What is so special about Atticus Finch? He’s a fictional man who existed as little more than a figment of author Harper Lee’s imagination (unless you count actor Gregory Peck, who played Finch in the 1962 film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird). Yet, Finch has a strong hold on numerous attorneys around Texas and the United States. His compassion, composure, and honor are forever present in the minds of readers, especially those lawyers who share Finch’s profession and have been deeply inspired by his character in and out of the courtroom.
With many having such noble aspirations, and such a perfect role model in Finch, it is at times surprising that lawyers have a bad reputation among some of the public. According to Shane Phelps, a criminal defense attorney in Bryan, Brazos County’s legal community was once “fractured and divided” and the subject of “considerable public contempt and ridicule.” “Scandals, personal animosities, and political rivalries made the courthouse a pretty unpleasant place to be,” said Phelps. “Lost in all of this was the important work that attorneys should be concentrating on.”
About seven years ago, these tensions came to boiling point in a Brazos County courtroom. Phelps and opposing counsel Phil Banks stood just feet from the jury and belligerently argued with each other in such close proximity that their noses almost touched and each man could feel the other’s spit and hot breath as harsh words were exchanged. Eventually, the moment calmed down and the trial went on. But Phelps and Banks were disappointed in the way they had conducted themselves—which was quite different from their Atticus Finch ideal that, along with the legacy of their grandfathers who also were Texas lawyers, made them want to get their JDs in the first place.
“During the difficult times at the Brazos County Courthouse … I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird,” said Phelps. “It occurred to me as I read about Atticus Finch that the legal profession could—and should—be so much more than what we were experiencing. We had truly lost our way. Re-reading the book had a profound impact on me.”
Phelps and Banks, having apologized to each other for their inappropriate behavior, decided to do something meaningful about the state of their legal community. So, they founded Atticus Finch Day, where attorneys from the surrounding area wear seersucker suits and skirts and gather to drink lemonade, read from To Kill a Mockingbird, and discuss ways that they can improve themselves as lawyers. “I do believe that, if we are not careful as attorneys, we risk getting so involved in winning at all costs that we lose sight of what is really important,” said Phelps. “The pursuit of victory, money, and celebrity can corrupt our ideals. I like to win and am as competitive as anyone, but there are principles and ethical standards that should guide us all in practicing law that we need to regularly revisit and to which we should regularly recommit ourselves.”
This year’s Sixth Annual Atticus Finch Day is scheduled for May 2, 2014, in Bryan at the Brazos County Administration Building. With copies of the Lawyer’s Creed in hand, participants remind themselves that they can “zealously represent the interests of our clients without tearing each other apart,” consider what they can and should accomplish as attorneys, and refresh their dedication to the pursuit of justice.
Typically, Phelps and Banks—who have become close friends—try to have Atticus Finch Day on Harper Lee’s April 28 birthday. They bumped it this year to accommodate guest speaker John Raley, a partner in the Houston firm Raley & Bowick, who took on the pro bono case to exonerate wrongfully imprisoned Michael Morton.
“John Raley … fought like hell for years, won Michael Morton’s exoneration and freedom, and corrected a horrible and shameful injustice,” said Phelps. “If there is a better example of what Atticus Finch Day is all about, I would be surprised. I contacted Mr. Raley, and he enthusiastically agreed to appear—and in seersucker, no less.”