I was recently at Lincoln Center listening to the Philharmonic perform Elmer Bernstein’s score to the movie “To Kill a Mockingbird.” This is a beautiful piece of music which adds so much to one of my favorite movies, a cinematic masterpiece that has probably caused more people to want to become lawyers than any other movie ever made. Almost everyone has seen it at least once; many people, like me, have seen it numerous times.
While it is a rich movie (based, of course, on the classic novel by Harper Lee) with many themes, two major elements of the movie are courage and its opposite—cowardice. Atticus Finch shows courage in defending his unpopular client, even to the point of standing guard all night on the steps of the local jail to prevent a lynching. Tom Robinson demonstrates quiet and dignified courage in telling the truth at his trial even though he probably knew he was sealing his own fate in telling a truth the jury was not willing to hear. Boo Radley evinced courage in doing what had to be done to protect the lives of the children.
But the movie also shows us lots of cowardice. First and foremost, of course, is the moral cowardice of the jury in condemning to death a man they knew was innocent to validate a fundamentally racist and evil society. Then there is the cowardice of the complainant in perjuring herself and sending Tom to his death because she was afraid to admit her own forbidden desires. And there’s also the cowardice of the kindly judge who did not do what he surely was morally required to do—throw out the jury verdict
Most of the time when lawyers talk about courage, they mean the obvious courage of Atticus Finch: defiant, highly visible and risky. Let us call this the Courage of Lions. This is the kind of courage that roars and is very satisfying and easy to understand and respect. Perhaps the best image illustrating just how much we respect the Courage of Lions is that moving scene in the movie when the jury has reached its evil verdict and Atticus is packing his briefcase. The blacks in the balcony all stand as he walks out of the courtroom, and the minister tells Scout to stand because her father is passing. That scene always gets me.
There is no question that truly great lawyers must have courage, including this kind of courage, the Courage of Lions. Sadly, most lawyers lack all courage. One of the reasons lawyers are held in such low esteem by so many is their failure to be brave and to do the right thing, regardless of whether it is popular or pleasing to the powerful.
And most lawyers not only lack the Courage of Lions, they also lack another kind of courage, maybe equally important, but subtler and softer. This is a courage also displayed by Atticus Finch, a courage the great essayist, Ed Hoagland, described as the Courage of Turtles in a famous essay of that title.
Turtles, Hoagland wrote, have to endure all sorts of terrible things. Other animals can catch them, they are at the mercy of random acts of nature, and they often suffer at the whimsical and capricious hands of men. But still they persist. A captured turtle will never cease trying to escape; an overturned turtle will never stop trying to right itself; it will never cease being, well, a turtle. And so the species survives.
Atticus Finch, in addition to being blessed with the Courage of Lions, also has the Courage of Turtles. You see that when he faces down an angry mob, and also when he engages in the dull business of lawyering through his cross examination’s evidence, his hard preparations and his legal craftsmanship. His argument to the jury is an understated masterpiece, calling upon the better angels of their nature he knows are buried somewhere deep inside of them. His last words to Tom before they led him away were to not give up hope. Atticus promised Tom that he would appeal, that he would stand by Tom and that he would never stop being a lawyer. There it is, the Courage of Turtles. Fortunately, this kind of courage is far more common in lawyers. I have seen it often myself.
In my view, one of our tasks as leaders of other lawyers is to cultivate in them both kinds of courage, that of the lions and that of the turtles.