I have said on numerous occasions that every lawyer in America should be required to read To Kill A Mockingbird and also see the movie on an annual basis. If those were requirements, I am confident we would have better lawyers practicing in the courtrooms of this country. I can think of no better way to really learn how a “real lawyer” should approach his or her work. All of our firm’s lawyers attended a special play at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery and we all came away with a renewed commitment to represent folks who really need our help. It made each of us realize – some perhaps for the first time – what it means to be a real lawyer.
The following article written by Teri Greene appeared in the Montgomery Advertiser. We were given permission to include the article in this issue. It’s quite good and timely, especially as To Kill A Mockingbird celebrates its 50th anniversary.
For devotees of the novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the name Atticus Finch has become synonymous with the word “hero.” As the lawyer protagonist of the book, he stood up for what he believed was right, even in the face of widespread opposition. His influence seems especially strong among those in the field of law. In fact, one facet of the Alabama Law Foundation is “The Atticus Finch Foundation.” Its primary goal is “to make access to justice a reality for all Alabama citizens.”
Many of the state’s most prominent leaders in law see Finch as a composite of the best people in their profession — past and present — a beacon of truths that are at the core of their mission. We asked a few of them just how the book, and the character of Atticus Finch in particular, affected their decision to enter the field of law and whether the values he has come to represent affect them even to this day as they practice.
Morris Dees, co-founder, Southern Poverty Law Center
After launching a Montgomery law practice in 1960 (the year “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published), Dees won a series of groundbreaking civil rights cases that helped integrate government and public institutions:
“To Kill a Mockingbird” didn’t influence me to go to law school, but it had a tremendous influence on my decision to sell my publishing company that I had founded, and to engage full-time in civil rights law. It was a pretty powerful influence, along with Clarence Darrow’s book about his life as a lawyer, “The Story of My Life.” With both of them, I saw someone who had the courage to stand up against the popular opinions of the community without fear of retribution.
Obviously, the book is fiction, but you have to realize that there were a lot of white Southerners who also took principled stands in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60’s — lawyers who were willing to say that the way black people were treated in the South was wrong, and there was no reason they should not have equal rights. That exhibited itself as a lawyer, when you went to court and a black person did not get a fair trial, was not allowed to serve in a jury, not allowed to participate in the things we took for granted.
There have been people who criticize the book because they say Harper Lee was very careful not to step on a lot of the mores of the day. Atticus kept within the accepted approaches of the day, even though he did put up a defense for Tom Robinson. There are those who say it was interesting how during the trial Atticus Finch called the reprobate father of the girl “Mr. Ewell,” but called Tom Robinson “Tom.” I don’t agree with those criticisms. You have to look at the time in which the story is set. He had great respect among the black community because he was willing to stand up against a mob in front of the courthouse.
One thing I can say with pride: There is a long history of lawyers in Alabama standing up for the underdog, even before the civil rights movement, who believed that everyone deserved a vigorous defense, though it was very rare for juries to take the word of a black person. The most despicable courts of appeals had judges who would never go against the attitudes of the white community. Laws were passed in Alabama aimed strictly at blacks — it was a death penalty offense to break into an occupied dwelling in the nighttime. That was a law designed to protect white women in their homes at night. Our judicial system and legal system had a lot of very prejudicial and biased laws in them, which I’m glad to say now, because of a more enlightened attitude among lawyers and judges, have been eliminated.
Alyce M. Spruell, president-elect, Alabama State Bar
In July, Spruell will become the first woman to serve in that position, after 133 men have preceded her. Her practice is Spruell & Powell LLC in Tuscaloosa:
I have been blessed in my life and professional career with real-life mentors who are embodiments of the Atticus Finch character. My father, Rick Manley, who has practiced law in Demopolis, Alabama, for over 50 years, is an example of the caring, professional counselor of law that the Atticus Finch character personifies and celebrates.
In an “Atticus-like” fashion, my father served as the local city schools board chairman, as a member of the state Legislature, and as a State Bar leader, serving the public in ways that were sometimes unpopular and that cost him clients, elections and career aspirations. As a small child and even today, I have watched lawyers, like my father, help others for little or no pay because, like Atticus, it was the right thing to do. For devotees of the novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the name Atticus Finch has become synonymous with the word “hero.” As the lawyer protagonist of the book, he stood up for what he believed was right, even in the face of widespread opposition.
Bobby Segall, Montgomery lawyer, past Alabama State Bar president
I think I already wanted to be a lawyer when I first read “To Kill A Mockingbird,” but I loved the book and the movie, and I loved Atticus Finch. When I was in junior high school, I thought Atticus was the ultimate hero, and I still do. I found everything about him inspiring, but the scene from the movie that has inspired me most over the years is the one where Atticus walks out of the courtroom and the Rev. Sykes tells Scout, “Stand up, your father is passing.”
Nothing to me is as important as having the love and respect of your children, and no scene or words ever dramatized respect for another person more powerfully or emotionally. In the practice of law, I often think of that scene and of those words, and they have always been my guiding light — try to make your children proud.
I think Atticus’s inspiration carried over to my view of lawyers who I considered role models — people like Judge Frank Johnson Jr. and lawyers Truman Hobbs Sr. and Albert Copeland. They were Atticus-like, and I wanted to be like them. I don’t believe I’ve ever reached the standard Atticus, and they, set, but it’s important to me to keep trying.
Judge John L. Carroll, dean, Cumberland School of Law, ex-U.S. magistrate judge in Montgomery
Atticus Finch was a definite inspiration to me to seek a career in law. I was in college when the book and movie came out, and I entered law school six years after I graduated from college. I went to law school because I wanted to emulate the values that Atticus Finch embodied.
He was a servant leader and skilled lawyer who understood the importance of the rule of law. More importantly, he knew that a lawyer’s highest and best calling is to represent individuals in unpopular causes. Atticus Finch continues to inspire me today to use the power that my law degree has given me to help those in our society who are powerless.
Tom Methvin, current Alabama State Bar president
There is no question that the character of Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” has influenced generations of people in the way they perceive lawyers and in thinking about a career as a lawyer. He is portrayed as a strong and true crusader for justice, someone who stands up for what is right even if it might cost him a lot, personally and professionally.
That’s definitely a portrait of what the law is meant to be. The law is meant to be a voice for those who otherwise wouldn’t be heard. The law is an avenue for the weak to be able to stand up against the strong. The character of Atticus Finch embodies these ideals and creates a positive image not only of the law, but of lawyers and the job we do.
I hope the above account of the novel will have the desired effect on each of our readers. Hopefully, we will all rededicate ourselves to working harder to stamp out any lingering racist attitudes that are still around today. We all need to simply be more like Atticus.
Morris Dees Is A Modern-Day Atticus
I can think of no better example of Atticus in today’s world than Morris Dees. Morris, who has achieved legendary status, has dedicated his life to protecting folks who are victims of hate and intolerance. It’s my belief that his hard work and that of others at The Southern Poverty Law Center have made America a better place for all of us. When I think of Atticus I also think of my good friend Morris Dees.
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