By Georgia Briggs
To Kill a Mockingbird was one of the first books I ever really read. I had to analyse it for English class, and it has stuck with me ever since. Whether it influenced my choice to become a lawyer, I don’t know, but it certainly influenced how I choose to act as a person.
This novel, written by Harper Lee and published in 1960, follows the life of Jean Louise, better known as Scout, a 10-year-old girl living in Maycomb Country, in America’s South, in 1936. As we probably all know, but I’ll remind you anyway, this time in history sees a very distinct racial divide between white and black people. Blacks are segregated from whites at all costs, and work only as servants in the town.
Scout lives with her older brother, Jeremy (Jem), and her widowed father Atticus. They also have a maid, a black woman named Calpurnia, who is also a mother figure to Scout. The book is told through Scout’s eyes as she recounts her life in her small town.
What becomes the main focus of the book, amongst many other themes, is that Atticus Finch, as the town’s prominent lawyer, must defend a black man accused of raping a white woman. Atticus takes on the case knowing that the prevailing opinion at this time was that when a white person who accused a black person of a crime, the black person was guilty. Therefore, though not specifically stated, the majority of the small county deemed a trial unnecessary. He was guilty, they all knew it.
Atticus believing that everyone deserves a fair trial, and every man deserves legal representation, did the right thing. He stood against the crowd, defending to the best of his ability, an essentially unwinnable case. Because it was the right thing to do.
This is always solidified in my mind through a chapter in the novel where Atticus leaves the children at home one night. Scout, curious as always and not one to follow the rules, walks into town in the dark to see where her father went. She finds Atticus perched on a chair, reading the paper, right in front of the jail entrance. He is waiting, in the dark, guarding his client, as he knows that men in the town will take it upon themselves to lynch (hang) the man accused if they get the opportunity. Atticus is the human barrier between one innocent man, with the wrong coloured skin, and a large mob of angry men, most of whom are Atticus’ friends, neighbours and peers. Atticus chooses to stand against his own people, puts his own life and reputation in the small town at risk, to defend someone, because it is the right thing to do.
Atticus Finch is the lawyer we all want to be. Even Wikipedia says Atticus is “the most enduring fictional image of racial heroism”. He is a hero, he is our humble, average, no cape needed, hero. And while our battles as lawyers may be different, whatever our fight is, we want it to be a strong and passionate one, one that leaves our soul and conscious sound.
Atticus embodies one of the most difficult issues for any person, perhaps more so for lawyers, where one must balance their own safety, morals and agenda against what is right and what is wrong. Not to get swept up in the controversy and follow what your peers say is the obvious choice, but to do what is the correct choice from your moral compass.
A line that I found interesting came from the movie The Judge. Robert Downey Jr, playing a suave defence attorney tells us “everyone wants Atticus Finch until you have a dead hooker in your hot tub”. What a person hiring a lawyer wants remains to be seen, but what a person who is a lawyer wants… They want to hold their head high and do what is right, feel they are fighting a good fight and go home at night knowing they tried their best, and they hopefully made a difference. Atticus is the embodiment of all of this.
Told through his daughter’s eyes, Atticus becomes a father figure to us all. As Scout learns lessons of life from her father, the reader learns them too. It is well written, amusing, but also deeply profound. Harper Lee is a fantastic author who shines a light on what it can mean to be a lawyer trying to do all that you can. That we are people who do our best to balance our beliefs, our job, our responsibilities, our family and our conscious to do what is right. Often this balance is tricky, but we do it as best we can, and Atticus Finch leads the way.
If you have yet to read To Kill a Mockingbird, as a lawyer, or as any person, I strongly urge you, if not demand, that you read this book. If you have already read it, read it again! You’ll turn back through the pages and feel the familiar warmth of the written words, the southern twang of the dialogue, and of course the wonderful characters.