During the past several weeks, the media has heavily publicized the upcoming release of a sequel to the novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, fifty-five years after it originally appeared, garnered a Pulitzer Prize, and became a classic work. Subsequently made into a film starring Gregory Peck, who portrayed the novel’s protagonist, a courageous lawyer battling for moral truth and racial justice while representing a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman during the height of the Jim Crow era, this character, Atticus Finch, came to symbolize the righteous attorney: idealistic, virtuous, and brave.
This stalwart image in the public’s mind, contrasts however with numerous recent studies that report widespread cynicism with the legal profession by Americans today, and combined with the steady drop in law school applications, has caused serious concern to rise amongst the legal community. In fact, in a February 9 article on Slate.com, Thane Rosenbaum, the director of the Forum on Law, Culture, & Society hosted by NYU Law School, worried that, “Apparently, upon graduation, most law students lose their inner Atticus Finch. The inspiration that once hailed personal honor and the public good as fundamental values of the bar disappears in a haze of student debt and the allure of financial reward.”
Professor Rosenbaum’s reference to “a haze of student debt” is certainly a sad reality for large numbers of law school graduates today, and well illustrated in a recently released novel, Supreme Ambitions, by David Lat, reviewed in detail in my blog post of February 1st. Student debt in general is a serious problem within our society, and likely a reason behind the drop in law school applications, especially with the greater difficulty experienced by graduates in finding jobs after the Great Recession of 2008.
As for how Americans view the legal profession, I suspect that the reported cynicism is a facet of a general malaise of cynicism affecting our country today, and it’s not hard to see why. Hyper partisanship between Democrats and Republicans has led to virtual gridlock in Congress and numerous state legislatures, with incessant power struggles insuring that little or no attention is being paid to solving the serious problems in our society. Reports of corruption in both the public and private sector surface regularly in the media, from major banks being criminally charged and fined to government officials being investigated, and convicted, for failing to comply with election fundraising rules, taking kickbacks, and abusing the power of their office, three recent examples being Governor Perry’s upcoming trial in Texas, Sheldon Silver being forced to step down as Speaker of New York’s House of Representatives, and Governor Kitzhaber of Oregon being forced to resign. And thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, unlimited rivers of money from special interests are pouring in to dangerously pollute our political and electoral processes.
However, despite this troubling environment, it is hopeful to realize that thousands of young male and female law graduates from all sections of the country still see the public good as a fundamental value, and are staffing Legal Aid Organizations that serve the poor, Non-Profit Organizations such as Earth Justice that work to preserve the Earth’s ecology, and the Prosecutorial and Public Defender Offices within our Criminal Justice System.
Professor Rosenbaum is absolutely correct in his evaluation that the idealism, integrity, courage, and commitment to the public good symbolized by Atticus Finch is needed today more than ever. My novel, Gideon’s Children, which will be released on March 3rd, was written to contribute to the growing discussion of how to summon those virtuous traits to the cause of solving the problems facing our Criminal Justice System. Most hopefully that growing discussion will soon result in the desperately needed improvements to that system which is responsible for maintaining the Rule of Law, and further inspire law graduates, and those from various other fields, to never relinquish their inner Atticus Finch, and put it to work for the public good in which each and every one of us has a vital stake.