YOUR LEGAL WRITES: Required summer reading for lawyers

By Kathryn E. Brown | Jun 26, 2008

The headmaster of an exclusive, private boy's school in Massachusetts recently issued a statement on the institution's Web site explaining the reasons behind a mandatory summer reading program.

As a means of educating "the whole boy", teachers insist that a year-round blend of academics, athletics and the arts must be viewed as a commitment to lifelong learning, with reading serving as the act that moves mere recreation into a passion for something.

Like many public and private schools throughout the country, English teachers e-mailed a suggested reading list to parents, prompting many mothers and fathers to scour bookstore shelves for classic and modern fiction. If middle and high school students don't succeed in uncovering their true sense of self during the sweltering months of summer vacation, perhaps their parents will read along, too, if only to uncover bits of personality changed by the frantic pace of professions that have hardened them.

It could be argued that as "tweens" and teens look for copies of To Kill a Mockingbird, the rest of the working world frantically seeks Atticus Finch – and the literary marketplace proves it.

A law professor at The University of Notre Dame admitted to using To Kill a Mockingbird as the official textbook for certain classes, noting that those particular lectures were considered some of the most influential learning experiences for students. Author Mike Papantonio wrote what he calls "a motivational book for lawyers", and titled the work "In Search of Atticus Finch" to serve as a specific guide for living a complete (and careful) life. More than 300,000 Web sites discuss the principled leadership of Harper Lee's hero, who seemed to practice compassion before law.
So much has been written about Finch (editorial words in support of his decent ways as well as in criticism of his courtroom defeat), that the novel which gave him life has been ranked as one of the great stories that should be read by everyone before they die.
Charleston lawyer, Barron Helgoe, offered thoughts on the book's present-day significance.

"Tom Robinson-like clients walk into law offices everyday; the wrongly indicted, the unfairly accused businessperson, the grievously injured – clients who are in desperate need of some type of help," he began. "Atticus Finch is a continuing source of inspiration for lawyers who stand up in court to protect unpopular clients or the ideas they represent. We need Atticus Finch now in West Virginia as much as Alabama did when Harper Lee published her book back in 1960," Helgoe said.

Helgoe's wife, Laurie, is an accomplished writer and psychologist. Recently, the couple celebrated the publishing of their book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Raising Boys. The husband-and-wife team, who are parents of two teenage sons themselves, advise readers on child rearing and building self-esteem in children.

Helgoe believes that Atticus Finch is as much of a role model for parents as he is an example of integrity for lawyers. One of the most memorable lines in the book reveals Finch's strength in managing his life with unwavering consistency.

"Before Jem looks at anyone else he looks at me, and I've tried to live so I can look squarely back at him," Finch declares, which ultimately wins his son's respect. By the end of the novel, his children's attitude toward him evolves from feelings of frustration to unconditional love.

"Share your failures as well as your successes with your kids," Helgoe continued. "There are plenty of both in a law practice. Kids need real, not perfect, parents who show them how to live and survive every day. Be consistent in disciplining your children with consequences and avoid lecturing ... and this is hard for lawyers to do."

Helgoe warns parents to be prepared for "collateral damage" when their children utilize newfound Atticus Finch skills, which are expressed in grueling attacks on family logic regarding schoolwork, chores, and the limitations of fun.

Back at the office, though, lawyers can learn more lessons from the novel's folk hero, particularly when they feel affected in negative ways by the legal profession.

"Lawyers have more temptations than many in society," Helgoe explained. "Greed is particularly corrosive to compassion. There is also the more common risk that having to witness humans at their worst so often will turn us into boring, middle-aged misanthropes," he said.

As explained by literature professors in an online study guide of To Kill a Mockingbird, Finch preaches to children Scout and Jem never to hold grudges against the people of their small, southern town.

Finch recognizes that citizens have both good and bad qualities, and he is determined to admire the good while understanding and forgiving the bad. Finch passes this immense moral lesson on to daughter Scout, a perspective that protects the innocent from being destroyed by acts of evil. One necessary evil, though, may be in the form of a pesky reading assignment.

"Do you know what a compromise is?" Finch asks Scout. "Bendin' the law?" the kindergartener asks. Finch is slightly amused. "Uh, no. It's an agreement reached by mutual consent. Now, here's the way it works. You concede the necessity of goin' to school, and we'll keep right on readin' the same every night, just as we always have. Is that a bargain?"

Brown is the managing member of The Write Word LLC, a professional writing agency based in Charleston.

Barron Helgoe, of Victor Victor and Helgoe, is an experienced litigator and trained negotiator. The Helgoe's book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Raising Boys, can be purchased locally, or through

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