Can Atticus Finch Be an Ideal Lawyer and an Imperfect Person?
Author Harper Lee constructed an indelible portrait of a lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch. Though she herself was not a member of the legal profession, Lee’s depiction of Finch helped generations understand and deconstruct the complexities of lawyers’ competing responsibilities to clients, the justice system and to themselves.
Veteran attorneys are well aware of the struggles, external and internal, that lawyers face on a day-to-day basis when representing clients. And it is hard to prepare law students for the real challenges of client representation.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout Finch returns to her childhood to reflect upon the events that shaped her. Along a similar vein, in our first Professional Responsibility class, I ask students to imagine that they are at the end of their legal careers and to recount who they were as a lawyer and the impact they had, focusing on the potentially competing interests to clients, the legal system and to the lawyer as her own person.
Invariably, the class discussion includes the very issues Atticus faced in To Kill a Mockingbird. When students reflect upon what caused them to seek out law as a profession, Atticus Finch is always part of the conversation. Whether through Lee’s text or Gregory Peck’s seersucker and horn-rimmed-spectacled portrayal, we all identify with the character who does what we all hope we would do and is the type of person we would want to be.
Although it has been on my list for quite a while, I haven’t read Go Set a Watchman. My excuse? Lack of time. To be completely honest, perhaps I haven’t yet picked it up because press coverage suggested it paints a portrait of Atticus Finch that won’t match what I loved most about To Kill a Mockingbird.
Whether Atticus Finch is the lawyer we revered in To Kill a Mockingbird or a fallen idol with beliefs that we disdain, Lee’s writing nevertheless helps us understand who lawyers are. We are public figures, advocating for clients who are unpopular or with whom we personally disagree. We work within a justice system that is not always just. And we are human and imperfect.
Nicole Iannarone is an assistant clinical professor and director of the Investor Advocacy Clinic. She teaches Professional Responsibility, Business Arbitration Practicum and Complex Litigation. Iannarone is a frequent speaker on issues of legal ethics and professional responsibility. She serves as the chair of the Atlanta Bar Association’s Reputation and Public Trust Committee, vice-chair of the State Bar of Georgia’s Professionalism Committee and is a member of the State Bar of Georgia’s Formal Advisory Opinion Board.