Atticus’ character has another lesson to teach lawyers today — the process by which he made ethical decisions.

We live, and practice, in a time when ethical choices seem intensely complicated. Lawyers speak about rediscovering the “moral compass.” Reformers want to bridge the gap between what lawyers believe in their hearts to be right, and the demands of modern practice, which require lawyers to zealously defend clients to the very limits of ethical behavior, no matter how socially, emotionally or even morally repugnant that behavior might be.

Atticus’ moral compass comes from within. He does not consult the Disciplinary Rules, the Ethical Considerations, case law, law reviews, disciplinary opinions or any other outside source to determine what his obligations are to Tom Robinson. He takes the case, and tries to win it (despite the opinion of many in the town that he should do as little as possible to defend Tom), because if he did otherwise, he does not believe he could ever face himself or ask his children to listen to him again:

Atticus sighed. “I’m simply defending a Negro — his name’s Tom Robinson. He lives in that little settlement beyond the town dump. He’s a member of Calpurnia’s church, and Cal knows his family well. She says they’re clean-living folks. Scout, you aren’t old enough to understand some things yet, but there’s been some high talk around town to the effect that I shouldn’t do much about defending this man. It’s a peculiar case … “

“If you shouldn’t be defendin’ him, then why are you doin’ it?”

“For a number of reasons,” said Atticus. “The main one is, if I didn’t I couldn’t hold my head up in town, I couldn’t represent this county in the legislature, I couldn’t even tell you or Jem not to do something again.”

“You mean if you didn’t defend that man, Jem and me wouldn’t have to mind you any more?”

“That’s about right.”

“[W]ell, all I can say is, when you and Jem are grown, maybe you’ll look back on this with some compassion and some feeling that I didn’t let you down. This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience — Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.” 2


The natural reaction to this kind of moral decision-making is to say that things were simpler back then. The modern legal world is bigger, more high-stakes, and more complex than it was 40 years ago when the book was published, and far different than it was in 1935, the year the story takes place.

I would argue, however, that the opposite is true. Atticus Finch found himself in an enormously complicated situation. He was a white man, from a distinguished old southern family. He had young children who were taunted at school because of his decision (and later nearly killed for the road he takes).

He was representing a client in a capital case. His client was a black man, in the deep South, accused of that most incendiary crime — raping a white woman. The trial pits Tom’s testimony against that of two white people, one of whom is the victim — a hopeless case in that social setting. Members of Atticus’ own family disapprove of his decision, after the local judge assigns the case to him, to actually work hard to defend Tom. He is pressured at his home by a local mob to drop the case. He defends his client’s life from another mob the night before the trial. He is in a no-win situation. If he loses the case, Tom will die. If he wins the case, he faces social ostracism, or worse. It is hard to imagine a modern dilemma, given the wealth, resources and relative social power of lawyers today, that could equal Atticus’ quandary.

And finally, Atticus takes the case and pursues it with all his heart, knowing full well that he will lose. There is no glory to be gained through his hard work. He is not motivated by money, a political agenda or fame. Winning, and only winning, could possibly reward his sacrifices, and yet he does his utmost, knowing full well that the cause is hopeless. He forges ahead because it is his job and he sees his duty as the unswerving pursuit of the truth. He knows that he can never win an acquittal for Tom, but his hope is to at least expose the truth, and in doing so begin to crack the stone facade that shields the racial hatred in Maycomb: “[T]hat boy might go to the chair, but he’s not going till the truth’s told.”3

Like most real heroes, Atticus did not ask for the battle he is called to, nor does he revel in it. But once there, he relies on his own deep sense of right and wrong to see him through it.

Forty years later, he is as compelling as he must have been in 1960, when this country stood poised on the brink of the civil rights movement. Far from being a quaint relic of the legal profession’s days of yore, he is a model of the best and most noble traits any lawyer can embody. So when you find yourself enmeshed in one of those prickly modern problems of lawyer ethics or life decisions, such as what job to take, or what case to defend, take a deep, sobering breath, and ask yourself, “What would Atticus Finch have done?”

Carla T. Main is an associate editor/legal at The National Law Journal and a freelance writer.


“To Kill A Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee (Warner Books, Inc., 1960), pages 154-155.

(2) Id. at pages 75 and 104.

(3) Id. at pages 75 and 104. (4) (3) Id. at page 146.