Every generation has its value system shaped by some significant event. The World War II generation, called “The Greatest Generation” by Tom Brochaw in his book of the same name, had World War II. The next generation, The Baby Boomers had Vietnam and the influences leading up to the Vietnam War experience. One of those influences was a movie called “To Kill A Mocking Bird”. This movie was based on a Pulitzer prizewinning novel of the same name by Harper Lee. Ms. Lee wrote about her father, a small town country lawyer who lived in the Deep South. Atticus Finch, the lawyer and protagonist of the story, does the right thing and defends a Black man in the Deep South in the thirties accused of raping a white woman. Atticus was played in the movie by Gregory Peck.
Atticus was humble, quiet, and righteous. Through his cross examination in the trial replayed time and time again at trial seminars to this day, Atticus wins the case before the movie and now TV audiences. Unfortunately, Atticus lost the case before the jury. After the verdict is read, a dejected Atticus folds up his papers into a briefcase and walks out of the courtroom. The mezzanine, however, is filled with spectators, along with Atticus’ young daughter approximately six years old. When Atticus leaves the seemingly deserted courtroom a preacher in the mezzanine stands and says to Atticus’ daughter: “Miss. Jean Louise, stand up child. Your father’s passin’”.
The spirit of idealism in standing up for what is right influenced a generation of Baby Boomers who were to go on and become lawyers. I know this not only because of my own experience but also because I witnessed lawyer after lawyer say this to Gregory Peck when he spoke in Miami at Gusman Hall at the 1995 Miami Film Festival. Gregory Peck at that time was making the rounds among film festivals to speak about his life and his movies. Gregory Peck came out to a bare stage with only a stool. He sat on the stool and talked about his movies and his life for forty-five minutes without notes and without so much as a hesitation.
Gregory Peck’s stories were riveting. In one self effacing account of making “To Kill A Mockingbird”, he said that on the first day of shooting, Harper Lee was on the set and told Peck that Peck reminded her so much of her father. Gregory Peck said that at that moment he felt so flattered and puffed up that he really became the character. Then the author added that Gregory Peck had the same pot belly as her father.
At the end of Peck’s talk, he allowed people to ask questions from the audience. The audience lined up behind two microphones one on each aisle. Approximately thirty people lined up behind each microphone. Probably four or five lawyers expressed to Mr. Peck how they went to law school because they saw him play Atticus Finch in “To Kill A Mockingbird”.
Later that night, I was at a reception in which Mr. Peck attended. He entered late with an entourage of people. Gregory Peck looked to me to be a giant of a man. He was also one of the most charismatic people I have ever met. When he made his way to where I was standing, I reached out and I shook his hand and said something trite like “I really liked your work and your presentation tonight”. Frankly, I was dumbfounded and speechless. Atticus Finch had just passed.
We have seen other examples of the spirit of Atticus Finch. We saw it in another small town country lawyer who rose to become a U.S. Senator from North Carolina, Senator Sam Ervin. Senator Ervin was one of the lead interrogators in the Watergate investigation. Senator Ervin, a conservative man from a conversation region, questioned the constitutionality of some of the activities which took in the now famous burglary and firing of the Attorney General who was in charge of investigating the burglary. You see the spirit of Atticus Finch in so many other lawyers (and citizens) standing up and fighting for what is right.
Eldred Gregory Peck died on June 12, 2003. In Time magazine on June 23, 2003, Richard Corliss wrote that when Gregory Peck died, he “took movie idealism with him”. Idealism may not be alive in the movies, but let’s hope that it is not dead in the legal profession. I believe that the Atticus Finch spirit lives on in all of us who are attorneys in one way or another. I believe that Atticus Finch idealism lives on in anyone who is fighting to ensure that the judiciary remains independent from the other two branches of government; in anyone who is fighting for the funding of the court system; in anyone who is fighting to ensure open access to the court system by everyone in America; in those who are fighting to preserve the jury system where it is the jury which decides what is fair and just compensation, unfettered by any artificial limitation or “one size fits all” cap determined by a legislature. The actor has passed, but the spirit lives.
John H. (Jack) Hickey is Board Certified by The Florida Bar as a Civil Trial Lawyer and practices in the areas of personal injury, medical malpractice, and maritime. He is a member of The Million Dollar Forum. For the results he has achieved for his clients, see www.hickeylawfirm.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org