Fostering Excellence in Professionalism, Ethics, Civility, and Legal Skills

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 hardship.

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 professional demeanor.

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 his client. 

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 case. 

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 101.

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 Relevant

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. Doyle AIC.

© 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.