but rises to the top on the basis of his merit – surely a worthy parable for those of us who are venturing into the often nepotistic world of litigation.

Tom Hagen occupies a mysterious middle ground in The Godfather trilogy. He is well versed in the business dealings of the family and often handles them, and at the same time is the first one to get left out. It can be argued that this lack of involvement was strategic, so that he could be “just a lawyer” and plead plausible deniability in case he needed to. The fact remains that his ambiguous position – both in the criminal organisation and in the Corleone family – is one of the best-orchestrated bits in both the book and the movie. Compare him to Michael: both start off as outsiders, but Michael settles right in by the end of the first movie, while Tom remains, to the end, the perpetual outsider.

One of the most poignant scenes in the film is when Don Vito Corleone is shot, and Tom Hagen is trying to control Sonny. The man he considers his father has just been brutally attacked, but he must remain calm, in order to keep the Family in order. It is of course debatable whether such stoicism is commendable in a lawyer; passionate histrionics might sway a judge. In India, where the practice of law requires written rules of civility, and thinly veiled insults are common in the court rooms, the world of The Godfather presents the alternative in Tom Hagen.

Consider his negotiating skills in alternate dispute resolution. He is always cautious, but never irresolute. When he is sent to convince Jack Woltz to give the Don’s godson a lead role in the studio’s next film, he is polite and suave. He listens to insult after insult from Woltz, responding merely by changing the terms of the offer. And when the verbal negotiation does not work, the response is swift and ruthless; he cuts off the head of Khartoum, the prize stud in Woltz’s stable worth many millions of dollars. Efficient and effective.

Hagen also teaches us the wisdom of adapting with the times. In the second movie, when Michael moves to Nevada and removes Hagen from all the illegal activities, he remains the Corleones’ lawyer and handles the casinos to ensure that the family is always well funded. Tom Hagen faces the situation with equanimity and displays his versatility.

Don Corleone says, in Mario Puzo’s novel, that a lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns. It was one of Puzo’s favourite lines in the book, but was removed from Francis Ford Coppola’s screenplay because Marlon Brando thought it was too preachy. Perhaps that is why Tom Hagen is not given as much importance as was due to the character.

A career in law is difficult enough without having to descend to animosity. Learn from the suave Tom Hagen. When the hours at work are getting to you, sit back, relax and put on The Godfather. As Clemenza says, “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”


History Lounge

Shatranj ke Khilari

By Asiddababa and Beelzebubbles

It’s a bit of a drag getting back to work from a long weekend sometimes, so we thought you might like a little something special on Monday morning!

This is the second poster from Baal-Koni Productions, images that bring legal history alive by referencing movies and other popular culture. (Click here to see the first poster, in case you missed it.)

If you haven’t got the hang of how these work yet, here’s the deal:

Asiddababa and Beelzebubbles, the deviant minds behind Baal-Koni, create these posters to depict a particular moment in Indian legal history. The previous poster was a representation of the facts surrounding the famous case of K.M. Nanavati v. State of Maharashtra, 1962 SCR Supl. (1) 567. They used key facts from the case, and created a poster which referenced the popular Hindi movie, Pati Patni aur Woh.

This time around, you get to guess which case or incident in legal history this poster represents. Try guessing what the poster is about in the comments below. The best guess – the one which explains the poster and its link to Indian legal history most accurately and completely, wins a prize – a Rs.250/- gift voucher on!

Now take a look, and post your guesses in the comments below! Best of luck!

Image published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 India License.
Image published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 India License.

Feel free to download the image above, but if you decide to pass it on to someone, please remember to tell people you got it from!


The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

A trend that Anne Frank inadvertently started by penning her diary while hiding as a young girl from the Gestapo, Holocaust literature has come a long way, with books and films exploring an era that almost no longer resides within living memory. The written word and filmmaking will substitute the tales of sorrow and valour that are told and retold by those who endured hell on earth. The common deployment of children as protagonists is perhaps because the naiveté of a child contributes to the notion of innocent victimhood. Holocaust authors have an overwhelming responsibility – to speak for those that cannot, without downplaying or over-emphasising their endeavours and ignoring the details of the harsh reality that numbed the conscience of the world.

John Boyne’s 2006 novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which was later made into a feature film that ran for days to packed houses, explores the Holocaust from the point of view of two eight-year olds – a young German boy, Bruno, the son of a Nazi soldier in charge of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, and a young Jewish boy, Shmuel, an inmate of the very same camp, who forge a friendship. The liaison stirs up much consternation, as lines are crossed at every turn. The text is peppered with childlike references to the Fuhrer as the “Fury”, and Auschwitz as “Out With”.


Auschwitz. Image here and on article banner originally published on muddyclay's photostream on Flickr. Image published under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.
Auschwitz. Image here and on article banner originally published on muddyclay’s photostream on Flickr. Image published under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

The story begins with a disgruntled Bruno, vehemently begging to return to Berlin after arriving at Auschwitz. Overall, one can gather that the decision to move, which was made by the Fuhrer himself for the family, was not very well received by all except Bruno’s father himself. Bruno spends his time usefully, annoying his sister, who he insists is a “Hopeless Case”. Bruno’s father has an office in their house, one which is “Out of Bounds at All Times No Exceptions”. Bruno lives in a house located a stone’s throw of the concentration camp. He has a servant – Pavel, a Jew, who dressed and bandaged a wound that Bruno inflicted on himself while playing. Bruno’s mother then steps in and offers to keep Pavel’s intervention a secret from her husband, who would do anything to signify his hatred for the man. A later point in the story reveals a similar anathematic stance taken by Bruno’s father’s mother.

Bruno has no inkling of what the camp is, and is actually given to believe that its inhabitants, all dressed in white and blue striped pyjamas – are spending their time on vacation while their children are happily playing games all day long. Ironically, Bruno feels twangs of jealousy, and envies their carefree lives and friendships. When his family learns of the vantage point that gave him a chance to see the camp, the window in his room is boarded up. Bruno begins surreptitiously leaving his house, and speaking with a little Jewish boy, across a barbed fence. Shmuel tells him about his family, and Bruno is intrigued.

After nearly a year’s worth of meetings, Bruno still doesn’t have a clue about what is going on inside the camp. The friendship between the two hardly bodes well for either, leading Bruno to refute its very existence when he finds himself in the thick of trouble. Shmuel bears the stigma of being drubbed a liar and a little thief as a result of Bruno’s denial, which is guileless, but devoid of all compunction. The forgiving and unconditional nature of an eight-year-old is brought to fore, as Shmuel forgives his best friend, who in turn, clandestinely smuggles food off the table from his house for Shmuel. The story generously builds on the innocence of the children, and culminates in a heart-rending climax.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has been under the scanner for historic-factual inaccuracy, alleging that the ignorance evinced by the protagonist is unbelievable, and to some, unacceptable. The allegation that the book undermines the grim reality that the Holocaust is, is harsh and baseless.  Bruno’s mother has had an upper-hand in his upbringing, striving to ensure that her son does not know of the horrific nightmare that the Holocaust itself is, and opposing her husband at every permissible turn, trying to question his move. Critical opinion that it was impossible for someone living close to a camp would know nothing of it is dubious, considering that the protagonist was a child of green years. The film shows Bruno sniffing the horrific stench of bodies being burnt, and even watches plumes of smoke rising into the sky, and asking his parents about it subsequently. He isn’t given an answer, and is distracted – an attention span that is reasonably consistent with a child of his age. Understandably, the Holocaust was horrific. Nevertheless, it does not preclude the existence of “good” Germans, such as Bruno’s mother, who confronts her husband virulently for his remorseless conduct, as confirmed by the stellar factual example in the form of Miep Gies from Anne Frank’s life.

The film lends the cadaverous story of the book more flesh. I recommend that one should both, read the book and watch the movie, to assimilate all that it stands for.

(Kirthi Jayakumar is a graduate of the School of Excellence in Law, Chennai.)