Farewell Atticus

I came upon this obit recently in the Maycomb, Alabama Guardian & Register:

Finch, Atticus — Aged 91.  Attorney in practice for over 50 years.  Although Mr. Finch was known in Maycomb as a general practitioner, he gained notoriety as a criminal defense attorney in the case of People v. Tom Robinson.  He later occasionally took on civil rights clients, championing the causes of the downtrodden and afflicted.  Husband of the late Agnes Gertrude (La Petitmain) Finch.  Mr. Finch is survived by: a daughter, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch (Donald) Knowles; a son, Jeremy Atticus “Jem” (Margaret) Finch; 5 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.  Private cremation.  A service of celebration will be held at the Holy Redeemer Episcopal Church on February 17, 2011 at 10:00 a.m.  In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Maycomb County Bar Association Defense Fund.

Poor old Atticus.  It’s hard to say good-bye to him.  He is one of the reasons that many of us considered becoming attorneys.

However, as George Harrison beautifully sang, All Things Must Pass.  Even Atticus.  Even Gregory Peck.  For that matter, even George Harrison.

Atticus Finch was a GP (general practitioner) who maintained a law office in a small, fictional Alabama town.  He took the cases that came in the door.  He didn’t necessarily like all of his clients.  But, he gave each of them proper legal representation to the best of his ability.

Atticus did wills, house closings and divorces (although he never grew to like matrimonial law).  He defended people accused of crimes, like Tom Robinson.  He brought law suits on behalf of clients who had been injured or wronged.  He assisted small business owners in filing the proper documents with the appropriate state agencies, and then advocated for them in commercial disputes.

He had a secretary and an occasional paralegal.  As he grew older, he took on an associate to learn his practice.  Eventually, Atticus passed the business on to her.  But, he kept his hand in the game right up until the end when he grew too frail…even for the practice of law.

Finch was a pillar of the community.  He was active in Rotary and the Chamber of Commerce.  He served on the town planning board and took on special projects for the municipality from time to time.

He volunteered for worthwhile causes.  He taught his children to give back to the community.  He was home for dinner…almost every night.  Though not overly religious, he was respectful of all.

Over the years, his clients and former clients brought him by gifts — tokens of their gratitude and esteem.  He gratefully accepted them, but donated away most such items.  Except for the fresh pies baked for him.  Those he treasured.

Was he a saint?  No.  In fact, throughout the United States, thousands of Atticus Finches maintained general practices in towns and cities.  Today, their numbers are dwindling.

Remember Atticus’ associate?  She now runs a strictly personal injury practice called Finch Law.com.  She has a billboard along the nearby interstate, as well as her face on the back of the phone book.

What about Scout?  Surely, she was inspired by her father’s example.

Yes, in fact, Scout went to law school and intended to follow in her father’s footsteps.  However, she is now a partner in a large law firm in Montgomery.  They specialize in complex, corporate transactions and governmental lobbying efforts on behalf of their powerful clients.


In its February 2011 issue, the New York State Bar Association Journal devoted the entire publication to solo and small firms.  They called it Requiem for a GP: The End of an Era.

The following is an except from the title article by Gary Munneke:

The truth is that even in small towns in rural county seats, lawyers like Atticus are a dying breed.  Why is our allegiance to the Atticus myth so strong?  Perhaps we admire the Finch values of honesty, integrity, loyalty and fairness that underscore the Atticus figure in the book [To Kill a Mockingbird].  We want to be like Atticus, and we have ensconced these core professional values in our ethics rules.  Atticus would take on a just cause, no matter what the odds against him and no matter how unpopular his client.  Atticus was a pillar of the community and a beloved parent at the same time.  Atticus could handle any case that came along, because, well, because he was Atticus.

Further, in the world of Atticus Finch, clients came to see him because he had a reputation as a good lawyer, and he earned this reputation by being all things Atticus for so long.  Atticus did not have billboards along the highway or an ad in the Yellow Pages.  Despite his many fine qualities, he was not listed as a SuperLawyer, and we like to believe that if Atticus were alive today, he would reject such tawdry efforts to attract new clients.  Atticus would bristle at the thought that practicing law was a business.

In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, which held that lawyers had the right to communicate their availability to potential clients.  This decision had the effect of overturning centuries of American legal custom — the ban on solicitation of clients.  This prohibition had been enforced internally within the profession.

From that point forward, things began to change with regard to the practice of law in America.  I remember the first time that I noticed it.  It was an ad for an attorney in my local church bulletin.  Even as a young teenager, I knew enough to ask: “I thought lawyers weren’t supposed to advertise.”

I will not spend any time writing about how solicitations by attorneys at law are the downfall of western civilization.  That would be hypocritical and self-loathing.  After all, I became a lawyer after the ban was lifted.

Besides, legal solicitation cannot, in and of itself, be blamed for the hyper-specialization of the practice.  Today, lawyers like me are pigeon-holed into a particular area of practice.

But, lawyer advertising often forces small firm lawyers and solo practitioners out of business.  They cannot compete with larger firms with more resources to devote to advertising.

Talking with my elder colleagues who remember practice pre-Bates, I can’t help but to think that something genuinely good and true has been lost.

I’m pretty sure Atticus would feel the same way.

— The Major


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