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Black Lamb


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The lawyer as hero

September 1st, 2003

tokillamockingbird.jpgBY BUD GARDNER

It’s not as if I go down to my office on Monday morning, sit down at my desk and try to transform myself into Atticus Finch, but I suppose, like most lawyers, I’d sure like to be seen as that wonderful, patient, and wise lawyer-dad character Gregory Peck made famous in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus, with his solitary and principled stand against ignorance and bigotry, with his commitment to a process intended to protect the individual against those very forces, but which are perverted into a vehicle for prejudice and injustice. The attentive and patient single parent, giving his young children their first life lessons in morality and social conscience.

That character set a high standard for lawyers and for humans in general. Still, you could have knocked me over with a feather last June when the American Film Institute released its list of the top hundred film heroes of all time. There was Atticus, the lawyer, number one, above Indiana Jones and Gary Cooper’s character in High Noon. Last time I looked, lawyers were hovering just above used car salesmen in the theater of popular approval. Go figure.

Of course To Kill a Mockingbird was a movie of its time, and it was in the context of those mid-Sixties that I first saw it, before I had decided on law school for sure. Civil rights and other righteous concerns quickened the pulse in those campus years, and Gregory Peck’s academy award performance as Atticus Finch struck a chord with me, as apparently it did with millions of others. Atticus Finch was not just a moralistic lawyer but an altogether terrific human being who took deliveries of collard greens and hickory nuts as payment on account, and who explainied to his children, as best he could, the sometimes strange and inexplicable realities of life. Not a bad role model, all in all, in a quiet, small-town kind of way. It wasn’t because of Atticus that I wound up going to law school and spending most of the last thirty years lawyering, but I do think that that pleasant, summer, small-town-lawyer movie fantasy has always been there in the back of my mind.

I spent the first years of my practice doing criminal work as a public defender in the city. Though there was plenty of unfairness and injustice to go around, and heroic efforts were hard to sustain in the sheer flood of the work. I tired of the pace and the cynical indifference that permeated the mechanical process of the criminal law, grinding the humanity out of all involved. I ultimately decided that a big city practice was not for me.

Sad to say, my escape to this small town idyll has not provided much opportunity for the big trial scene where I get to stand alone, tall and unafraid in my mantle of moral certainty, against a raging tempest of incivility, to deliver my stunning argument. Somehow just doesn’t comfortably fit in to your average divorce or boundary line dispute.

But I think the real lesson of Atticus Finch, for me, doesn’t stem from the fact that he was a lawyer, but that he invested his profession with his sense of moral duty. Anybody can do that — bus driver, lawyer, whatever — but most of us just punch the clock and go home. Lawyering is just another job, after all. His lawyering, however, provided a vehicle for the expression of his humanity. His morality gave him no option but to accept Tom Robinson’s case and confront the prejudice and ire of his narrow-minded neighbors.
The irony is that small-town bigotry wins out, and Robinson is convicted of a rape that never happened, despite Mr. Finch’s sterling performance in the courtroom. The movie well makes the point that, notwithstanding the drama and explosive immediacy of a trial, the events and situations that invariably have the most profound and lasting impact on people’s lives happen far from the controlled and dignified courtroom setting: young Scout confronting Mr. Cunningham in the lynch mob scene, for example, or Tom Robinson’s suicidal escape attempt following his conviction. Boo Radley saves the Finch children with a homicide that is officially ignored because it is, in fact, a rough approximation of justice more real and more profound than the jury’s decision.

So sure, most of us lawyers are happy to have champions and heroes like Atticus Finch among us, and we like to fancy ourselves as having character and virtue that find a role to play in every case we take. We try to keep up this appearance though most cases give us no real opportunity to employ or display our altruism. I don’t mean to argue that my profession is doomed to abject irrelevance in the greater comédie humaine, but it seems to me that although we lawyers invariably see ourselves as essential players in the human drama, we are usually mere observers with seats closer to the front than most of the rest of the folks. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Movie Issue, Gardner | Link to this Entry


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