Reconstructing Atticus Finch

Atticus Finch. No real-life lawyer has done more for the self-image or public perception of the legal profession than the hero of Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. For nearly four decades, the name of Atticus Finch has been invoked to defend and inspire lawyers, to rebut lawyer jokes, and to justify (and fine-tune) the adversary system. Lawyers are greedy. What about Atticus Finch? Lawyers only serve the rich. Not Atticus Finch. Professionalism is a lost ideal. Remember Atticus Finch. In the unreconstructed Maycomb, Alabama of the 1930s, Atticus was willing to risk his social standing, professional reputation, and even his physical safety in order to defend a poor, black laborer falsely accused of raping a white woman. Serving for no fee, Atticus heard the call of justice. His defense was doomed to failure by the very nature of Southern life, but Atticus nonetheless succeeded in demonstrating both the innocence of his client and the peculiar sickness of Jim Crow society. Through his deft, courtly, and persistent cross examination, Atticus made it apparent to everyone that Tom Robinson was being scapegoated for a crime that had not even occurred. He even made Tom’s innocence apparent to the all-white jury, which deliberated for an unprecedented several hours even though the judgment of conviction was a foregone conclusion. So Atticus Finch saves us by providing a moral archetype, by reflecting nobility upon us, and by having the courage to meet the standards that we set for ourselves but can seldom attain. And even though he is fictional, perhaps because he is fictional, Atticus serves as the ultimate lawyer. His potential justifies all of our failings and imperfections. Be not too hard on lawyers, for when we are at our best we can give you an Atticus Finch. But what if Atticus is not an icon? What if he was more a man of his time and place than we thought? What if he were not a beacon of enlightenment, but just another working lawyer playing out his narrow, determined role?