Bar News - March 18, 2015
Opinion: The Return of Atticus Is Good News for Lawyers
By: Tony Sculimbrene
Tired, defeated, and wearing a hangdog expression that comes only after losing a trial, Atticus Finch walked out of the courtroom.
In the film, Scout is in a balcony filled with African Americans, all of whom had been relegated there for the trial as it was set in Alabama in the 1930s. As her father walks by they all stand, and one of them reminds Scout to stand too--because her father is passing. There are dozens of such moments, both in the film and most especially in the book To Kill a Mockingbird. It is an American classic Ė perhaps the American Classic. And now, 54 years after its publication, we learn that it was originally a small part of another book. That book, Harper Leeís original novel, started with Scout as an adult in the 1950s returning home to rural Alabama from New York. The parts that became To Kill a Mockingbird were flashbacks in Go Set a Watchman.
That novelís manuscript, lost for more than 50 years, was rediscovered last fall. Lee, now 88, let a few friends read it, and they thought it was good. Her publisher agreed, and last month it was announced that Go Set a Watchman will be released July 14. There is some speculation that Lee, in her old age, is being pushed to release the book, but that kind of thing is hard to confirm, something to which probate litigators can attest.
A new story with Scout and Atticus is great news. The fact that Lee wrote it and it was her original story is even more stunning. How long it was hidden and how it came to light are simply incredible. But aside from the news, as a lawyer, there is something fundamentally appealing about checking in on the paragon of legal virtue that is Atticus Finch.
I have had the fortune of going to courts all across New Hampshire and, on occasion, have visited judgesí chambers. I am always amazed at how many of them include some tribute to To Kill a Mockingbird or Atticus Finch. In an age when the general public holds lawyers in the same esteem as snake oil salesmen, Atticus Finch holds special sway. In 2003, the American Film Institute listed Atticus Finch as its No. 1 movie hero of all time, besting Superman, Indiana Jones, and Rocky among others. Atticus Finch, as Harper Lee created him, captured the publicís mindshare and the legal professionís as well.
But itís more personal than that. Working at the NH Public Defender for 10 years, I have set Atticus Finchís behavior, demeanor, and professionalism as a goal for my daily activities. When he stood up to the mob at the jail where Tom Robinson was being held, he provided an example of how to withstand public criticism even when it gets very personal. When he took food in lieu of payment, he showed how to be gracious when given humble payment. When he explained to Scout why it is difficult to judge other people, he displayed the wisdom that is at the heart of a great lawyer. Not a day goes by that I donít think about one of the many problems Atticus faced and how he dealt with it.
Lee has rarely given interviews so we donít know if she was aware of how Atticus would impact the legal community. We do know that she liked Gregory Peckís performance (and really I think everyone did). But her character is a beacon for lawyers. He topped the list of movie heroes with the most amazing superpower of all Ė decency. And now all these years later, we get to see Atticus again.
Itís a tantalizing notion, one that has captured my imagination since the news broke. Itís interesting that as legal dramas multiply on TV and in movies, we never see the Atticus Finch character. We see blowhards and sleaze bags but never an Atticus Finch. Perhaps that is a testament to how the public wants to see lawyers. Or perhaps that is a testament to how singular Harper Leeís hero really is. Either way, I canít wait until July 14.
Anthony Sculimbrene is a public defender in the Nashua office of the New Hampshire Public Defender and graduate of the NH Bar Association Leadership Academy Class of 2013.