Many lawyers cite To Kill a Mockingbird or its film adaptation as the reason they pursued a career in law. It’s easy to see why: the American Film Institute selected the story’s main character, Atticus Finch, as the greatest hero in American film, and the American Bar Association Journal gave the movie first place on its list of 25 Greatest Legal Movies. When it comes to legal legacies in literature and film, Atticus Finch is simply unmatched.
Steadfast in his belief in justice and the fundamental importance of personal integrity, Atticus Finch’s character exemplifies the kind of lawyer (and person) we can all aspire to be. While these may be difficult qualities for many of us to develop (I know I would like to work on them myself), here are three possible reasons why Atticus Finch still has our respect all these years after the novel and film’s release.
+ Atticus always displays a calm, focused demeanor
There is much discussion in the practice of law regarding temperament and civility. Every young lawyer learns — and the most experienced knows — that rudeness and rashness will not go nearly as far as reason and respect, especially in the long run. Atticus not only agrees to the difficulties and bravely accepts the inherent challenges of taking on a hotly controversial case, he also handles it and those involved with grace, even in the face of impossible odds and a violent, outraged community. Perhaps the most blatant example of this steely resolve is when Ewell spits in his face and Atticus simply wipes it off and walks away, refusing even then to compromise his self-control.
Whether or not we all succeed like Atticus does, most lawyers I know (with a few notorious exceptions) strive to be true advocates for our clients while maintaining respect and civility toward our adversaries.
+ Atticus has honed his legal acumen and trial skills
The ability to identify, simplify and communicate the facts — with dramatic delivery when necessary — is one of Atticus’ key strengths. When the question arises of whether Bob Ewell or Tom Robinson is left-handed, Atticus demonstrates vital evidence in his case by throwing a jar to Robinson, who instinctively catches it in his right hand. And when Atticus hits an emotional pitch in his closing argument, he conveys the humanity that’s at stake in the jury’s decision.
+ Atticus builds his life on a foundation of integrity
Atticus understands that, sometimes, the “right thing to do” changes with the times. This requires original thinking and the strength to stand firmly against opposition and, frequently, misunderstanding.
His relationship with his children demonstrates his convictions too. Atticus maintains the same stern yet loving demeanor with his children as he does in his profession. Ultimately, by fighting a losing fight, he teaches his children — and us — the compassion, courage and sacrifice that are necessary to maintain the kind of integrity that will inspire others for generations to come.