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Facing up to the Atticus problem

Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is, hands down, America’s most beloved courtroom drama.

I’ve heard of lawyers who decided to go to law school after being inspired by the noble example of its protagonist, Atticus Finch, who withstands social pressure in small-town 1930s Alabama, and even defies a lynch mob, to defend a Black man wrongfully accused of rape.

The novel is a favorite teaching tool in Albuquerque Public Schools. One of my children had it assigned three times, at three different grade levels.

Though remembered for its courtroom scenes, it’s also one of our great novels of quarantine and respiratory disease, making it an especially appropriate assignment these days.

Memorial to Atticus Finch of “To Kill a Mockingbird” at the 1903 Old Courthouse Museum in Monroeville, Ala. The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America. (Courtesy of The Library Of Congress)

For those unfamiliar with the story, it’s told in the first person by Atticus’s daughter, Jean Louise, whose childhood nickname is Scout. The narrative voice switches between adult Jean Louise and 8-year-old Scout.

A subplot, introduced on the first page, which eventually merges with the main plot for a particularly satisfying conclusion, features the little girl’s reclusive next door neighbor, Arthur “Boo” Radley. Scout and her playmates, her brother Jem and their neighbor Dill (based on Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote), invent Gothic tales to explain Boo’s reclusiveness because they don’t understand he’s in quarantine with tuberculosis.

Lee expects her reader to pick up on the clues the little girl misses. The Radley parents put an end to Boo’s practice of giving small presents to the children, which he leaves in the knot-hole of a tree. They’re concerned about what we’ve learned to call fomites, contagions transmitted on the surface of objects.

When Scout finally meets Boo, the voice of adult Jean Louise describes his “dreadful raling cough,” using an unusual adjective that refers specifically to the sound made by diseased lungs. Little Scout wonders why Atticus ushers Boo out of the house to talk on the porch instead of sitting in the living room, but today’s reader knows, as Atticus knew, that the risk of contagion is much reduced outdoors.

Atticus was based on Harper Lee’s own father, Amasa, a lawyer and newspaper editor whose story is told in Joseph Crespino’s “Atticus Finch: The Biography.” Amasa and Atticus alike resisted taking criminal cases, but in that era before public defenders it was customary for the judge hearing a criminal case to designate a local lawyer to represent an indigent defendant.

The novel makes clear why Atticus doesn’t want to represent the innocent Tom Robinson. In the weeks leading up to the trial, he repeatedly tells his children that, despite Tom’s innocence, he has no chance of being acquitted.

This leads to some lines that sound stirring on first listen. “Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win,” Atticus tells his children. He says real courage is “when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway.”

What he means is: he’s a lawyer in an unjust legal system. The judge appointed him not to promote justice but to disguise injustice. And he goes along with it.

That last is the part that haunts me. Atticus, we can be sure, didn’t study law with the burning desire to promote injustice, but the memorably impassioned oratory of his closing argument serves no function but to drape a thin veil of respectability over a brutally unfair trial. Atticus knew all along his efforts would produce no result, and they don’t. His innocent client is sentenced to death.

The Atticus Finch Problem lies close to the heart of what it means to be a lawyer. When we undertake to represent a client, we become a small part of a big machine. We can do our best, act with integrity and fight for what’s right, but there’s no guarantee any of that will make the slightest difference.

For a lawyer, losing a case is always disappointing, of course. But it’s rarely a complete surprise. Lawyers are usually pretty good at evaluating their cases. (Hint: What they say in public and what they think in private are two different things.)

The cases that haunt them, even into their retirement (as I can attest), are those in which they had the facts and law and justice on their side – and it didn’t matter.

Versions of the Atticus Finch Problem arise in the careers of most lawyers. How they deal with it goes a long way toward determining how happy they’ll be in the profession.

UPDATE: The last column discussed COVID-19 vaccinations in the workplace. The U.S. EEOC has since issued valuable guidance on the issue, available at

Joel Jacobsen is an author who in 2015 retired from a 29-year legal career. If there are topics you would like to see covered in future columns, please write him at


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