Fictional Lawyer Face-off: Atticus Finch vs. Matlock


In this new feature, Bitter Lawyer pits two great lawyers from Imaginationland against each other in a ruthless fight to the disbarment. – Ed.


Atticus Finch
Source: To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960 novel by Harper Lee; 1963 film adaptation, portrayed by Gregory Peck.
Jurisdiction: Maycomb County, Alabama, fictional small town in the deep south.

Ben Matlock
Source: “Matlock”, TV Series airing from 1986-1995, portrayed by Andy Griffith (now playing in a nursing home rec room).
Jurisdiction: Fulton County, Georgia, real county with Atlanta as its seat.


Atticus Finch may be the most respected fictional lawyer of all time, and possibly the most respected fictional PERSON of all time this side of Superman. In 1997, the Alabama State Bar erected a monument to Finch at the Old Courthouse in Monroeville, author Lee’s hometown. In 2003, the American Film Institute named Atticus Finch the greatest hero in American movies, making him roughly as admirable as #1 villain honoree Hannibal Lecter is evil.

Much like his courtroom style, Matlock’s legacy is less stuffy and more populist: You don’t get to nearly 200 episodes of network television without winning over lots of hearts and minds. And before you go disregarding that legacy saying “well that was in the old days before the Internet and Netflix and cable series sweeping the Emmys!”, note that Cleveland NBC affiliate WKYC-TV aired two-hour blocks of Matlock instead of its regular Thursday night lineup for two weeks last March, winning better ratings in some time slots. If you can hear Abe Simpson saying “Maaaaatloooooooock” in your head, you gotta admit this guy’s got the stuff.


This one goes to Matlock handily. Matlock has virtually never lost a case (see Ethical Issues), and often not only gets his client off but reveals the true guilty party in the process.

Although we’ve only got a sample size of one for Atticus Finch, it’s a loss. Finch puts in a valiant effort to defend his client Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman, getting a Matlockian on-the-witness-stand breakdown out of the accuser. Finch even puts in some extracurricular representation for his client by talking down an angry mob that wants to lynch him. But Finch’s efforts are in vain when the racist jury convicts Tom, who then is shot and killed trying to escape prison.

So, yeah, Matlock gets YET ANOTHER WIN for this category.


Here’s where Matlock falls behind paragon-of-legal virtue Atticus Finch. Matlock gets it done, all right, but through ridiculously ill-advised and illegal methods like stealing evidence from crime scenes to late introduce as a fun courtroom surprise. TV-land courtroom procedure is obviously of a different kind, but that’s a little out of hand, no? And if his ROUTINE ethics-schmethics approach doesn’t bug you, note that the one time Matlock DID lose a case it was because he realized his client was guilty, so he set up her best friend to take the fall, knowing it would force her to confess. The only client Matlock can be trusted to vigorously represent is DRAMZ.


This one comes down to personal preference. They’re both Southern lawyers, but where Finch tries to makes his own style of Big-City intellectual gravitas appeal to the backwoods South, Matlock forces aggressive folksiness upon the least-Southern Southern City. Are you more “Southern Man” or “Sweet Home Alabama?” Then you know your answer.

But even without calling the Mason-Dixon Line Draw there, a clear winner emerges:


Because Atticus Finch makes lawyers strive to be better, to live up to this wonderful idea that a LAWYER could not only be a good guy, but the greatest hero of all. And Matlock makes us justify wearing cheap suits to court and bending the rules to keep up our winning streak.


(image: A 3d generated professional boxing ring front via SHUTTERSTOCK)

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