In Memory of Harper Lee

Harper Lee

Great American author Harper Lee will be remembered

Harper Lee died today at the age of 89. Best known for her works “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and her more recent sequel “Go Set a Watchman,” she is particularly beloved in the legal community for her creation of the character Atticus Finch—a small town attorney whose kindness was surpassed only by his integrity. An informal poll of the attorneys of Samuels Yoelin Kantor revealed that many of us were influenced in part by Atticus Finch when making the decision to attend law school. Several still consider Atticus, at least as presented in “Mockingbird,” an aspirational standard and archetype for the profession.

Harper Lee was born in 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama, which remained her home until the time of her death. She was the youngest daughter of Francis Finch Lee and Amasa Coleman Lee, an attorney who was the primary inspiration for Atticus Finch. Her elder sister Alice, who passed away at the age of 104 in 2013, was also an attorney who practiced into her 90s, and acted as Ms. Lee’s agent and supporter.

Ms. Lee was famously publicity-averse and refused to speak about her own life or work publicly. Which made it a shock in 2015, when it was announced that HarperCollins would publish a sequel to “Mockingbird.” Many in the literary community questioned whether Ms. Lee had the mental capacity to approve its publication, and wondered suspiciously at the timing—taking place after her sister Alice’s death. “Go Set a Watchman” gained further notoriety for its portrayal of an elder Atticus, who has become anti-integrationist and biased in his elder years. In our informal office poll one attorney called “Go Set a Watchman” a “huge revelation as to how an idol can change.” Perhaps now that Ms. Lee has passed, more revelations will come out regarding the circumstances under which the sequel was published.

Despite the turmoil surrounding her creation over the last year, “To Kill a Mockingbird” will likely remain an enduring piece of the American literary canon. And hopefully Harper Lee’s first portrayal of Atticus Finch will continue to inspire lawyers and law students as an example of the aspirational standard of the profession.