Holding Out for a Hero

By Jennifer J. Ator

Legend has it that a hero is a man of divine ancestry who has great courage and strength, is celebrated by his contemporaries, and is favored by the gods. In the United States today, a hero is a person who has risked life and limb for another—such as our men and women in uniform. In a profession, such as the legal profession, a hero is a person distinguished by exceptional courage, nobility, or fortitude.

The lawyer-hero is not a difficult archetype to embrace. Most of the lawyers practicing today grew up on stories of lawyer-heroes of the previous generation, either fictional or from real life.

Fiction is full of lawyer-heroes, some based on real people and some created in the minds of leading contemporary American authors. The quintessential lawyer-hero is Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. But other lawyer-heroes have emerged in contemporary fiction or film as well. For example, modern fictional lawyer-heroes include the lawyers who leave the white-shoe law firms to represent the homeless, undocumented, or poor in our communities, such as Michael Brock from The Street Lawyer by John Grisham; or the average lawyer who displays above-average courage in confronting a client who is doing really bad things, such as Michael Clayton from the film of the same name .

Real lawyers are heroes, too. Clarence Darrow, a turn-of-the-century labor lawyer who represented those who would not otherwise get a fair trial because of their socioeconomic status, is often cited as a hero of modern lawyers. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter was instrumental in the process of obtaining the unanimous opinion overturning Plessy v. Ferguson with Brown v. Board of Education and is often thought of as a hero for using procedure, time management, and pressure on other justices to obtain a landmark result with legal, social, and economic implications. Florida lawyer and former ABA President Chesterfield Smith displayed exceptional courage when he spoke out against Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal. He told the nation and President Nixon that “no man is above the law” and went on to lead the ABA’s effort to call for an independent counsel to investigate Nixon.

In our profession, however, lawyers don’t have to quit their jobs, become politicians or crusaders, or sacrifice their sanity or lifestyle to be a hero. All lawyers have the opportunity to be heroes. Unfortunately, all lawyers are not.

A lawyer-hero is someone who is a zealous advocate for his or her client, even when that means arguing with the client or explaining how to comply with, not “get around,” the law. A lawyer-hero is not afraid to say no. A lawyer-hero worries just as much about the client’s problems as his or her own. A lawyer-hero is willing to swim upstream, if necessary. A lawyer-hero is not popular, doesn’t sleep well at night, and often misses dinners, parties, vacations, or recitals without complaint.

The reality is, being a hero is not easy and is not fun. But hero status is one that all lawyers should strive to reach. All lawyers should have exceptional courage, nobility, and fortitude. I try to, do you?

I think it was best said by the king at the end of The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything: A Veggie Tales Movie: “Heroes are not the strongest, or fastest, or smartest, or best looking. A true hero does what is right even when it is hard.”


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