Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird: Professionalism In and Out of the Courtroom
By Becky Bye
Although a fictional character, Atticus Finch ranks amongst the
most professional lawyers, setting a paradigm for professionalism
as a trial lawyer. Lawyers, particularly during trial, must
maintain impeccable ethics and professionalism, including
maintaining professional integrity and ethical conduct despite
It is a rite of passage in high school to read and analyze
To Kill A Mockingbird, a relatively short but deeply
poignant novel by Harper Lee published in 1960. The book contains a
treasure trove of themes and issues from race and morality to
issues of parenting, friendship, and ethics.
Upon my first reading of the impressionable book as a high school
junior, I remember my own epiphany. During this time of teenage
angst and numerous existential crises, I realized my aspiration to
be a lawyer exactly like Atticus Finch.
Finch was my first detailed exposure to a lawyer and I was
absorbed by the account of his integrity in and out of the
courtroom, his thoughts, and his passions. He has served as my
real-life paradigm for practicing law and maintaining a
Atticus Finch's Ethical Integrity and Lawyering
Atticus Finch became the first attorney role model to many,
particularly regarding cases that go to trial. Recently
during a roundtable discussion I attended, an outside speaker asked
the group of attorneys about their notions of the "ideal
lawyer." A handful of attorneys said their mother or father.
Many of the participants said "a lawyer like Atticus Finch" or
described attributes of their ideal lawyer-attributes similar to
Atticus Finch's character. In their description, my colleagues used
terms like "integrity", "professionalism", "representing the poor
or the oppressed", and "making a difference." These
participants' notions of a "lawyer" resembled my own.
Finch stood for justice and advocated for equal standing under the
law. He had a commitment to justice, regardless of the
personal stress and sacrifices he made during the representation of
Atticus Finch and the Legal Profession
Besides teaching about the overarching purpose of the American
justice system-to give everyone a voice in the legal system despite
political, racial, and other polarizing beliefs-Atticus Finch
continues to be a model attorney for the legal profession.
As Finch aptly explains his controversial representation of Tom
Robinson to his daughter, "I wanted you to see what real courage
is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in
his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you
begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win,
but sometimes you do." [Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird,
(New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1960), 149.] Finch firmly
believed in standing up for what was appropriate and just,
regardless of whether taking the popular side or a winning
Finch tirelessly devoted himself to his client's case with
knowledge that the town's bigotry and racism might ultimately
prevail. He helped reiterate many tenants of the model rules of
conduct and legal professionalism: lawyers must be diligent
and thorough, they must take cases of the poor or indigent, they
must represent their clients zealously, and lawyers should take
cases even if politically unpopular.
Others have also picked up on his role as a paradigm for the legal
profession; a quick search on Lexis or Westlaw yields a
panoply of articles about Atticus Finch as a model lawyer.
The story also displays him as a mentor. Throughout the novel,
through his actions and words, Finch mentors his children. He
teaches them about tolerance: "You never really understand a person
until you see things from his point of view". Id. at 39.
He also speaks to his children about integrity: "…every lawyer gets
at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally. This
one's mine, I guess. You might hear some ugly talk about it at
school, but do one thing for me if you will: you just hold your
head high and keep those fists down." Id. at
Had Finch been a real person, given his interest in
professionalism, mentorship, and ethics, he would undoubtedly be an
active member of the American Inns of Court and continue to
contribute positively to our profession by educating lawyers about
professionalism, ethics, and integrity.
Atticus Finch Has a Lasting Impact on Society and Remains
Finch made a lasting impact with his commitment to representing
Tom Robinson during a segregated time in a deeply divided town,
which still resonates with lawyers and non-lawyers today.
As recently as 2008, nearly 50 years after the book's
publication, the Alabama State Bar inducted Harper Lee to its bar
as an honorary member, even though she is not an attorney. The
reason for the honor, as the Alabama Bar President stated, is due
to Atticus Finch: "The character of Atticus Finch has become
the personification of the exemplary lawyer in serving the legal
needs of the poor and those no one else would represent. He
epitomizes the type of professional, and person, lawyers strive to
be every day." Alabama State Bar, "Alabama Supreme Court Awards
Harper Lee Honorary Special Membership Status in the Alabama State
Bar", May 16, 2008, available at: http://www.alabar.org/media/news/05162008_Harper_Lee_Honorary.cfm.
2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the movie version of To
Kill A Mockingbird. The movie's continuing popularity, in a
time where technology and movie formats keep evolving with
modernity, serves as a testament to Atticus Fitch's timeless
principles regarding parenting, mentoring, and representing clients
in the courtroom.
Harper Lee's recognition by the Alabama Bar, amongst others, and
the everlasting popularity of the decades old story, indicate that
the concepts and trial skills regarding professionalism and legal
integrity in To Kill a Mockingbird, and the character of Atticus
Finch transcend time.
Becky Bye is an attorney at the U.S. Department of Energy
Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy in Denver,
Colorado. She is a 2012 Pegasus Scholar and serves on the editorial
board for The Bencher. She is a member of the Judge William E.
© 2012 Becky Bye, Esquire. This article was
published in the May/June 2012 issue of The Bencher, the
flagship magazine of the American Inns of Court. This article, in
full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or
stored electronically in any form without the express written
consent of the American Inns of Court.