Scout and Atticus Finch from the film, To Kill a Mockingbird

From the Dean: Commendable Lawyers Respond to Human Need

6-27-16-ethics-iconAtticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird embodies our vision of the ideal lawyer — a man with a strong sense of right and professional mission. His decision to defend Tom Robinson, a black man charged with rape in the Jim Crow South, was heroic for the time, even if Atticus’ decency and modesty prevented him from viewing his behavior so grandly. For him, his duty was basic and as old as the legal profession itself — the duty to provide a voice for those who can’t speak for themselves. But what does Atticus’ story hold for lawyers in today’s complex world of practice?

This issue takes a closer look at legal ethics and professionalism through the lens of Harper Lee’s To Kill a  Mockingbird. Faculty members and alumni talk of how the book has inspired them.

Steven J. Kaminshine

Steven J. Kaminshine, dean and professor of law

In our cover story, “Ethics Plus Courage Equals Exemplary Lawyers,” Clark Cunningham, the W. Lee Burge Chair of Law and Ethics, talks about exemplary lawyers who are not just the ones who win cases. They are the ones who make ethical, client-focused decisions that often require courage.

For example, two judges featured in this issue, Peggy Walker (J.D. ’86) and Shawn LaGrua (J.D. ’87), had the courage to take a fresh look at the issues seen in their courtrooms. Walker developed a family drug treatment program for parents of preschoolers to help prevent children from falling through the system. LaGrua created the “My Life Matters” accountability program for young offenders to stop the cycle of re-victimizing others.

Their capacity to see beyond a judge’s conventional role and show us all how justice can be both effective and restorative channels Atticus Finch. Their lawyering, or judging in their case, is but an extension of who they are — as it is with Atticus. Indeed, the genuineness we see in Atticus Finch’s tender relationship with Scout parallels the care and courage we see in his representation of Tom Robinson. We see a man whose professional and personal identities are joined.

As Clark Cunningham reminds us in the cover story, commendable lawyers respond to human need. “A sense of duty and compassion becomes the foundation, and out of that comes the courage. I think that is the story of Atticus Finch.”

Our faculty members encourage our students to go beyond internalizing professionalism rules to developing and sustaining a broader mission as counselors and problem-solvers and to nurture a commitment to justice that always trumps convenience.

Return to the Spring 2016 Magazine 

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