Rehabilitating Atticus (Update)

We’re up to our neck in victims these days, but one for whom few tears are shed is Harper Lee’s protagonist in To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch.  To some extent, he served as an inspiration for generations of young people to go to law school, to become lawyers.

What distinguished these young people from the law school matriculants of today?  They were smart. They chose to join a still-vibrant profession. They passed the bar exam on the first try, second at worst. And when they learned that the real practice of criminal defense bore no similarity to what their law school prof taught them, getting their butts kicked for all the wrong reasons on a daily basis, they again turned to Atticus Finch to remind them of why they should get up the next morning and fight again.

So why tear this character apart?  Katie Rose Guest Pryal explains at Quartz:

As I’ve said before, the world does not need more lawyers like Atticus Finch. He’s a flawed inspiration for attending law school. He took on a case he didn’t want to take because no one else would do it and because his client, Tom Robinson, was not only righteous; he was obviously innocent. Then, Atticus slut-shamed an abused, impoverished girl to get his client off. Helped along by Gregory Peck’s steadfast portrayal in the beloved Hollywood classic, Atticus Finch, the lawyer-hero of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, has been inspiring law students for decades.

If you’re over a certain age, you’re shaking your head at this drivel. Aside from muttering, “yeah, so,” the bit that screams out at you is that “Atticus slut-shamed an abused impoverished girl to get his client off.” Lawyers would call this cross-examining a witness committing perjury to convict an innocent defendant. And this is, according to Pryal, a bad thing.

But what we don’t talk about as often is an unfortunate side effect of all this inspiration. In my experience, too many of these young Atticus wannabes took up the law because of a misplaced savior complex, not because they wanted to serve others, a drive lawyers are ostensibly taught to aspire to.

It’s curious that Pryal’s takeaway is that Atticus suffered from a “misplaced savior complex,” as do those who drew inspiration from him. Perhaps emotional cripples project their own failings onto others to bring them down to their level. Perhaps she’s just clueless about lawyers. She is a lawyer, though there is no indication she’s ever practiced law, but her self-description neglects to mention it.

In the world of intersectional feminism and social justice, Atticus Finch has become the enemy. He defended Robinson for inadequately socially justice-y reasons, didn’t teach Scout to question her racial and sexual identities (and you thought she was just a tomboy), and was a rape apologist slut-shamer.

But Pryal isn’t antagonistic to the defense function. She just wants Atticus cut out of the loop:

The problem with a lawyer with a savior complex is that he is easily disenchanted. Many, if not most, poor clients involved in our legal system are “guilty” in the eyes of the law. Indeed, once you step into a courthouse, it is difficult to find a client as purely innocent as Tom Robinson. A few months—heck, a few weeks—spent defending the rights of guilty clients against police and prosecutorial overreach would be enough to shatter the dreams of many a young lawyer anxious to defend the innocent.

The reality is the American legal system doesn’t need saviors. It needs clear-eyed lawyers who recognize that all members of US society have a right to a fair trial and a right to an attorney who is not overworked, underpaid, and abused by the system as well, as many public defenders can be.

While it’s disingenuous for Pryal to be telling anyone about the “reality” of what it’s like to be a criminal defense lawyers, it’s hard to disagree with her assertion that lawyers should be “clear-eyed” and not “overworked, underpaid, and abused,” though what she means by “abused” is unclear.  One might mumble that all lawyers are not public defenders, rendering her point misguided, but there is no burning need to note the obvious, even if it sails over Pryal’s head.

So, her reading comprehension is distorted, and she’s tarred Atticus as a “savior” because he’s not an SJW’s perfect lawyer. Fair enough, except that’s not where this set up goes.

The way the American legal profession is structured today, there are many, many people who need legal services and cannot afford them, hence the familiar trope of overworked public defenders paid for by the state. . .

If you were just out of law school and saddled with $50,000 to $200,000 in debt, it would be hard to imagine making a real living as a lawyer the poor and underserved. But when we look at legally underserved populations, it is hard to say that we have too many lawyers.

You probably guessed it. Poor students. Poor clients. Too many of both, and a system that fails them.  And what is this non-practicing lawyer and intersectional feminist’s solution?

The solution, according to [University of Tennessee law professor Benjamin] Barton, is a radical shift in how lawyers deliver legal services, including embracing “computerization and standardization. Lawyers must learn how to provide legal services in a standardized way and en masse.”

Yup. Just another future of law spiel.

Lawyers tend to “treat cases as unique snowflakes”—even when, in actuality, they don’t need to be. And because of this highly customized approach to law practice, “Lawyers are pricing themselves out of the demand. We’re creating the wrong kind of supply to meet the existing demand.”

Lawyers should be quick, cheap and shitty. Putting aside the fact that the economics don’t work even if the practice of law morphed into high-volume mills, cranking out “one size fits all” crap for $29.95, the people who would suffer from incompetence are Pryal’s beloved underserved poor people, who need and deserve competent counsel as much as everyone else.

But this simplistic nonsense explains why the seemingly conflicted SJW view that Atticus needs to be spanked prevails. The Atticus Finch character had integrity.  He took pride in his work. He served his client. He put his client’s interests first. Nothing undermines the social justice lawyer narrative more than integrity.  So Atticus must go if the assembly line is to become the new normal.

The question is whether students considering law school will take their inspiration from Atticus Finch or social justice phonies like Pryal.  If you were a defendant, which type of lawyer would you want beside you?

If you’re a lawyer, did you go to law school to work on an assembly line that creates garbage in order to earn minimum wage so that you could provide ineffective assistance of counsel at a very affordable price?  At least you would never find yourself in the position of having to slut-shame a liar to save an innocent defendant.

Update:  The brilliant Cathy Young took up arms when Atticus Finch was first placed squarely in the social justice crosshairs:

Lee’s second book, “Go Set a Watchman”—a sort-of-sequel, sort-of-first-draft to her 1960 classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird”—showed the revered Atticus Finch, a white lawyer who stood up to racial injustice in the 1930s South, as a cantankerous old bigot defending segregation 20 years later. Many were appalled, but others applauded. That reaction was summed up in the title of a New York Times op-ed by University of Miami law professor Osamudia James: “Now We Can Finally Say Goodbye to the White Savior Myth of Atticus.” On the feminist blog Jezebel, writer Catherine Nichols asserted that without the corrective ofWatchman,” “Mockingbird” is a “shameful” and “racist” book, and Atticus is a virtuous white patriarch who believes in being kind to blacks (and women) and keeping them in their place.

Or as Sonny Bunch says, everything is problematic.

14 thoughts on “Rehabilitating Atticus (Update)

  1. Billy Bob

    “misplaced savior complex,” and “intersectional feminism”? Good Grief! And we hope we never meet another Guest like this one. Thanx for this expose of KRG Pryal. She’s dead wrong. We need more lawyers like Atticus Finch, not fewer. How can this lady be so dumb?
    Law school debt, however, is a problem and a sensitive area of discussion. There was a golden era when law school was cheaper (and better?) than it is today. Think Harvard Law, Class of 65. That’s a real plug and an inside joke, so to speak. We were successfully defended by a member of that class who knew his sh!t. Today,… we dunno!? Higher costs, poorer quality product?! Across the board,… What is going on here.

  2. Mario Machado

    If you are a defense attorney who feels “easily disenchanted,” savior complex or not, do yourself a favor and quit.

    And quoting Christopher Hitchens, to describe this law prof’s article as a piece of crap “would be to run the risk of a discourse that would never again rise above the excremental.”

      1. Mario Machado

        I could’ve used Hitchens’ quote about how something so mind numbingly stupid makes me want to throw up something I have yet to eat, but I thought the excrement quote was more suitable.

  3. KIM

    “Embracing standardization” Exactly what every defense attorney should do. What are you accused of sir/madam? Here is your standard guideline sentence. Your case has unique circumstances because you are a human being? What? You have a defense? That doesn’t fit in my grid here… Next!

    This, of course is what every client fears when coming to a public defender office. Sometimes, Katie Rose, being a lawyer actually takes thinking and–god forbid–work!

  4. Turk

    It’s amazing how many people who don’t practice law know the right answers to the problems of reality.

    1. SHG Post author

      Answers are always easier when the person giving them isn’t constrained by reality, knowledge or experience.

      1. elhunde

        Hey, a single year at a workman’s comp firm more than a decade ago sure as heck makes her an expert in criminal law!

  5. Alan

    What a bizarre take on To Kill a Mockingbird: ‘(…) because his client, Tom Robinson, was not only righteous; he was obviously innocent.’ So obviously innocent that he was found guilty.

  6. losingtrader

    Putting aside the fact that the economics don’t work even if the practice of law morphed into high-volume mills, cranking out “one size fits all” crap for $29.95

    Hey, I’ve gotten good advice from highly experienced attorneys with a box of fruit from Harry & David.
    Why pay $29.95 for crappy advice when you can pay $39.95(free shipping) and get advice from highly experienced practicing attorneys?
    This works especially well with lawyers who have written articles in specialized law journals when they don’t know the answer to a question that is in their field. They feel obliged to find out.
    Of course I’ve also paid 20x that amount per hour when need be.
    I know you would see right through such attempts (but eat the fruit anyway).

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