They Pass the Bar of Reader Interest

Lawyers in literature. They file suits. They wear suits. They’re good. They’re bad. They’re honest. They’re crooked. They seek justice. They seek money. They appear in this blog post. They will not be paid for doing so.

But attorneys often give “zing” to fiction. We love them if they fight for social justice, and dislike them if they’re highly paid legal shills for big corporations. Plus many take part in courtroom scenes, which have plenty of dramatic potential.

Perhaps the most famous fictional attorney of them all is To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Atticus Finch — smart, compassionate, courageous, realistic, low-key. He was said to have been based on author Harper Lee’s admirable lawyer dad.

In the 55 years since Lee’s novel was published — and particularly in the past quarter century — there has thankfully been a huge rise in the number of female attorneys in literature. A big reason for this, of course, is the huge rise in the number of real-live women becoming lawyers; statistics show that they now comprise 34% of the profession and 47% of law-school enrollment.

So it’s no surprise to meet two female attorneys — Helen Sullivan and Tracy Edmonds — in the first 46 pages of Lee Child’s Never Go Back, one of the novels starring the feminist-leaning scourge of evildoers Jack Reacher. Then there’s Annika Giannini, whose defense of Lisbeth Salander makes for riveting reading in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest; and Reggie Love, who emerges from an abusive marriage to practice law with brilliance and empathy in John Grisham’s The Client.

There are also unsavory attorneys, and few novels have more of them than Grisham’s The Firm. That book’s law office (well, it’s sort of a law office) has an all-male roster of corrupt legal guys — of whom some are viciously evil and others sold out for the money and because they feared for their safety. But Grisham provides one (flawed) legal hero — the new attorney, Mitch McDeere, who weighs a very risky FBI request to take down the firm in The Firm.

Other hard-to-like lawyers (greedy, nasty, corrupt, etc.) include Mr. Tulkinghorn in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, Guillaumin in Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Luzhin in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and Daniel Palmer in Margaret Drabble’s The Witch of Exmoor.

Also, many politicians in literature (and in real life) began their careers as attorneys, and we know how unadmirable many elected officials are.

Of course, there are male lawyers other than Atticus Finch who are very or somewhat ethical and impressive. They include the unprejudiced attorney Boris Max who defends Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s Native Son, fingerprint expert David Wilson in Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, environmentalist Walter Berglund in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, the ultra-skilled Perry Mason in the Erle Stanley Gardner novels, and the Clarence Darrow-like Henry Drummond in the Inherit the Wind play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee.

In a related matter, there are a number of novelists who are/were lawyers — including the aforementioned Erle Stanley Gardner and John Grisham as well as Lisa Scottoline, Meg Gardiner, Scott Turow, Louis Auchincloss, Sir Walter Scott, Henry Fielding, and Goethe, among others.

Which fictional attorney characters have you found the most memorable?

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I’m also writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in New York City and Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.