The Daily

What Is A Jury Trial (No. 5): Atticus Finch Disbarred


Fictional lawyers in the movies have generally had a better run than real lawyers on entertainment television.

But consider the iconic Atticus Finch in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’: He violated client confidences when he told his children to pity their belligerent, invalid, bigot of a neighbor, Miss Dubose, who was addicted to morphine. This chapter of the story – in which Atticus dramatically enlists the help of his children to rehab Ms. Dubose, using details of her condition known by him only as her lawyer – is often used to portray Atticus as a paragon of virtue. Despite being more noble, that is different from being a good lawyer. Miss Dubose of Maycomb should have filed a complaint with the bar association. Likely, she would have prevailed and Finch would have been sanctioned.

So if Atticus Finch sets the wrong mark, who is the best fictional movie lawyer? Tom Cruise in ‘A Few Good Men?’ Paul Newman in ‘The Verdict’? Joe Pesci?


Allow me to submit the fictional case of one Arthur Kirkland[1]. One day, Arthur is unexpectedly asked to defend a judge accused of brutally assaulting and raping a young woman. As it happens, the lawyer and judge already hate each other but the judge is convinced that their bad history makes Arthur the perfect lawyer to plead his case. So he blackmails Kirkland with an old violation of lawyer-client confidentiality, which Kirkland reasonably believes would lead to bar penalties if it came to light. Crashing against a comedy of errors and stressors, Kirkland finally reaches his breaking point when the judge admits involvement in another rape and threatens (only to his lawyer and just before opening argument) that he will rape again. As Kirkland begins presenting his client’s defense, things look surprisingly hopeful. Hopeful, that is, until Arthur begins to unravel and objections only spur him further into the void where he ends up a raving madman, screaming at the top of his lungs that everyone and the process is “Out of Order!”.

The movie ends with Kirkland sitting on the courthouse steps, a career in tatters, as the judge he was representing until that fateful moment walks confidently by him on the way to the rest of his life.

Nobody will ever call Arthur Kirkland a ‘paragon of virtue’ but he never betrayed his client or his professional responsibility. Which kind of representation do you deserve?

[1] Played by Al Pacino in the classic film, “And Justice For All.”