Harper Lee's Atticus Finch: Influence on the Legal Profession

February 23, 2016

Author Harper Lee's death last week saw many references to her most famous creation, Atticus Finch, the fictional hero of Lee's Pulitzer Prize winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch was based on Lee's own father, Amasa Coleman Lee, an Alabama lawyer, who, like Finch, represented black defendants in a highly publicized criminal trial. The character is seen by many as the epitome of legal morality. Book Magazine's list of The 100 Best Characters in Fiction Since 1900 names Finch as the seventh best fictional character of 20th-century literature. In 2003, the American Film Institute voted Atticus Finch, as portrayed by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film adaptation, as the greatest hero of all American cinema.

 

Examples of Atticus Finch's impact on the legal profession are plentiful.

 

Claudia Durst Johnson has commented about critiques of the novel, saying, "A greater volume of critical readings has been amassed by two legal scholars in law journals than by all the literary scholars in literary journals". Alice Petry remarked, "Atticus has become something of a folk hero in legal circles and is treated almost as if he were an actual person". Richard Matsch, the federal judge who presided over the Timothy McVeigh trial, counts Atticus as a major judicial influence. One law professor at the University of Notre Dame stated that the most influential textbook from which he taught was To Kill a Mockingbird, and an article in the Michigan Law Review asserts, "No real-life lawyer has done more for the self-image or public perception of the legal profession", before questioning whether "Atticus Finch is a paragon of honor or an especially slick hired gun."

 

In 1992, Monroe Freedman, a professor of law and noted legal ethicist, published two articles in the national legal newspaper Legal Times calling for the legal profession to set aside Atticus Finch as a role model. Freedman argued that Atticus still worked within a system of institutionalized racism and sexism and should not be revered. Freedman's article sparked a flurry of responses from attorneys who entered the profession holding Atticus Finch as a hero and the reason for which they became lawyers. Freedman argued that Atticus Finch is dishonest, unethical, sexist, and inherently racist, and that he did nothing to challenge the racist status quo in Maycomb. Freedman's article sparked furious controversy, with one legal scholar opining, "What Monroe really wants is for Atticus to be working on the front lines for the NAACP in the 1930s, and, if he's not, he's disqualified from being any kind of hero; Monroe has this vision of lawyer as prophet. Atticus has a vision of lawyer not only as prophet but as parish priest".

 

In 1997 the Alabama State Bar erected a monument dedicated to Atticus in Monroeville marking his existence as the "first commemorative milestone in the state's judicial history". 

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atticus_Finch#Impact_on_the_legal_profession

 

 

 

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