Legal Fiction: Is It Time For A New Direction?


Publish Date:
August 24, 2015
  • Mccollam, Douglas
American Lawyer
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Professors Paul Goldstein and Michael Asimow weigh in on the reimagining of Harper Lee’s famous “To Kill a Mockingbird” character Atticus Finch in her newest book “Go Set a Watchman” and how the new Atticus isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 

Few recent events in the history of American fiction have sparked such tumultuous debate as the publication this summer of Harper Lee’s novel “Go Set a Watchman.” A sequel (of sorts) to Lee’s beloved 1961 book “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Watchman tells the story of a grown-up Jean Louise “Scout” Finch’s return to her small hometown in Alabama from the liberated milieu of mid-20th-century Manhattan. Many lovers of “To Kill a Mockingbird” have felt betrayed by how “Go Set a Watchman” reimagines some of the earlier books’s central characters: most notably, Atticus Finch, the principled Southern lawyer whose stand against Jim Crow-era bigotry has inspired generations of readers—and propelled some into the legal profession.

Ironically, just days before Watchman was published, the winner of the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction was announced, to considerably less media attention. Unlike “Go Set a Watchman,” author Deborah Johnson’s novel “The Secret of Magic” hews closely to the themes of Lee’s original classic, telling the story of one lawyer’s fight for racial justice in the pre-civil rights era South.

But not everyone agrees. Lawyer and writer Paul Goldstein, who teaches at Stanford Law School and is of counsel at Morrison & Foerster, thinks that Atticus Finch can withstand some revision. “It’s not necessarily inconsistent between the two Atticus Finches,” says Goldstein, whose novel “Havana Requiem” won the 2014 Harper Lee Prize. “In the South of that era, you’d have to have been living in a cocoon not have absorbed some of these racist tropes.” Michael Asimow, who also teaches at Stanford Law School and has written extensively about the lawyer in popular culture, echoes that view. “I was inspired by Atticus to go to law school, but let’s face it, the character is a little too one-dimensional, too goody-two-shoes.” As a reader, Asimow says, he could easily imagine an Atticus Finch who was hated in his community after he defended Tom Robinson and wouldn’t like federal efforts to force integration on his home state. “Characters can have good points and bad points, not just be cardboard cutouts,” Asimow points out.

In discussing the (now perhaps diminished) place of Atticus Finch with lawyers and writers, you come across another kind of nostalgia: a longing for a time when lawyers captured more of the public’s imagination. Though they are still a prominent presence in certain cultural quarters, especially on television, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the golden hour of the legal profession in pop culture has passed. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, runaway hits such as “Presumed Innocent” and “The Firm” dominated the best seller list, while “L.A. Law” topped the Nielsen ratings. “All this made the law look like a very glamorous profession where you make money and have as much sex as you want,” notes Stanford’s Asimow.

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