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The five greatest fictional lawyers
23rd January 2017
Believe it or not, many law students and those who have been working in private practice or in house law jobs for years will have been first inspired to pursue their chosen career by the world of fiction.
Whilst the common perception of lawyers may not fit with that of the bookworm or movie buff, there have been countless novels, films and TV series over the years which have featured legendary characters who make their living as a solicitor or judge.
Here, we take a look at our five favourite fictional men and women from the world of law, and why they have had such an important (and perhaps unexpected) role to play in the real legal profession.
Although this choice may be something of a cliché, there can be no disputing that Atticus Finch is the most famous, historically important and downright popular fictional lawyer there has ever been.
The protagonist of Harper Lee’s classic 1960 American novel To Kill a Mockingbird is widely revered as one of the greatest characters in the history of fiction due to his staunch defence of a black man accused of rape, despite the criticism his commitment receives from his fellow residents of the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama.
Atticus maintains an impressive calmness and dignity in the face of incredible adversity throughout the novel, which was later turned into an Oscar-winning film starring Gregory Peck. The character’s influence on the profession is well-documented, with figures such as United States federal judge Richard Matsch citing him as a key reason for beginning their legal career.
Some controversy greeted Atticus’s recent appearance in Go Set a Watchman, the long lost and long-awaited ‘follow-up’ to Mockingbird. In this novel, which was actually written before Harper Lee’s debut, Atticus is not the same saintly figure so many people have admired for decades; instead, he appears to share many of the same racial prejudices as his townsfolk.
However, it is for his role in Mockingbird that he will always be remembered, and which will continue to inspire many aspiring lawyers for years to come.
The only British lawyer on our list, Horace Rumpole of Rumpole of the Bailey fame went against the usual formula by first appearing on television and then in books. Created by John Mortimer – who was himself a barrister – it is fair to say that Rumpole is not as seemingly flawless as Atticus and some of fiction’s other best-loved lawyers.
His scruffy appearance, overindulgence in (mostly poor quality) food and drink, and spirited defence of sometimes morally questionable characters make him a ‘loveable rogue’ figure, who nevertheless has his own strict ethical code.
Rumpole is a strong believer in the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ school of thought, and is notable for the number of legal aid cases he takes on. Furthermore, he seemingly has no desire to advance any further than the position he holds when we see him in the series; despite his family and colleagues often urging him to work towards becoming a Queen’s Counsel or Circuit Judge, Rumpole prefers to stay where he is, defending those clients who may otherwise not have found adequate representation.
OK, it is perhaps more debatable whether Jim Carrey’s character in Liar Liar actually inspired anyone to become a lawyer, but if you’re looking for some light relief with a legal twist after a long day at work, we couldn’t recommend this film more!
Fletcher Reede is a stereotypical ‘bad guy’ lawyer who makes his money by sucking up to his bosses and fighting cases on behalf of people he knows are being dishonest. Reede spends most of his time lying, until one day – after missing his birthday party – his son makes a wish that his father will have to tell nothing but the truth for a whole day.
The wish comes true and, after an hour or so of Carrey’s trademark physical humour leaving viewers in stitches, Fletcher eventually discovers that honesty is far more rewarding than lying. When time flashes forward at the end of the film we see that he is still a lawyer, but is now running his own – presumably ethical – firm.
Again, Ally McBeal may not be the most serious or intellectually challenging example of a lawyer in fiction that we could have chosen, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that a number of women were encouraged to begin a life in law after watching this hugely successful American TV series as teenagers.
Ally McBeal ran for five series and followed the life of a striving young lawyer. More so than the other examples cited here, this series used its legal backdrop as a base from which its main themes – romance and comedy – could be explored.
Despite the show’s success, it has received some bad reviews from feminist critics, who believe that the character of Ally is not the positive role model she was often made out to be. For many, McBeal’s excessive shows of emotion and apparent lack of professional knowledge only serve to reinforce negative and unfair gender stereotypes. A Huffington Post article published as recently as 2014 also argues that the series being full of ‘impossibly beautiful female lawyers’ set a bad example for viewers and a dangerous precedent for other programmes.
As anyone who has seen the film 12 Angry Men will already know, we have to confess that our final choice in this list is not actually a lawyer at all. Nevertheless, the character known as ‘Juror #8’ has still had a profound effect on many would-be legal professionals since Henry Fonda portrayed him in the legendary 1957 movie.
A brilliantly written example of the art of persuasion, the film concerns the deliberations of a jury who are tasked with deciding the fate of a young man accused of murdering his father. Juror #8 is, at first, the only one of the 12 who says the boy is not guilty, claiming that the defendant is at least deserving of discussion before he is condemned to death row. Over the course of the film, each of the remaining 11 jurors are eventually persuaded to join #8 in his ‘not guilty’ verdict.
Although legal experts have stated that the arguments used by Juror #8 would not stand up in court and would most likely lead to a mistrial rather than a verdict of innocence, this character’s impact on aspiring lawyers – as with Atticus Finch – is undeniable. Sonia Sotomayor, an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in the USA, is one of those who has claimed that watching this film was what inspired her to follow a career in law.