Atticus Finch

I grew up in a small town.  My four siblings and I lived with our folks in an old farmhouse atop a hill.  Summers were simply magical.  I would play in the woods by day and at night lay with my friends on our dead end road and gaze up at the stars.  The stored heat from the day radiated up from the road cradling my back. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up.  But, in some way, I wanted to be the beauty I saw in those skies years ago.

When I was in the seventh grade, my teacher gave me a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  For those of you not familiar with the book, it’s a tale about a noble lawyer, Atticus Finch, who is asked by a judge to defend a wrongly accused black man in small southern town in 1936.

In the preface to the book, there’s a quote from the eighteenth century British author, Charles Lamb: “Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.”

Why would Harper Lee choose this quote to begin her novel?  Charles Lamb was never a lawyer, but his father was.  Interestingly, Charles also battled depression (then called melancholy) for much of his life and was institutionalized a few times.  We can only wonder what Charles thought when he saw his father come home after a long day at work.  Why, as an adult, would he write such a poignant lament?

Children are full of hope and innocence. Atticus’ two children, Jem and Scout, believe that justice and fairness will prevail and the accused, Tom Robinson, will be found innocent.  But Atticus knows better.  He sees only too well the racism, hatred, and the hardness of men’s hearts in his town.  Atticus could fall prey to cynicism, but he doesn’t.  He rises to the occasion not because he believes he can win, but because of who he is.  He is a person of integrity.  He isn’t one person at his law office and another person at home.  He defends Tom because it is the right thing to do.

In the movie, Atticus is seen sitting on his porch at night thinking.  He takes the time to reflect on his day.  He isn’t texting on his Blackberry or watching television to try to drown out this inner emptiness.  Many lawyers are driven perfectionists.  In her article, Your Legal Writes:  From Atticus Finch to Harry Potter, writer Kathryn E. Brown quotes legal consultant, Pat Sullivan: “I’ve been in firms where the drive for perfection turned into insanity.  Lawyers look for every possible facet, every possible angle, every possible document, etc. The result is they are overwhelmed with facts and tasks, so much so that there is no time for reflection or thought about a case.”

Watching Atticus, there is a sense of his simple humanity and harmony between his values and his actions as a lawyer.  As lawyers, it’s important not to just think about the pragmatic concerns involving our depression (e.g. whether we took our medication or exercised today); it’s just as important to think about the existential ones:  Who am I really?  Am I leading a life of integrity?  Are my actions as a lawyer in accord with my deeply held inner values?

I have talked to hundred of lawyers across the country and I can tell you this:  their depression is sometimes rooted in a sense of meaninglessness and not liking what they have become.  Of working for just a paycheck (sometimes very large ones) and not for an enriching life that is meaningful to them; of living a life not full of integrity. Lawyers need to take time to create a space of silence where they can reflect on their lives; where the content of their day isn’t measured by its pace, but by its meaning.

As the great writer Studs Terkel once wrote, “Work is about a daily search for meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor, in short for a sort of life, rather than a Monday-to-Friday sort of dying.”

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