Every year for the past seven years in Brazos County, attorneys gather,
clad in seersucker apparel, to pause and reflect on the ideals embodied
in the character of Harper Lee’s fictional southern lawyer, Atticus
Finch. Not surprisingly, we call it “Atticus Finch Day.” We
come together as a bar, as colleagues, and as friends, to re-commit ourselves
to the nobility of our profession and to representing our clients zealously
and ethically without tearing each other apart in the process.
I have been asked many times about the origins of Atticus Finch Day. Here
is how it came to pass.
Every lawyer, at one point or another in his or her life or career, has
pointed to Atticus Finch as an inspiration. We revere his courageous fight
to defend an innocent black man in the segregated south from charges of
raping a white woman. We pontificate about his ethics, his quiet strength,
and his willingness to do the right thing without regard to personal consequence.
We cite Atticus as our ideal and, far too often, we fall short.
Atticus Finch Day was born as a hopeful answer to a courthouse community
that had become so fractured and dysfunctional that lives were being affected.
Political vendettas, personal discord, email scandals, runaway grand juries,
courts of inquiry, animosity between the District Attorney’s Office
and the County Attorney’s Office, tension between prosecutors and
defense attorneys, rampant rumor and gossip, all contributed to a pretty
unpleasant place to work.
And lest anyone suggest that I am being holier-than-thou, I wholly and
completely accept my share of the blame and regret every minute of it.
For me, it all came to a head during a heated jury trial in the 361st District
Court. I, along with another assistant district attorney, Cory Crenshaw,
was prosecuting an attorney for multiple counts of forgery. The attorney
had become involved in a number of email scams involving counterfeit checks.
She represented herself and local attorney Phil Banks was appointed by
the Court as “stand-by counsel” to assist her during the trial.
Phil and I had dealt with each other from time to time in the course of
negotiating pleas in criminal cases. Phil was always friendly and jovial
and I enjoyed his visits to my office. We were not close friends, but
we were friendly. Phil is “old school Bryan” and I was still
a relative newcomer to Brazos County, having moved just a few years prior
from Austin to accept a position with the DA’s Office.
The trial was difficult, as is always the case with apro se defendant. And, it was especially difficult for Phil, a veteran trial
attorney, to watch as the attorney on trial slowly but surely convicted herself.
According to my former boss, I had developed a reputation among the defense
bar as a somewhat relentless and dogged prosecutor in trial. Sometimes,
I could not tell when enough was enough.
At one point several days into the trial, I saw what I thought was an important
opportunity to raise an issue and present additional evidence that would
have, in retrospect, prolonged the trial unnecessarily. As I look back,
at that point in the trial, even though she “opened the door”
wide, the case was already over.
And Phil had had enough. Arguing the admissibility, relevance, and necessity
of the evidentiary path I was attempting to take, we found ourselves nose
to nose about six feet in front of the jury, red-faced, in an epic stare-down.
I said to Phil something like: “You’re not the man I thought
you were.” It was a stupid thing to say in the heat of trial.
Then Phil said it: “Make my day, Phelps.” I looked down and
saw that his fists were clenched and he was ready to “throw down”
right there in front of the jury.
Turns out, Phil has a temper.
The Judge called strategically for a break and I retreated to the District
Attorney’s Office. About five minutes later, Phil came to the District
Attorney’s Office and apologized to me. I apologized to him. We hugged.
At least that’s how I remember it.
Phil and I have become very good friends. And we both regret our conduct
in the courtroom that day. As our friendship and mutual affection grew,
we revisited the whole episode frequently. We both agreed that we fell short.
About this time, I reread
To Kill a Mockingbird. I had read the novel in my teens and it was a big part of the inspiration
for me personally to go to law school. It occurred to me in rereading
the book and reacquainting myself with Atticus Finch that I could do better
as an attorney. Being an attorney is much more than winning cases and
making money. It is, or should be, about righting wrongs, seeking justice,
bettering my community. Ours is a noble profession, despite what some
may think, and incredible good has been accomplished by courageous attorneys
motivated by the right ethics and principles. Like Atticus Finch.
I approached Phil with an idea. In an interesting irony, when we delivered
our final arguments in the trial in which Phil and I had our confrontation,
we both showed up in seersucker suits. Atticus Finch wore a seersucker
suit. I asked Phil if he would join me in attempting to gather attorneys
together at least once a year to rededicate ourselves to the ideals we
often point to in Atticus Finch but frequently fall short of. We could
dress in seersucker apparel, drink lemonade, talk about why we revere
Atticus Finch, read passages from the novel, and commit to working harder
in the coming year to do better, to be more like Atticus Finch.
Phil was enthusiastic and we have worked together each year since to build
Atticus Finch into a meaningful observance at which we and our fellow
attorneys could resolve to be better advocates, aspire to more noble ends,
and to treat each other gently in the process.
The first year, we met in the elevator lobby of the courthouse. There were
about 10-15 of us and we all listened as Billy Carter read his favorite
To Kill a Mockingbird and exhorted us to strive to be better lawyers, like Atticus Finch. The
event has grown each year and we had to move to a bigger venue, the Atrium
area in the Brazos County Administration Building. Our crowds have grown
steadily. Last year, we were standing room only.
Humbly, I think it has made a difference. At least it has for me. I’m
a better lawyer today for having taken the time each year to revisit the
reasons I became an attorney and reflect on the good that can be done
with a law degree in the hands of an ethical and determined attorney.
And my friendship with Phil has made me a better person.
We will gather again this year at 11:30 on April 24 in the Brazos County
Administration Building (200 South Texas Avenue). Our featured guest this
year is the Honorable Cathy Cochran, one of my favorite attorneys and
judges. Judge Cochran just retired from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals
and is a former prosecutor and defense attorney. The law has been Judge
Cochran’s second career following a successful career as a teacher.
She is one of the smartest attorneys (or people) I have met and has distinguished
herself as one of Texas’s best criminal judges. She was recently
Texas Monthly, which recognized her for the integral role she has played over the past
decade-and-a-half in shaping Texas criminal jurisprudence. You can read
Judge Jim Locke of Brazos County Court at Law Number 2 will also speak
briefly and deliver our opening invocation.
As a personal aside, one of the traditions of Atticus Finch Day has become
the cookies we serve. Each year, my wife Jean (also an attorney as well
as a CPA), bakes incredible sugar cookies for the event. I think some
people come just for the cookies (I’m talking to you, Larry).
The courthouse is a calmer and friendlier place these days. At least it
seems that way to me. I hope that Atticus Finch Day has had something
to do with that.
And, by the way, Phil would have laid me out with one punch.