President’s Corner > Lawyers as Heroes

BY HUNTER M. ABELL

Last month, I outlined how I hope to spend my brief time with you in this role as your WSBA president: increasing the public’s trust and confidence in our Washington legal profession. In going out and speaking with the Washington public, I hope to re-kindle a public recognition of our profession as one that is devoted to public service, rule of law, and defending individual freedoms. 

The task is difficult. The public views our profession with profound skepticism. In 2010, when addressing the American College of Trial Lawyers, Laurence Tribe recounted one of his favorite New Yorker cartoons that depicted a well-dressed gentleman talking with an attractive younger woman at a cocktail party. “Oh yes, I am a lawyer,” he says to her, “but not in the pejorative sense.”11 Laurence Tribe, 2010. Transcript of speech delivered at the American College of Trial Lawyers 2010 Annual Meeting, Sept. 25, 2010. www.justice.gov/opa/speech/laurence-tribe-senior-counselor-access-justice-speaks-american-college-trial-lawyers-2010. Thirteen years later, it is apparent that most Americans view lawyers very much in the pejorative sense.

One way to counter that perception is by speaking directly to the public and, in particular, to students, about the role that lawyers play in our system and by holding up examples of lawyers as heroes. Real-life lawyer heroes abound. A classic example is John Adams defending the British troops after the Boston massacre. Another example is Thurgood Marshall leading the fight against Jim Crow. More locally (and recently), this year’s APEX Award winners, including Caesar Kalinowski IV, Michael Goldenkranz, Rebecca Bernard, and others, are real-life, contemporary heroes.22 “The 2023 APEX Awards,” Washington State Bar News, Sept. 11, 2023, https://wabarnews.org/2023/09/11/this-years-winners-are-3/

Not only are there plenty of real-life lawyer heroes, but, if fiction is to be believed, the public wants lawyers to be heroes and recognizes the essential role they play in any fair judicial system. One of my favorite movies is the 2012 film The Dark Knight Rises. In it, Gotham City is taken over by the villain Bane, who institutes a reign of terror. Among my favorite scenes are the kangaroo court situations involving Dr. Jonathan Crane as a Bane-empowered judge distributing “justice” en masse. Dr. Crane has been sentencing citizens resistant to Bane’s rule to exile by sending them at gunpoint across a frozen river, where they inevitably fall through the ice and drown. One scene involves captured Gotham City Commissioner Gordon and his men being haled before “Judge” Crane:

Jim Gordon: “No lawyer, no witnesses? What sort of due process is this?”

Jonathan Crane: “Your guilt has been determined. This is merely a sentencing hearing. Now, what will it be? Death or exile?”

Jim Gordon: “Crane, if you think we’re going to walk out on that ice willingly, you’ve got another thing coming!”

Jonathan Crane: “So it’s death then?”

Jim Gordon: “Looks that way.”

Jonathan Crane: “Very well. Death!” [Smashes gavel]

Jonathan Crane: “By exile!”33 The Dark Knight Rises, 2012, www.imdb.com/title/tt1345836/characters/nm0614165.

As Commissioner Gordon notes, the proceeding is a charade. In case the public missed it, the tip-off was in his opening observation: “No lawyer?”

From revolutionary Gotham to revolutionary France, the theme is the same. In my opinion, perhaps the best example of a “lawyer as hero” comes from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. I readily confess that anyone reading Dickens hoping for an original insight is likely setting themselves up for failure. In A Tale of Two Cities, however, we are introduced to Sydney Carton, the hero of the tale, who falls in love with Lucie Manette. Carton, a skilled (if dissolute) attorney, is employed to defend Manette’s husband, the French aristocrat Charles Darnay, and does so successfully. When Darnay is arrested in revolutionary France, Carton secretly switches places with him and ascends to the guillotine in his stead, uttering the famous words: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”44 Carton’s final words proved both entertaining and inspirational for a Maryland court addressing a prison break. See Gray v. State, 53 Md. App. 699, 700 (1983).

Much ink has been spilled on Carton as the heroic, unrequited lover. Even more on Carton as a soul redeemed. But few (if any?) authors spend much time on Carton’s role as an attorney. 

One of the expectations of our profession is that we will sacrifice for our clients. We are expected to advocate capably and professionally on their behalf and serve in the role of “attorney as counselor.” In Washington, that role is memorialized in RPC 2.1, addressing the role of attorney as advisor.

Carton skillfully advocates for Darnay, but he goes much further. Carton sacrificed completely for Manette. Trial lawyers will readily recognize that sense of utter fatigue after a trial where they have poured themselves out entirely for their clients. In A Tale of Two Cities, however, Carton pours himself out to the extent of taking his client’s punishment. While attorneys are not called to sacrifice to that extent, the impulse to identify with our clients resonates in the scene where Carton mounts the scaffold. He is not merely going to the guillotine as a lover and a soul redeemed, but as an attorney providing a last act of service for a client.

Fiction tells us that the public wants lawyers as heroes. Real life reminds us that there are heroic lawyers all around. In speaking with members of the Washington public this year, I am highlighting modern-day heroic lawyers and the role they play in a free and open society.55 I have chosen an informal anthem for this effort. Some of the lyrics go as follows: “Courage is your claim to fame, when hero is your middle name.” The first WSBA member who emails me stating the name of the song and the musical it comes from will receive a small token of appreciation from me in the mail. No googling the answer! It is my hope that students, in particular, will want to join our ranks. If they do, as noted by Commissioner Gordon, they will serve a vital role in upholding due process. That result may be a small step toward the public not viewing our profession solely in the pejorative sense. While the public still may not view us as heroes, I hope they will recognize us as vitally important to a free society. 

NOTE: The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense.

About the author

Hunter Abell is a civil practitioner with the Spokane office of Williams Kastner. He can be reached at:

NOTES

1. Laurence Tribe, 2010. Transcript of speech delivered at the American College of Trial Lawyers 2010 Annual Meeting, Sept. 25, 2010. www.justice.gov/opa/speech/laurence-tribe-senior-counselor-access-justice-speaks-american-college-trial-lawyers-2010

2. “The 2023 APEX Awards,” Washington State Bar News, Sept. 11, 2023, https://wabarnews.org/2023/09/11/this-years-winners-are-3/

3. The Dark Knight Rises, 2012, www.imdb.com/title/tt1345836/characters/nm0614165.

4. Carton’s final words proved both entertaining and inspirational for a Maryland court addressing a prison break. See Gray v. State, 53 Md. App. 699, 700 (1983).

5. I have chosen an informal anthem for this effort. Some of the lyrics go as follows: “Courage is your claim to fame, when hero is your middle name.” The first WSBA member who emails me stating the name of the song and the musical it comes from will receive a small token of appreciation from me in the mail. No googling the answer!