10 Lessons for Human Rights Lawyers from Atticus Finch

Yes, of course, the name Atticus Finch sounds familiar. He is a lawyer, one of the protagonists in Harper Lee’s classical masterpiece of modern American literature “To Kill A Mockingbird”. This book is the “Tom Sawyer” for lawyers; many claim that after reading it they knew what they wanted to do-be a lawyer. This book is always a good read, especially when our human rights career compass seems to stray a bit from the original direction, when we are facing challenges, dilemmas or simply when we need a reminder why did we choose this call at the first place. Also, if you are starting your career as a human rights lawyer without having read this book here are five of the timeless lessons from a book character living in a fictional town in Alabama in the thirties.

Don’t be quick to judge. Learn to recognize an honest mistake. If you are the one making it – mend it!

Scout, the daughter of Mr. Finch got into trouble when she tried to explain to her teacher, who was new in the town, some of the basics about the ways in which people there lived. The teacher was trying to lend some lunch money to a student who seemed to forget his lunch but he wouldn’t accept it. So, Scout took the role of a mediator, explained that he won’t be able to give the money back, thus offending both her classmate and the teacher. After school, Mr. Finch explained that what the teacher did was an honest mistake and that instead of being angry at her, Scout should consider things from the teacher’s point of view if she truly wants to understand her. She should “climb into her skin and walk around in it”. The teacher had no intention of embarrassing the student, she wanted to help. Scout’s intentions were also pure, but the outcome was something else.

Trying to defend someone, you will make mistakes, even with the best intentions. Therefore, when speaking from someone’s behalf, representing his interests, don’t forget to “climb into his skin” first. Moreover, there is always a way to mend the mistake. In Scout’s case, she invited her classmate over for dinner, where he enjoyed the meal and the conversations with Mr. Finch about things he knew well and felt appreciated and confident.

Don’t chase after money or expect to get rich. People/life will find a way to compensate

One of Mr. Finch’s clients was Mr. Cunningham, a farmer who was severely struck by the Great Depression. The only way he could pay Mr. Finch was with his produce on monthly basis. Another example is the case of Tom Robinson, a black man who was wrongfully convicted of raping a white woman and who was a client of Mr. Finch. After the trial, his family and friends brought “enough food to bury the family” as a token of their appreciation for Mr. Finch’s efforts. He was grateful and moved, especially because he knew the hardship everybody living in that time was facing.

Likewise, when advocating for people who have been marginalized without their fault or due to an event beyond their control, and are in need of help, money should be at the very end of your priority list. Often times, you will not be paid immediately, but the pleasure of helping someone when he needs it the most is priceless. Don’t worry, their gratefulness will find its way to you. Sometimes it will be in a sort of compensation, often it will be paid in installments, or latter than the set date, from another indirect source, such as a donation for example, but in any way it will come as a gift from the universe and you will like it.

Respect people’s privacy

Mr. Boo Radley was the reclusive neighbor of the Finches. Scout, her brother Jem and their friend Dill were terrified from him and yet they were intrigued and wanted to get him out of the house. At the same time they felt sorry for him and in different indirect ways invited him to get outside. On one such occasion, when Mr. Finch caught them by the side window of Radley’s house, he gave the children a valuable lesson about privacy and violation of privacy. He said that “What Mr. Radley did was his own business. If he wanted to come out, he would. If he wanted to stay inside his own house he had the right to stay inside free from the attentions of inquisitive children”. He also advised the children that they are to stay away from Mr. Radley’s house unless they were invited, meaning to respect the right to privacy of the home as well.

In other words, what may seem peculiar for most people may be totally normal for others (of course as long as nobody is harmed). Some scholars refer to the right to privacy as “the right to be left alone” and I think Mr. Finch wanted this exact thing from the children- to leave Mr. Radley alone.

Oftentimes, you will find yourself in the position that you need to “save” somebody and realize he doesn’t want to be saved, maybe it is not the right time or maybe he doesn’t need saving at all as you first thought. You might feel frustrated, so use that energy for advocacy towards improving the system, so people are not even put into that kind of position in the first place.

Always be prepared

Some people in the town were not happy that Mr. Finch was lawyer of a black man, Mr. Robinson. They came to his door to intimidate him, but he was not afraid because at the same time these people were his neighbors and friends. However, when Mr. Robinson, was transferred to the town’s jail, Mr. Finch went there for the night because he knew that the same group of people, the town’s mob, would come to lynch his client and threaten him. Foreseeing what could happen, he also had his friend prepared on the nearby balcony just in case. But a peculiar thing happened. The children followed him without his knowledge and when they saw the “mobsters” making their move, Scout ran to the rescue. She simply greeted their leader and started a conversation with him about his son, who was her classmate. This means, as Mr. Finch later concluded “that a gang of wild animals can be stopped, simply because they’re still human”. Scout reminded him that although he and Mr. Finch have opposing views, at the end of the day they are both fathers and have children that depend on them.

When the trial was finished, although the black man was found guilty for a crime he didn’t commit, the people of the town understood what has really happened, thanks to Mr. Finch. Mr. Bob Ewell, the father of the girl who claimed that she was raped, didn’t like this, so the morning after the trial, he “stopped Atticus on the post office corner, spat in his face, and told him he’d get him if it took the rest of his life”. Mr. Finch miscalculated the risk of this threat, thinking that it wasn’t serious. However, Mr. Ewell went after the Finches children and even broke Jem’s arm. Although experienced, Mr. Finch was surprised from that attack and couldn’t believe that the target were his children, and not him.

Certain structures who usually hold some sort of power will not like what you do. Especially nowadays when we are still witnessing human rights defenders being detained, imprisoned, or worse…Prepare to be threatened, and learn how to distinguish a real threat from a mere intimidation and have a backup plan if needed. Most importantly, always make clear that your intentions are pure and show your human side that most people can relate to.

Keep your integrity

Mrs. Maude, one of the neighbors Scout looked up to, once stated that Mr. Finch was the same in the courtroom as he was on the public streets. What she wanted to say was that it is important people are honest and keep their integrity in order to be considered trustworthy. Another example of this virtue was Mr. Finch being respectful to everyone that came to the stand during the trial in contrast to the prosecutor who was rude to the defendant. Humiliating somebody will not make you win the case. Don’t lose your temper; focus on the facts, the effects and the violations of the rights. Don’t let the comments of the other provoke you. In any case, respect other’s right to an opinion, even when it contradicts yours. When holding a public office, be prepared for insults and pick up a way of coping with it. Mr. Finch’s way was “holding the head high and keeping the fists down”. People will always talk and judge, however, as Mr. Finch said: “They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions, but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” We hold a responsibility first of all, towards ourselves to do what’s right, what our morality tells us is an imperative. At the end of the day, no one can carry our burden of guilty conciseness.

On a similar note, Mr. Finch knew that there was a great chance he will lose this case, although all the facts were on his side. However, this didn’t stop him from giving his best no matter the result, or in his words: “Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.” Knowing you’ll lose and still fighting with all your efforts- means you have integrity, higher goal and ideal for the future, paving the path for the generations to come.

In dubio pro libertate

When Mr. Finch was discussing the case with his son, Jem, he stated that when charging somebody with murder, especially when there is a death penalty, there should be at least one or two eye-witnesses and it requires a certainty beyond all reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the defendant. He added that” in the absence of eye- witnesses there’s always a doubt, sometimes only the shadow of a doubt. The law says ’reasonable doubt, but I think a defendant’s entitled to the shadow of a doubt. There’s always the possibility, no matter how improbable, that he’s innocent.”

We can trace the roots of this reasoning in the Roman law principle “in dubio pro libertate”, also applicable today, which means that when there is still doubt about the guilt of the defendant, it is better to rule in his favor. In other words, in this kind of situations it is better to risk a guilty man to be freed, than an innocent man to be charged (even sentenced to death) for something he didn’t do.

As a human rights lawyer, one must keep in mind that this guiding principle can be applied not only in criminal proceedings, but in a broader sense to other proceedings as well. For example, when giving the benefit of the doubt to the asylum seeker in the refugee status determination procedure; when in doubt, It is better to grant the asylum seeker the international protection, than to leave him without any.

Protecting human rights is a constant struggle

On one occasion Mr. Finch mentions that “Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.” This quote teaches us to take a historical perspective on the human rights struggle when our chances to win are slim and our morals are low. It means that we must give our best in the historical moment we live in. Even if now it may seem that we haven’t accomplished much, or that the change we made is so small, or unnoticeable, or ineffective, it is always better than doing nothing and its effects will probably be more visible in the future.

It’s like Mr. Finch’s neighbor, Ms. Maude concluded after the trial of Mr. Robinson: “Atticus Finch won’t win, he can’t win, but he’s the only man in these parts who can keep a jury out so long in a case like that. And I thought to myself, well, we’re making a step — it’s just a baby- step, but it’s a step.”

In other words, if it were any other lawyer, the jury would reach its decision much faster, but Mr. Finch’s defense sparked a serious and long debate in the jury, opinions were exchanged, and attitudes were changed. If Mr. Finch managed to persuade only one juror with his closing argument, that is success, no matter that he didn’t won the case. Even though it seems that the battle has been lost, the struggle continues, one step at a time.


Mr. Finch was the best shooter in town. The interesting thing about it is that he was not carrying a gun and from what we know, he didn’t even own one. Actually, he believed, as he told his son Jem, that having a gun around is an invitation to somebody to shoot you.

This seemingly simple view of Mr. Finch, when translated into a perspective of international relations represents the theory of arms races which holds that when a state is building up arms, it is increasing the chances of war-an armed conflict. In short, if state A is building up arms, without being under the threat of being attacked, then there is great probability that state B would see state A as a threat, arm up and maybe even attack first under the fear of being attacked.

On dealing with guns, when his children got air-rifles as a present, Mr. Finch warned them that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird and that they should never shoot one. Afterwards, Ms. Maude, their neighbor explained to the children why they were forbidden to do so: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

There is a deeper meaning behind this ban and it is the essential point of the entire book, as we can see from its very title. To kill a mockingbird is equal to killing an innocent being, that does not harm anyone or anything and even gives its best for our enjoyment. Therefore, sentencing an innocent man that was only trying to help is not only a severe violation of the basic human rights, but according to Mr.Finch, a sin as well (and that was the only time he referred to something as sinful).

Break the stereotypes

In his closing statement at the trial of an innocent African American, Mr. Finch underlined the following: “You know the truth, and the truth is this: some Negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral, some Negro men are not to be trusted around women — black or white. But this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men. There is not a person in this courtroom who has never told a lie, who has never done an immoral thing, and there is no man living who has never looked upon a woman without desire. “During the trial and examination of the witnesses, Mr.Finch made the innocence of his client obvious, by presenting what has actually happened and that his client couldn’t have physically done the deed he was accused of. However, without any substantial evidence, the jury found the defendant guilty, only because of the color of his skin.

In our everyday life we are still witnessing stereotyping all the time, sometimes we don’t even notice it, sometimes we are the ones making it, sometimes we are the victims of it. However, as human rights lawyers we must learn to recognize it, to do everything to prevent it in the future and to raise awareness on its harmful consequences. Using the abovementioned example of the truth that applies to all humans is the first step towards convincing the other party that people are individuals first. Moreover, most importantly, we must always emphasize the need of an individual assessment of the person’s actions or situation, regardless of race, gender, ethnic background, nationality, disability, social status, marital status, religion, political belief etc. Otherwise, we risk falling further into the trap of discrimination.

In addition, stereotyping sometimes has the effect that the stereotyped person begins to fit in that frame because no one believes the opposite. This is the deeper danger. And maybe this was the reason why Mr.Robinson tried to escape the prison after his conviction, although he knew that most likely the guards would shoot and kill him (as they did) and didn’t take into consideration the fact that Mr. Finch was ready to submit an appeal.

Equality before the law

As an important human rights lawyer’s trait, Mr. Finch manages once again to sum up an important legal principle in one sentence: “But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal — there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court.” With these words, Mr. Finch was stressing out the importance of the impartiality of the court.

This universal principle found in many international documents is part of the right to a fair trial. The legal egalitarianism is closely connected to the prohibition of discrimination. Every lawyer must make sure its client is getting a fair trial and if necessary, remind the court that everyone is entitled to equal protection of the law, without any discrimination. There is a reason why Justitia, Lady Justice is depicted blindfolded, it is because she doesn’t see wealth, power, or other status, she is without prejudice.

Believe that most people are good

The end of the book, the dialogue between Mr.Finch and his daughter, Scout, leaves us with the belief that people are nice in general. What we need to do is to “see” them. This is a process that can mean walking a mile in their shoes, understanding where they are coming from and what kind of challenges are they facing. By connecting the reasons for their actions with their responses and the results, we will finally see them in a true light and help the others see it as well.

About the author


Vera Martinoska

Vera Martinoska is a human rights researcher with legal background and is currently located in Worcester, Massachusetts. She has worked at the NGO Macedonian Young Lawyers Association on the USAID Defending Human Rights Project as a project assistant on human rights violation cases, trainings on human rights, internship program and on the UNHCR Legal Assistance and Representation of Persons of Concern Project, as an asylum and mixed migrations lawyer providing legal aid to the refugees/asylum seekers and representing them during the recent refugee crisis on the Balkan route. Before that, she has also been working with different non-governmental organizations on projects concerning fostering inter-ethnic dialogue and cooperation, conflict prevention and transformation, culture of peace, public speaking, access to public information and human rights education. She is the (co-)author of research-papers, reports, analysis, policy papers, and booklets on issues such as refugee integration, refugee education, naturalization, sexual and gender based violence, human rights protection, children’s rights and discrimination of Roma people.