Lawyers and Literature
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (New York: Popular Library,
To Kill a Mockingbird is undoubtedly the most widely read and memorable books about a lawyer ever written in the United States. Atticus Finch has become something of a patron saint for many lawyers. He is, quite simply, the most esteemed lawyer in popular fiction.
Part I: Locating the Story and Ourselves as Readers
How does the presence of "boundaries," described in the opening chapter of To Kill a Mockingbird, serve as theme throughout the novel?
How does the sense of "place" evoked in the novel locate the story? And you as a reader?
Harper Lee locates Atticus in this place called Maycomb with this rather remarkable statement: "He liked Maycomb, he was Maycomb county born and bred; he knew his people, they knew him, and because of Simon Finch's industry, Atticus was related by blood or marriage to nearly every family in the town."  [All pagination is the Popular Library edition, 1962]
Two examples from the story:
Is it fair to say that Atticus was comfortable in the practice of law? Can anyone expect to be comfortable in the practice of law? If not, what is the source of our discomfort?
Are you comfortable or uncomfortable as a student of law? To what do you attribute your present comfort level?
Scout muses about how she learned to read:
Consider the following:
With an interest in reading and early memories of reading we might ask or reflect on the course and shape our reading has taken. This matter of reading is of some importance to lawyers who must know a little about many things: we are asked to know something about people and about what they do with their lives, what they do with and to each other, and what is done to them for which they seek redress. We must know something about how to "read" people and their situations.
Atticus was trying to help Scout understand what was going on at school with Ms. Caroline and what was going on in the law of truancy. One might say that Atticus was teaching Scout to "read" the world, to see it less literally. She had, with Atticus's help, become a reader of books, but now she was being asked to read more than words and letters on a page. She was finding that her simplistic, literal way of seeing and reading the world did not work. Her new teacher needed more understanding than she was capable of . She needed to learn to read the world with greater depth of understanding.
We read not just books but ourselves and the world in which we find ourselves. Alberto Manguel, in A History of Reading, makes a similar point about the wide net cast by reading as a
How might one's skills in "reading" make it possible to be more comfortable in the work we do as lawyers?
[To Kill a Mockingbird is, in a sense, a book about reading, the reading that Scout is learning to do, the reading that Atticus has taught Scout (and Jem). We learn that, while Dill has not been able to elevate himself in the eyes of Jem and Scout by his self-proclaimed reading prowess, Jem's interest is piqued when he learns that Dill has seen real movies, including "Dracula."  And we know that Atticus is a reader. Scout notes, about her father, that: "Why, he's so tired at night he just sits in the living room and reads." [21-22] Scout, later notes: "Sometimes when we made a midnight pilgrimage to the bathroom we would find him reading. He said he often woke up during the night, checked on us, and read himself back to sleep." ]
Stories reveal themselves to us by genre. What kind of story is this?
In what sense is To Kill a Mockingbird a
Roger Schank explains how our stock of genre stories works: “Explaining the work (at least to yourself) is a critical aspect of intelligence. Comprehending events around you depends upon having a memory of prior events available for helping in the interpretation of new events.” [Roger Schank, Tell Me a Story: A New Look at Real and Artificial Memory 1 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990)]
Robert Scholes, a literary critic whose work I've always found instructive argues that: “We can only read a story if we have read enough other stories to understand the basic elements of narrative coding. Our first stories are told or read to us by our parents, or other parental figures, who explain the codes as they go along.” [Robert Scholes, Textual Power : Literary Theory and the Teaching of English 21 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985)]
One might try to speculate about and reflect on the repertoire of stories that we carry with us into reading To Kill a Mockingbird. Of course, no story, even one with multiple themes and motifs, will call forth a full index of the stories we have available for understanding a particular story. A story that made demands on our "full index" of available stories would result in something akin to cognitive melt-down.
We might ask again (and again), what kind of story is To Kill a Mockingbird? (And then we might ask: What kind of story is law? What kind of story is your decision to become a lawyer? What kind of story is your life?)
Harper Lee's father was a lawyer and she grew up in Alabama. Does this affect the way we are supposed to read the novel, e.g., as thinly disguised autobiographical writing?
Scout comments on Dill's struggling under the fence that runs between the Finch property and Miss Rachel's collard patch, saying to Dill: "Do better if you go over it instead of under it." 
When Scout presses too far with her inquiries about Dill's father, Jem tells her to "hush, a sure sign that Dill had been studied and found acceptable." 
On being challenged by Dill to get a closer look at what might be going on inside the Radley House and a look at Boo Radley himself, Jem resists. He tells Dill: "Dill, you have to think about these things. . . ." 
On how to be a first grade student: Miss Caroline is displeased when she discovers that Scout is literate. "Miss Caroline told me to tell my father not to teach me any more, it would interfere with my reading."  Miss Caroline is convinced that Atticus "does not know how to teach."  When Scout complains to Jem about the situation with Miss Caroline, he explains that "Miss Caroline's introducing a new way of teaching. She learned bout it in college. It'll be in all the grades soon. You don't have to learn much out of books that way—it's like if you wanta learn about cows, you go milk one, see?"  Jem tells Scout the new method of teaching reading is called the Dewey Decimal System. 
On how to be a neighbor: The Radleys are not much in the way of being neighbors. They have simply dropped out. Mr. Radley, out for his morning walk, greets Scout and Jem's subdued good mornings with a cough.  There is as well the problem of Jem and Scout, and the difficulty they have in being good neighbors because of their insatiable curiosity about Boo Radley. And there's the incident when Jem and Scout build a snowman in the likeness of Mr. Avery [71-72], the kind of likeness that has Atticus explain to Jem that there must be modifications of their snowman: "I don't care what you do, so long as you do something," said Atticus. "You can't go around making caricatures of the neighbors." 
Part III: Teachers in To Kill a Mockingbird
To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel replete with teachers: Atticus; Calpurnia; Ms. Caroline.
On Ms. Caroline: We might ask, how does she get herself into so much trouble? Do you see something of the young lawyer, the recent law school graduate, in Ms. Caroline? (Remember Harry Seagraves's observation about Carl Bonner, in Paris Trout, that he had fallen prey to his education, law school being a place that blesses its graduates with too much confidence. Is there something in this dousing of the student in what Karl Llewellyn called the “cynical acid” of realism that takes place–perhaps in a counterfeit way–in the first year of law school?)
And since we are drawing analogies from Ms. Caroline’s problems, is there a connection between Scout’s fellow students and what
we find in law school: “Miss Caroline seemed unaware that the
ragged, denim-shirted and floursack-skirted first grade, most of whom
had chopped cotton and fed hogs from the time they were able to walk,
were immune to imaginative literature.” 
Part IV: The Virtue of Advocacy: The Case of Atticus Finch
Atticus Finch provides a wonderful literary example of the internalization of zealousness and its ritual re-appearance in a virtuous act of courage.
Appointed by Judge Taylor to represent Tom Robinson, a black man charged with the rape of a white woman in 1930's Maycomb, Alabama, Atticus doesn't "decide" whether he is going to represent Robinson. It is not, from what we learn about Atticus, a decision to be made. While the representation of Tom Robinson may have been the most difficult event of his legal career, Harper Lee does not present Atticus as a man who struggled over the decision. The implication is that Atticus knew what to do, knew what must be done, and did it. He didn't weigh the possibilities and dangers of accepting the appointment, he didn't try to determine how the case might affect his political career, or the pressures it might create for his young children. Atticus was rational but not a decisionist. He did not act like he was facing a moral quandary, or even that he had a choice to make. (Atticus, when he learns that Boo Radley, instead of Jem has killed Bob Ewell, faces a dilemma and a hard choice: Whether to protect the reclusive Boo Radley or insure that the details about Bob Ewell's death be made public.) Harper Lee has told the story of a lawyer known for his virtue and character rather than for his problem-solving and decision-making.
When he takes the appointment to represent Tom Robinson, Atticus does not need to figure out how zealous he wants to be on his behalf. Atticus represents Tom Robinson zealously because his character, as a person and as a lawyer, makes it impossible for him not to. It is this kind of zeal and devotion to advocacy that makes the idea of a lawyer something other than the butt of common jokes.
In the account of Tom Robinson's trial, the following conversation takes place among regulars of the Maycomb courthouse "club" on the day the trial begins:
Atticus, from what we are told and from what we know about his character will represent Tom Robinson zealously, notwithstanding the virulent racism of the courthouse regulars and the jury. We don't need much discussion to conclude that Atticus did the right thing and that it would have been wrong to succumb to the cynicism, hypocrisy, and bigotry necessary to let racists convict Tom Robinson without a real fight.
Atticus's zealousness on behalf of Tom Robinson is a reflection of habit and character, a story of a lawyer whose character cannot be bought by fear of what his neighbors will think or that his children may suffer ridicule. Atticus lives in a racist community, a community where it can be hard to be a good neighbor. Some Maycomb residents think that Atticus and his efforts to undo the system is the problem. Atticus isn't oblivious to what his representation of Tom Robinson might cost him and his family, but he has the kind of character that leads to choices that don't turn on self-interest. Atticus's zealousness is part and parcel of his character, not just as a lawyer but as a father to Scout and Jem, and as a neighbor.
Atticus's story has bearing for us today because it still requires raw courage to be a zealous lawyer, when that means standing up to a community hell-bent on doing what is wrong.
Zealous advocacy for Atticus Finch is a matter of telling the truth. The truth is that Tom Robinson did not rape Mayella Ewell. The truth will not be enough to save Tom Robinson from the savage indifference to human decency and moral blindness that racial bigotry has produced in Maycomb. Tom Shaffer argues that Atticus's regard for the truth makes him a hero, a hero because he is not blinded by the prejudices of his community and is able to tell the truth to Maycomb. [Thomas L. Shaffer, The Moral Theology of Atticus Finch, 42 U. Pitts. L. Rev. 181 (1981)] Atticus is a hero because he stands by Tom Robinson as only a lawyer can.
There are, in communities across the country, lawyers who have the courage and the character to do what Atticus did for Tom Robinson. And it is when we think about Atticus doing what he did, and what he had the character to do, that we think best of ourselves as lawyers. And it is when we think this way of ourselves that we are entitled to the moral acclaim that one is due as a zealous advocate.
It is because Atticus has internalized the ethic of zealousness and can reconcile it with the person he is, that he is able, without anguishing over it, to tell the truth and withstand the pressure exerted on him as he stands against the racists in his community. One reason we educate future lawyers to internalize the zeal for advocacy is so they can be zealous about truth when it is costly to do so. When advocacy becomes part of our character, as it was for Atticus, we are more likely to know what the truth is and how to tell it when the time comes. As Tom Shaffer and his colleague, the theologian Stanley Hauerwas, said of Sir Thomas More (drawing on Thomas Bolt's story of More in "A Man for All Seasons"), we need the skills to speak truth to power. [Stanley Hauerwas & Thomas L. Shaffer, Hope in the Life of Thomas More, 54 Notre Dame Lawyer 569 (1979)] [Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons (New York: Vintage Books, 1962)]
The problem is that this same zeal, twisted and perverted, becomes
not a source of deserved pride, but a sword turned against colleague
and community and a shield against moral criticism.
Part V: The Lawyer as Hero
The myth of the hero and the hero's quest are mythological motifs found in virtually all cultures; they are interesting to us as lawyers because the motif is so readily found in lawyer stories and the stories of those who have set out to become lawyers. The heroic quest entails: leaving home, setting out upon a journey into the unknown, undergoing the trials and ordeals that test fortitude and skills and fate, and finally, when fate permits, returning home.
In The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949) Joseph Campbell outlines the mythical journey of the archetypal hero, and his description is not as dissimilar to that of the lawyer and law student as one might at first imagine. Campbell tells us that the mythic journey of the hero quest begins with a call to adventure. The call comes when "[t]he familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for the passing of a threshold is at hand." In moving away from the known world, the journeyer faces new experiences, and finds him/herself in a story "symbolizing danger, reassurance, trial passage...." The journey itself is a "fateful region of both treasure and danger . . . . [I]t is always a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, superhuman deeds, and impossible delights."
On the heroic journey a transformation of self takes place, an evolution which comes from the way the hero understands himself and his place in the world. The stories of mythic quest show us how efforts to give life meaning work out. It is in the contemporary urge to give our professional lives some kind of meaning, to give coherent form to a story of significance, that makes legal education, and other forms of professional training, a modern day analogue of the archetypal heroic journey.
[The hero imagery and the story of the heroic quest are explored most fully in the magnificent and poetic work of mythologer, Joseph Campbell. See Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces (New York: Pantheon Books, 1949). For C. G. Jung’s exploration of the hero archetype, see "The Origin of the Hero," see C.G. Jung, Symbols of Transformation 171-206 (Volume 5, Collected Works, Bollingen Series, Princeton University Press)]
Is it possible to see in your quest to become a lawyer and in your phantasies of what lawyers do a contemporary form of the journey of the hero? What problems do you foresee in employing the hero metaphor?
Consider the following vignette:
Dolphus Raymond in To Kill a Mockingbird tells Scout, "Miss Jean Louise, you don't know your pa's not a run-of-the-mill man, it'll take a few years for that to sink in--you haven't seen enough of the world yet." . Dolphus is trying to tell Scout that Atticus is a hero.
An empirical survey of the images that lawyers have of themselves confirms the importance of the hero archetype. [See Marvin W. Mindes, Trickster, Hero, Helper: A Report on the Lawyer Image, 1982 American Bar Foundation Res. J. 177] Mindes argues that the image of the hero, along with the helper and trickster are "alternative images that both lawyers and laymen use to view, characterize, and classify lawyers and their behavior . . . ."  Mindes however presents a different perspective on the hero than Campbell and Jung. For Mindes, the hero "seems best to depict the champion or representative of worthy causes, principles, organizations, or people. Not only a competitor, he takes the initiative in a series of struggles against enemies, generally expecting to best them by intelligent effort and self-faith. He combines honor with toughness or nonsentimentality. A person having this highly dramatic role has a strong feeling of being a hero, as we all need to be in the sense of being important, an object of primary value, a person that counts on the universe. He can expect to have his self-esteem sustained and rewarded by others who share vicariously in his battles."  [On the lawyer as hero, see Thomas Shaffer, Christian Lawyer Stories and American Legal Ethics, 33 Mercer L. Rev. 877, 888-893 (1982)]
"[T]he problem of heroics is the central one of human life . . . [I]t goes deeper into human nature than anything else because it is based on organismic narcissism and on the child's need for self-esteem, as the condition for his [her] life. Society itself is a codified hero system, which means that society everywhere is a living myth of the signficiance of human life, a definite creation of meaning. Every society is thus a 'religion' whether it thinks so or not." [Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death 27 (1973)]
[On Legal Education as Heroic Journey, see Thomas C. Galligan, The Monomyth Goes to Law School, 66 St. John's L. Rev. 129 (1992)]
Scholarly Commentary: For an excellent essay Atticus Finch, see Thomas Shaffer: The Moral Theology of Atticus Finch, 42 U. Pitt. L. Rev. 181 (1981); Growing Up Good in Maycomb, 45 Ala. L. Rev. 531 (1994) (see also his chapter on Atticus Finch in American Legal Ethics (1985); and a chapter in Faith and the Professions (1987).
On To Kill a Mockingbird generally, see: Symposium: To Kill a Mockingbird, 45 Ala. L. Rev. 389-584 (1994); Claudia Johnson, To Kill a Mockingbird: Threatening Boundaries (New York: Twayne, 1994); Claudia Johnson, Understanding To Kill a Mockingbird (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994).
On the critical commentary on Atticus Finch and To Kill a Mockingbird see: Steven Lubet, Reconstructing Atticus Finch, 97 Mich. L. Rev. 1339 (1999); Monroe Freedman, Atticus Fich--Right and Wrong, 45 Ala. L. Rev. 473 (1994); Teresa Godwin Phelps, Propter Honoris Respectum: Atticus, Thomas, and the Meaning of Justice, 77 Notre Dame L. Rev. 925 (2002);Teresa Godwin Phelps, The Margins of Maycomb: A Rereading of To Kill a Mockingbird, 45 Ala. L. Rev. 511 (1994); Joseph Crespino, The Strange Career of Atticus Finch, 6 (2) Southern Cultures 9 (2000); Tim Dare, Lawyers, Ethics, and To Kill a Mockingbird, 25 Phil. & Lit. 127 (2001); Christopher Metress, The Rise and Fall of Atticus Finch, 24 (1) Chattahoochee Rev. 95 (2003); Eric J. Sundquistm, "Blues for Atticus Finch: Scottsboro, Brown, and Harper Lee," in Larry J. Griffin & Don H. Doyle (eds.), The South as an American Problem 181-207 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995) [see also Eric J. Sundquist, Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America (Cambridge: Belnap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005)]
For responses to Steven Lubet's efforts to deconstruct Atticus Finch as icon, see: Ann Althouse, Reconstructing Atticus Finch? A Response to Professor Lubet, 97 Mich. L. Rev. 1363 (1999); Rob Atkinson, Comment on Steven Lubet Reconstructing Atticus Finch, 97 Mich. L. Rev. 1370 (1999); Burnele V. Powell, A Reaction: "Stand Up, Your Father [a Lawyer] is Passing," 97 Mich. L. Rev. 1373 (1999); William H. Simon, Moral Icons: A Comment on Steven Lubet's Reconstructing Atticus Finch , 97 Mich. L. Rev. 1376 (1999); Randolph N. Stone, Atticus Finch, in Context, 97 Mich. L. Rev. 1378 (1999).
Claudia Johnson observes that To Kill a Mockingbird has received more critical attention from legal scholars than from literary critics. See Claudia Johnson, Without Tradition and Within Reason: Judge Horton and Atticus Finch in Court, 45 Ala. L. Rev. 483 (1995). In the years following Johnson's article, the articles on To Kill a Mockingbird have increased. See e.g.: Diann L. Baecker, Telling It In Black and White: The Importance of the Africanist Presence in To Kill a Mockingbird, 36 (3) Southern Quart. 124 (1998); Harold Bloom (ed.), Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (Broomall, Pennsylvania: Chelsea House, 1996); Laurie Champion, "When You Finally See Them": The Unconquered Eye in To Kill a Mockingbird, 37 (2) Southern Quart. 127 (1999); Laura Fine, Gender Conflicts and Their "Dark" Projectioins in Coming of Age White Female Soutern Novels, 36 (4) Southern Quart. 121 (1998)(examines several novels including To Kill a Mockingbird); Theodore R. Hovet & Grace-Ann Hovet, "Fine Fancy Gentlemen" and "Yappy Folk": Contending Voices in To Kill a Mockingbird, 40 (1) Southern Quart. 67 (2001); Carolyn Jones, Atticus Finch and the Mad Dog: Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, 34 (4) Southern Quart. 53 (1996); Christopher Metress, The Rise and Fall of Atticus Finch, 24 (1) Chattahoochee Rev. 95 (2003); Dean Shackleford, The Female Voice in To Kill a Mockingbird: Narrative Strategies in Film and Novel, 50 Miss. Quart. 101 (1996/97).
The increasingly critical view of Atticus Finch in the literature is explored in Christopher Metress, The Rise and Fall of Atticus Finch, 24 (1) Chattahoochee Rev. 95 (2003).
To Kill a Mockingbird was adapted into an Academy Award winning film, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, and Robert Duvall, in one of his first film roles, as "Boo" Radley.
While exact sales figure are hard to calculate, there seems little dispute that To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the all-time top-selling works of fiction, with sales exceeding 10 million copies. [See The 10-Million Mark, 57 (4) Literary Calvalcade 4 (Jan 2005)(Other novels reaching this level of sales include The Catcher in the Rye, Animal Farm, 1984, Catch-22, God's Little Acre, and more popular fiction titles like Jaws, The Thorn Birds, Peyton Place, Gone with the Wind, The Godfather, The Carpetbaggers, and Valley of the Dolls.)]
To Kill a Mockingbird is also reported to be one of the top-10 books taught in U.S. public high schools. [See Top 10 Books Taught in U.S. Public High Schools, 57 (1) Literary Cavalcade 4 (Sept 2004)]
John Jay Osborn, Jr., Atticus Finch--The End of Honor: A Discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird, 30 U.S.F. L. Rev. (1996)
Regarding Atticus Finch as a tragic figure: "Mockingbird has at least some elements of tragedy: an innocent man (Tom) falls victim to evil despite the best efforts of the novel's hero. Atticus's story too is tragic. Regarding the rule of law as tremendously important, he presents his arguments in its favor to the jury with passion and all of his professional ability, recognizing that the life of an innocent man rests upon his success. But he fails, and Tom dies. . . . When Boo kills Bob Ewell, Atticus, cast as protector of both men, must decide whether he will allow another outsider to face the same threat [harm to innocents]. Confronted with the possibility of another tragedy, Atticus's faith in the rule of law, and perhaps his courage as well, fail him. He cannot bear the possibility that he will be party to the death of another mockingbird." Tim Dare, the author of this tragic reading of Atticus Finch, contends that Atticus's abandonment of his principles "is the stuff of tragedy: a principled man has come to doubt the adequacy of principles by which he understands himself and abandons those principles." [Tim Dare, Lawyers, Ethics, and To Kill a Mockingbird, 25 Phil. & Lit. 127, 133-134 (2001)]
For a non-fictional case that raises issues of race, prejudice, and trial strategy, see Barbara Bergman, "The Sweet Trials," in Michael E. Tigar & Angela J. Davis (eds.), Trial Stories 353-398 (New York: Foundation Press, 2008). On the Sweet trial, see: Melting Hearts of Stone: Clarence Darrow and the Sweet Trials
To Kill a Mockingbird
Legal History: The Scottsboro Boys Trial
Alabama in the Depression Years
The Great Depression