In Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2, Dick the Butcher famously pronounced to Jack Cade: “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
In ancient times many lawyers were revered advisors and skilled orators but the legal profession then went through a fairly rough trot dating way back to the 14th century.
Whilst in Plato’s The Laws, when approached by poets wanting to enter the city, the lawmakers responded to requests from poets to enter the city by saying that they were also poets, ‘rivals and competitors in making the most beautiful drama … in fashioning human life… and in a well-ordered society they must speak with one voice’, the poetry and faith in the law died a little in the years and centuries that followed.
Shakespeare wanted to kill them off and Dickens’ grim legal portraits are that of shady practitioners sitting in dimly lit offices, like “maggots in nuts” – alternately presented as ruthless, cadaverous, morally scrupulous, greedy or downright vicious.
The tides finally turned, and legal characters became real, interesting, complex, troubled, noble and nuanced, from Harper Lee’s unflappable, principled Atticus to Grisham’s gritty heroes and heroines battling for justice.
Overall, a symbol of order, truth, justice, civilisation and democracy, the lawyer has always fascinated the human race and the presence of lawyers in literature is enduring.
Here are 10 literature lawyers we love to love and love to hate.
- Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
As Stephanie Francis Ward, writing for the ABA Journal said: “The lawyers who’ve not read To Kill A Mockingbird at some point in their life probably could be seated in a small, uncomfortable room until they do so. In fact, they probably should.”
So it’s a bit of a no brainer this one: in fact, I’d bet Atticus and his fight for civil liberties and justice determined the course of many legal careers and inspired many a young law student (including me). Atticus is the kind of lawyer you’d want to have on speed dial if your life took a wrong turn and, as the ideal advocate, the moral guardian, the shining symbol of justice, you know he wouldn’t cross any lines that shouldn’t be crossed in pursuit of your case. Atticus would do his utmost to serve and protect you, that’s for sure. Lawyers and non-lawyers want to become him or be him. Period.
- Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
Aah, one of the greatest closing lines in literature of all time. Initially an idle, alcoholic attorney with no real hope in life or ambition, Carton’s redemption tale is complete when he takes his former client’s place on the guillotine and utters those memorable lines. The heroism, the sacrifice, the romance and nobility of it all!
- Jake Tyler Brigance, in A Time to Kill by John Grisham
Jake’s popped up before in our ‘favourite’ lists but just to show you that it’s not because I think Matthew McConaughey is ridiculously fortunate in the gene pool lottery (which of course is obvious), I’ve included Brigance in this esteemed ‘book lawyer’ list. The first of Grishams’ series of legal thrillers, the novel explores classic themes of revenge, familial duty, race and ingrained prejudice. Brigance is the quintessential Southern lawyer, a little bit rogue but filled with passion and outrage at this utterly unimaginable crime against a young girl. By far one of the author’s best lawyer protagonists.
- Reggie Love, The Client by John Grisham
A smart and engaging character and a bit of a bad ass, Regina Cardoni (AKA Reggie Love) is a recovering alcoholic lawyer (recurring theme anyone?) who has only been practicing law for five years when young Mark Sway seeks her legal guidance.
“You advised him not to get a lawyer, giving as one of your reasons the opinion that lawyers are a pain in the ass. Gentlemen, the pain is here.” Ah yes, Reggie, you’re definitely on our list, just for that one liner.
- Dr Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson
Now, as novelist, Simon Lelic rightly put it, here’s a lawyer you would definitely have a rollicking time with but whether you’d actually hire him to give you legal advice is another question entirely. Loosely based on Mexican-American attorney, Oscar Zeta Acosta, Dr Gonzo, the crooked Samoan attorney, consumes all manner of drugs with his client, Raoul, carrying a stockpile of ether, amyls, cocaine, pills, LSD, and marijuana and is generally on the wrong side of the law.
So I’m not saying he’s an icon or idol but he’s definitely memorable. You’d probably reserve judgment on Gonzo’s legal prowess and attention to detail but life on the road with that kind of lawyer would never be dull!
- Sandy Stern in Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow
Highly celebrated defense attorney, Sandy Stern, steals the show from Rusty Sabich, the “lawyer pursued by lawyers, aided by lawyers and betrayed by lawyers”. Enigmatic and tenacious, Stern emigrated from Argentina as a young boy and retains a strong Jewish and immigrant identity, a man of faith who believes in rules as a philosophy of life, the frailty of human liberty and retains an old-world elegance in the courtroom.
- Herr Huld in The Trial by Franz Kafka
In Kafka’s The Trial, Herr Huld is presented as one of the worst lawyers you could possibly hire – a lawyer with “a considerable reputation as a defending counsel and a poor man’s lawyer” according to Joseph K’s uncle, but who turns out to be a completely useless advocate. The author, a lawyer himself, creates a bleak picture of ineffectiveness and puffery, with Huld as the pompous, pretentious, bragging advocate – all talk, no action. Not the kind of skilled lawyer you want on your team but an interesting portrait nonetheless!
- Judge Josie Jo in The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
Written thirty-five years ago, Ellen Raskin’s children’s novel, The Westing Game, won the Newbery Medal and offers us so many brilliant characters and such a fantastic plot, it could be considered a novel for all ages. Judge Josie-Jo Ford (or ‘JJ Ford’) is an African-American woman from a working-class background who has had to make sacrifices and work extremely hard to achieve success in her legal career, facing disdain and adverse treatment from many who believe her to be ‘above her station’ in life. JJ Ford is on this list because she defies stereotypes, she’s a strong, intelligent woman and she’s the first African American woman judge in the State of Wisconsin.
- Tom Hagen in The Godfather, Mario Puzo
Family lawyer, consigliere, acting don, associate – some of the many esteemed titles of Mr Hagen, lawyer to the Corleones, the famed mafia clan. Wielding enormous power in the Corleone family, Hagen is the trusted advisor, and goes through more reincarnations than Madonna throughout the series. As Don Vito Corleone once said, “The lawyers with the briefcase can steal more money than the man with the gun.”
- Cicero in Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Robert Harris
Of course, I could refer to Plato or Socrates or a lengthy, verbose ancient text about Cicero or the law but this absorbing, modern take on Marcus Tullius Cicero was utterly enjoyable, right down to the description of Cicero becoming ill right before a speech or court case. It might not be a classic but the author’s cautionary tale of the ambitious, 27 year old lawyer and orator who wants imperium – supreme power in the state – was a complete page turner.
Harris creates a fictional biography of Cicero as seen through the eyes of his private slave secretary, Tiro and based on the real transcripts written up by Tiro. Told with a degree of historical accuracy but with plenty of fictional flair, there’s everything from courtroom dramas to senate debates to back room political dealings and machinations. Assassinated because of his speeches against the emperor, Cicero was pragmatic, powerful and argued for a republic and not a dictatorship – I loved this character and book and I’ve snuck him in at Number 10.
And so there it is – some of my favourite fictional lawyers. I have to say, I was pretty disappointed I couldn’t summon to my mind more women attorneys to include in this list. Of course, I haven’t even begun to mine the fields of romance, chick-lit (otherwise known as ‘popular commercial female narrative’ – a genre I really enjoy and, frankly, it deserves a better title) nor have I explored the murky, suspenseful realms of crime fiction. All credit to the Scandinavians: I’ve read that they’re giving females some brilliant roles in Nordic crime fiction, like Asa Larsson’s Stockholm tax attorney, Rebecka Martinsson and Thóra Gudmundsdóttor created by Yrsa Sigurdardottir.
In the end, as Stephanie Francis Ward concluded: “the books we treasure … teach us, or warn us, or inspire us, or incite us. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, they help us define who and what we are—or what we are a part of, or what we have and can yet endure.”
As do the legal characters who stride boldly through their pages. So let’s celebrate the fictional attorneys who’ve inspired us, incited us to anger or called us to courageous action. May there be many more fictional lawyers to feast on – and many, many more female lawyers at the helm!