Harper Lee and Shakespeare – Fictional Lawyers Who We Aspire to Be

“Kill all the Lawyers” was a comment in an email I received this week as part of a group discussion on a safety issue I raised as part of a community group where I donate my time.  In some ways, the timing of the comment is somewhat ironic given that Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and creator of the iconic lawyer character, Atticus Finch, died this week.

It is impossible to know how many legal careers were inspired by 8th grade English classes reading “To Kill A Mockingbird.  The book continues to resonate with readers and greatly influences how we view lawyers.  In many ways, Atticus Finch is the lawyer that we all aspire to be.  A noble advocate fighting for justice on behalf of an innocent client against the biases and prejudices of an unjust world. 

As someone who practices law in the South, and often in rural communities, it’s impossible to escape the shadow of Atticus Finch.  I remember thinking of him years ago during one of my earliest cases when I stood to address the Court in a small county courthouse and I heard the boards of the wooden floor creaking under me.  The nostalgic atmosphere of the century old building put me in mind of the story and reminded me of the nobility of defending those who live on the margins of our society. 

Confederate Solider - Gadsden County, Florida Courthouse
Confederate Solider – Gadsden County, Florida Courthouse

My world isn’t really that different from the book.  I regularly enter old courthouses set in the center of town with monuments to confederate soldiers standing guard before the main entrance.  I currently have an elderly black client who grew up in the segregated south and raised his family with money he earned by picking tobacco. Of course, the world and the law are not static and things have changed.  For instance, a Black female Judge now is the sole judge sitting on the County Court bench of the courthouse pictured to the left with the confederate soldier.

Equally impossible to escape are the comments such as the one I received in the email seeking to vilify lawyers, often misquoting the phrase, from Shakespeare’s play “Henry VI”, which goes: “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”.  This phrase is probably one of the most misconstrued phrases of all time.  As explained by Professor Stephen Gey, during an FSU Law School graduation ceremony several years ago, the phrase was uttered by the bad guy in the play.   You can view Professor Gey’s excellent and entertaining talk on You Tube here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1i0MNOwNNsM

Both Harper Lee and Shakespeare created works of art that reflect elements of truth about law and lawyering.   Despite the common misunderstanding of Shakespeare’s quote, both Harper Lee and Shakespeare speak to the nobility of the law and the legal profession.

Courthouse, Quitman, Ga.
Courthouse, Quitman, Ga.

However, it would be inaccurate to simply declare the law as perfect and lawyers as always championing the cause of justice.  One cannot forget that  slavery and segregation were once given sanction under the law.  The truth is that law often fails to protect the weak and vulnerable and it often fails to deliver justice.  Atticus Finch did not win his case in “To Kill A Mockingbird.”  This outcome parallels real life. Harper Lee’s father was a lawyer who, in 1919, defended two black men accused of murder.  The men were convicted, hanged, and their bodies mutilated. It is said that Harper Lee’s father never tried another criminal case.

When I was a law student I attended a lecture by Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center.  I’ll never forget when he told our group of law students that in the law it doesn’t matter what role you have, but how you conduct yourself in that role.  Being a criminal defense attorney or a prosecutor isn’t nearly as important as the ethics you bring to the role.  You can be a corporate attorney and exist as the conscience of the organization, or you can simply be a hatchet man using the law to oppress and bully those who are weaker or have less legal resources.

The truth about laws and lawyers is complex.  I know that I work in an imperfect system where justice is sometimes sacrificed for that which is predictable and efficient.  I have long believed that law’s primary function isn’t justice at all, but to maintain the power structure of society in all but the most egregious cases.  However, I also know that, as a lawyer, I can sometimes make a difference and create justice and truth where it wouldn’t otherwise happen.   When I think about Atticus Finch, I’m reminded that as a lawyer I can bring optimism, hope, and voice to injustice. 

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