From Atticus Finch to Saul Goodman: Saints to Shysters in 55 Years

better call saul check

By Paul Levine

“In our courts, all men are created equal. I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system.” – Atticus Finch, in “To Kill a Mockingbird”

“I’m number one on your speed dial, right next to your weed dealer.” – Saul Goodman, a/k/a Slippin’ Jimmy McGill on “Better Call Saul”

Oh, where have you gone, Atticus Finch?

Where is our paragon of virtue, our defender of human rights, our patron saint of lawyers – and parents – everywhere? While Finch is unsullied on the pages of Harper Lee’s iconic 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” (and in Gregory Peck’s performance in the film), he has been replaced in the modern courtroom by a new breed of mouthpiece.

atticus finch
Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) stands tall, seeking justice.

Jimmy McGill, a/k/a Saul Goodman, the antihero of “Better Call Saul,” was a grifter and con artist before he earned his degree via correspondence courses from American Samoa Law School. Unwilling to leave his shady past behind, Jimmy hires skateboarders to set up phony accidents. He hustles residents of a retirement home with free food – Jello – in order to write their wills. Suspended from the practice of law for numerous ethical violations, he changes his name to Saul Goodman when he gets his parchment back. Why? The “homeboys,” he says, want “a member of the tribe” to represent them. Did I mention that his law office is in the storage room of a nail salon?

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman and Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler

Atticus Finch, he ain’t.

I’ve long had a theory that many young people in the 1960’s and 1970’s (including me) were influenced to go to law school by the notion of the saintly Atticus Finch. We pictured ourselves standing tall for justice, ala Gregory Peck in his white linen suit. We would be courageous under withering attack. We would “do good” and not worry about collecting our fees. After all, Finch’s clients sometimes paid him in chickens and beechnuts.

Then, we became real lawyers and were under pressure to bill our time at enormous rates to keep the engines of our law firms humming. We leased out our lives in 7.5 minute increments. Instead of representing the wrongfully accused and standing up to biased judges and juries, we wrote contracts for the sale of widgets or litigated divorces between equally abhorrent spouses. Or worse. In my case, this meant being assigned to defend the indefensible: asbestos manufacturers.

(For the record, I quit my partnership in a national law firm shortly after getting that “promotion.” Or, as I sometimes say, I stopped writing fiction in legal briefs to do the same in novels).

Of course, our popular culture didn’t turn from Atticus Finch to Saul Goodman overnight. In Sidney Lumet’s 1982 film “The Verdict” (adapted by David Mamet from Barry Reed’s novel), Paul Newman portrays a bedraggled lawyer reduced to scavenging for clients at funerals. Yet, it’s a story of redemption. The Newman character is the classic loner pitted against a corrupt judge and a shady defense lawyer, minions of an evil establishment.

Paul Newman as a lawyer seeking redemption in “The Verdict”

Newman is offered a handsome settlement to drop his malpractice case on behalf of a comatose young woman. The money could turn his life around, but it would also keep secret the doctor’s malpractice.

“I came here to take your money,” he says when a check is offered. “I brought snapshots to show you so I could get your money. I can’t do it. I can’t take it. Because if I take the money, I’m lost. I’ll just be a rich ambulance chaser.”

Good for him! To achieve redemption, the tarnished lawyer cannot be paid off. Hey, Gary Cooper didn’t skip town before High Noon.

The 1980’s also brought us “L.A. Law.” The show’s television lawyers were well-dressed, well-paid, and highly libidinous. Each episode opened with a firm meeting in which the managing partner urged the lawyers to collect their outstanding fees. Talk about verisimilitude! I attended countless meetings just like those.

Lawyers and judges have rarely fared as poorly as in Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities” (1987), which portrayed the Bronx County Courthouse as a place of “vast and bilious gloom.” Wolfe’s protagonist is a vain and naive bond trader who falls “into the maw of the criminal justice system.” The courthouse is a hellish place where smalltime lawyers hustle for clients, and fierce old Judge Kovitsky spits on defendants who sass him.

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The courthouse in “Bonfire…” is a place of “vast and bilious gloom.”

The courthouse atmosphere reminded me of a Miami criminal defense lawyer I used to encounter in the corridors of the sadly misnamed “Justice Building.” Unhappy that a client claimed he didn’t have the cash promised for his arraignment, the lawyer would jam a hand into his client’s pocket. “Let’s see how much you have there!” he’d cry out, fishing for cash.

If you’re looking for the majesty of the law, don’t go near Scott Turow’s fictional Kindle County. In “Presumed Innocent” (1987), the protagonist is a morally ambiguous prosecutor accused of killing his mistress. His defense lawyer uses “subterranean pressures” on a judge, instead of evidence, to win the case. Elegantly written and highly realistic, “Presumed Innocent” is my favorite legal thriller of all time and influenced my own writing. In both that book and its follow-up, “The Burden of Proof” (1990), the guilty party is not discovered, much less punished. No wonder my own fictional lawyer, Jake Lassiter, talks about the “so-called justice system” in his debut novel “To Speak for the Dead.” Or, as Lenny Bruce put it, “In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls.”

to speak
“To Speak for the Dead” introduced cynical lawyer Jake Lassiter in the first of fourteen novels

John Grisham’s blockbuster 1991 novel, “The Firm” might take the prize for the most cynical of all legal thrillers. The plot involved a Memphis law firm was actually part of the Mafia. Most firms, if you don’t make partner, you’re cut loose. In this one, they might kill you. No, you won’t find Atticus Finch in the law library of Bendini, Lambert and Locke. Instead, meet young Mitch McDeere (deer in the headlights?), a Harvard Law grad who’s seduced by the pay and the perks…until chaos and murder ensue.

One salutary development of the 1990’s was the emergence of fictional female lawyers penned by real female lawyers. Similarly, in real life, law firms were becoming more hospitable to women and ethnic minorities.

Lisa Scottoline, a Philadelphia lawyer, brought her considerable expertise to “Everywhere that Mary Went” (1994), the first of a series featuring gutsy lawyer Mary DiNuzio. Mary is a young associate trying to make partner in what we used to call a deep-carpet firm. She’s being stalked, and a murder follows. The book was nominated for an Edgar award, and Scottoline’s next novel, “Final Appeal,” won the award. lisa scottoline

All of which brings us back to “Better Call Saul.” We are drawn to him because he’s an underdog. He’s looked down on by his arrogant brother, a distinguished attorney in a major law firm. “Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree,” the brother says, “is like a chimp with a machine gun.” And while we might deplore Jimmy/Saul’s tactics, there is something refreshing about his lawyering without the trappings of stuffy tradition. “Need a Will? Call McGill,” reads one ad. Then there’s his candor. “Don’t drink and drive,” he tells a client. “But if you do, call me.”

One final thought. If I get charged with murder, I might just call Saul. Because, if you recall, Atticus Finch lost that case. But Saul Goodman…oh, he’ll find a way to win.

(A version of this post appeared in Crime Reads).

Jake Lassiter Never Intended to be a Hero…Mission Accomplished

jake lassiter muses about the courtroommage

Excerpt from “FOOL ME TWICE,” available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook. A Kindle Unlimited title.

The setup: Before Jake Lassiter is accused of murder, the world weary lawyer is plying his trade in court, defending a con man named Blinky Baroso. We go inside his head:

My name is Jake Lassiter.

I am broad-shouldered and sandy-haired, and my neck is always threatening to pop the top button on my shirt. I have a crooked nose – thanks to a forearm through my facemask – and I look more like a longshoreman than a lawyer.

I am not invited by Ivy League institutions to lecture on the rules of evidence or the fine art of oral advocacy. Downtown lawyers do not flock to the courthouse to see my closing arguments. I was one of the few lawyers in the country not solicited by the television networks to comment on the O. J. Simpson case, even though I am the only one to have missed tackling him—resulting in a touchdown—on a snowy day in Buffalo about a million years ago.

I don’t know the secrets of winning cases, other than playing golf with the judges and contributing cash to their re-election campaigns. I don’t know what goes through jurors’ minds, even when I sidle up to their locked door and listen to the babble through the keyhole.

In short, I am not the world’s greatest trial lawyer. Or even the best in the Miami office building where I hang my shingle, or would, if I knew what a shingle was. I graduated in the top quarter of the bottom third of my law school class…night division. My diploma is fastened by duct tape to the bathroom wall at home. It covers a crack in the plaster above the toilet and forces me to contemplate the sorry state of the justice system a few times each day.

Jake Lassiter in Fool Me Twice
To clear his name in a murder case, Jake Lassiter follows a trail of evidence from Miami to buried treasure in an abandoned silver mine in Aspen, CO.

I went to law school after a few undistinguished years as a bench warming linebacker, earning slightly more than league minimum with the Miami Dolphins. In my first career, including my days as a semi-scholar athlete at Penn State, I had two knee operations, three shoulder separations, a broken nose and ankle, and turf toe so bad my foot was the size and color of an eggplant.

In my second career, I’ve been ridiculed by Armani-suited lawyers, jailed for contempt by ornery judges, and occasionally paid for services rendered.

I never intended to be a hero, and I succeeded.

Jake Lassiter's new adventure
Jake Lassiter tackles the college admissions scandal. (Publication Date: April 20, 2020)

On this humid June morning, I sat at the defense table, gathering my thoughts, then disposing of most of them, while my client continued to whisper unsolicited and irrelevant advice. Meanwhile, I stared at the sign above the judge’s bench: WE WHO LABOR HERE SEEK ONLY THE TRUTH.

Sure, sure, and the check’s in the mail.

Philosophers and poets may be truth seekers. Lawyers only want to win.

I have my own personal code, and you won’t find it in any books. I won’t lie to the judge, bribe a cop, or steal from a client. Other than that, it’s pretty much anything goes. Still, I draw the line on whose colors I’ll wear. I won’t represent child molesters. Yeah, I know, everybody’s entitled to a defense, and the lawyer isn’t there to assert the client’s innocence, just to force the state to meet its burden of proof. Cross-examine, put on your case, and let the chips fall where they may.

Bull!

When I defend someone, I walk in that person’s moccasins, or tasseled loafers, as the case may be. I am not just a hired gun. I lose a piece of myself and take on a piece of the client. That doesn’t mean I represent only innocent defendants. If I did, I would starve.
My first job after law school was in the Public Defender’s office, and my first customers, as I liked to call them, were folks too poor to hire lawyers with a little gray in their hair. I quickly learned that my clients’ poverty didn’t make them noble. I also got an education from my repeat customers, most of whom knew more criminal law than I did. Nearly all were guilty of something, though the state couldn’t necessarily prove it.

Jake Lassiter is a brew and burger guy in a pate and Chardonnay world.

Then I moved up – from the gutter to the curb – and these days, I represent a higher grade of dirtbag. My clients don’t pistol-whip liquor store clerks for a hundred bucks in the till. But they might sell paintings by a clever art student as undiscovered works of Salvador Dali, or ship vials of yogurt as prize bull semen, or hawk land on Machu Picchu as vacation property. All of which Blinky Baroso did, at one time or another. Sometimes twice.

“FOOL ME TWICE” is available in hardcover, paperback, audiobook, and ebook. The Lassiter books are stand-alones that may be enjoyed in any order. They are all Kindle Unlimited titles.

“BUM DEAL” – Not the Final Chapter for Jake Lassiter

bum deal turow quote

By Paul Levine

When I wrote BUM DEAL (2018), the 13th of the Jake Lassiter Series, I thought it was the final chapter. That’s right. I planned to bid farewell to my old pal Jake, the second-string linebacker who trudged through night law school and became a combative Miami trial lawyer.

Sure, it was a bit sad for me, but Jake’s been having these problems – memory lapses, confusion, headaches – and it seemed like the right time to say goodbye. Dr. Melissa Gold, a neurologist who treats Lassiter during office hours and spends humid nights with him in his Coconut Grove house, fears he may have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) as a result of all those concussions on the football field.

“The past clings to us like mud on rusty cleats,” Lassiter says, and now it takes on new meaning, given his medical condition.

But…you know where this is going. Jake said no deal to BUM DEAL being his swan song. In fact, he said he’d break all my fingers to keep me from typing “The End.” Yes, I know he’s fictional, but trust me, I heard him say it. More about this in the “Update” below.

My first work of fiction – if you don’t count my legal briefs – was TO SPEAK FOR THE DEAD, published in 1990. The book, which has sold well more than two million copies, introduced Jake Lassiter, who early on admitted, “They don’t call us sharks for our ability to swim.”

to speak
“To Speak for the Dead” introduced Jake Lassiter, the linebacker-turned lawyer.

A dozen more Jake Lassiter novels followed, including the ingeniously titled LASSITER, in which our hero hides a shameful secret from his past, LAST CHANCE LASSITER, a prequel that reveals how getting fired from his first job as a lawyer shaped the man, and now BUM DEAL, in which Lassiter confronts his own mortality. All thirteen titles are available free to Kindle Unlimited members. Jake Lassiter lives here

In BUM LUCK (2017), Lassiter began showing symptoms consistent with a “precursor” to deadly CTE. I wrote about the issue in the blog item, “Why Does Jake Lassiter Want to Kill His Own Client?” Now, in BUM DEAL, facing an uncertain future, Jake undergoes experimental treatments for CTE, just as he makes a major change in his life, switching sides in the courtroom and prosecuting a surgeon accused of killing his wife. It’s a nearly impossible case with no forensic evidence, no witness, and no body. Complicating matters are Jake’s best friends-turned-antagonists, lawyers Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord, who defend the surgeon.

Drained of his mental edge just when he needs it most, my old courtroom warrior faces the possibility of losing the case and incurring even greater brain damage when he should be seeking treatment.

bum deal cover
No witness? No evidence? No body? Big problem for new prosecutor Jake Lassiter

So…does Jake Lassiter win or lose the trial? And what’s his condition in when the jury returns its verdict? Hey, don’t ask! I’m keeping my trap shut, relying on attorney-client privilege, the Fifth Amendment, and my desire for you to enjoy the tale. But I will say this. It’s not Lassiter’s final chapter. cheater's game

UPDATE: Jake Lassiter returns to tackle the true-to-life college admissions scandal in CHEATER’S GAME (2020). I’ll have more to say about that book soon.

Meanwhile, BUM DEAL is available in ebook, paperback and audio editions at Amazon and in paperback at Barnes & Noble and Indiebound.

PRAISE FOR “BUM DEAL

“Any book with Jake Lassiter is a drop-everything, read-it-now for me – and this one has Solomon & Lord, too. BUM DEAL is fantastic.” – Lee Child, #1 Bestselling Author of the “Jack Reacher” series

“’Bum Deal’ is the real deal. Jake Lassiter at his smart-talking, fast-thinking best. A funny, compelling and canny courtroom thriller, seasoned with a little melancholy and a lot of inside knowledge.” — Scott Turow, #1 New York Times bestselling author

“Fascinating, fully developed characters and smart, well-paced dialogue keep the pages turning. Levine manipulates the expectations of the reader as skillfully as Jake manipulates the expectations of the jury” — Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Full to the brim with the humor, courtroom brilliance and subtle pathos that have made Levine’s other novels winners.” – Bookreporter

“A terrific setup, razor-sharp repartee, and enough plot reversal to make your head swim like an afternoon daiquiri, Bum Deal is vintage Paul Levine: entertaining and exceedingly smart.” —Andrew Gross, #1 New York Times bestselling author

“Jake Lassiter is up against his greatest challenge—an incurable, brain-wasting disease that threatens to rob him of his brilliant, legal mind when he needs it the most. It’s an astonishing, bittersweet, and daring gamble, but those are the qualities that have always set Levine and Lassiter apart from the pack.” — Lee Goldberg, #1 New York Times bestselling author

CTE: The Deadly Issue Behind “Bum Luck”

football

Mystery Writer and former skip tracer Terry Ambrose interviewed me about Bum Luck for his blog,, which I’m reprinting here. The subject of former NFL players dying of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has been in the news since publication of the novel in which linebacker-turned-lawyer Jake Lassiter suffers symptoms of brain damage.

By Terry Ambrose

The author of twenty novels, Paul Levine won the John D. MacDonald fiction award and has been nominated for the Edgar, Macavity, International Thriller, Shamus, and James Thurber prizes. A former trial lawyer, he also wrote twenty-one episodes of the CBS military drama JAG and co-created the Supreme Court drama First Monday starring James Garner and Joe Mantegna. Levine has just released the twelfth installment of the Jake Lassiter series, Bum Luck.

From Small Screen to Page

“Both writing for television and writing novels are rewarding and challenging in their own ways,” Levine said. “On television, it’s a shared responsibility. Director-showrunner-actors-network executives. The vision doesn’t belong to one person but is diffused. With novels, the writer is a one-person band.”

Jake Lassiter CTE
Does Jake Lassiter suffer from fatal CTE?

While Levine prefers the independence of writing novels, he enjoys the pace of TV writing. “There’s something about the immediacy of television—script to air in six weeks—that is appealing. Also, I believe television scribbling helped my book dialogue.”

Levine said, “Justice as an ideal is an underlying theme for me. The difficulty of achieving justice is the heart and soul of Bum Luck and the entire Jake Lassiter series. That’s reflected in Jake’s inner voice with lines like, ‘Justice is the North Star, the burning bush, the holy virgin. When you fail to attain it, fight for the next best thing. Rough justice is better than none at all.’”

CTE: The Burning Issue Behind Bum Luck

Attorneys defend guilty clients all the time—and that knowledge is also behind the Lassiter series. “The dilemma of a lawyer defending a guilty client has always fascinated me,” Levine said. “In Bum Luck, Jake Lassiter seeks vengeance, or vigilante justice, against his own client.”

That’s right, Jake Lassiter, in the opening lines, announces his intention to kill his client. “Why would Lassiter, after all these years representing guilty clients, feel this way?” Levine said. “He might be very ill. Remember that he’s a former second-string Miami Dolphins linebacker who went to night law school and became a trial lawyer. In Bum Luck, Lassiter suffers symptoms indicating he may be in the early stages of always fatal Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

The film “Concussion” brought CTE into the public consciousness.
“The idea for Bum Luck came from a close friend of mine, a former football player and international rugby player, who died of CTE. It affected me deeply. We know that hundreds of former NFL players have succumbed to traumatic brain injuries caused by repetitive concussions and thousands more will die in the future. It’s a tragic situation, compounded by the NFL’s stubborn resistance to admitting the truth for so many years.”

Levine said his primary goal is to entertain. “That starts with character. I aim for rich, complex, layered and often humorous characters who tell me the plot.”

Note: Just this week, The Journal of the American Medical Association reported on a harrowing study: 110 of 111 former NFL players who had shown symptoms prior to death were found after autopsies to be suffering from CTE. Recently, Sports Illustrated wrote about legendary linebacker Nick Buoniconti who, among others from the Miami Dolphins’ Super Bowl teams, is suffering from CTE. I previously blogged about the link between repeated blows to the head and CTE in a blog entitled: “Are Concussions Killing Jake Lassiter?”

Why Does Jake Lassiter Want to Kill His Own Client?

Jake Lassiter in his study?

By Paul Levine

Jake Lassiter has been in scrapes before. I’ve put the linebacker-turned-lawyer into lots of ethical, moral and physical jams.

Lassiter has had an affair with a woman while defending her gangster husband in court in MORTAL SIN.

He’s been charged with murder for allegedly killing his banker/girlfriend who was about to report him for stealing client funds in STATE vs. LASSITER.

Doing his own legwork defending his pal Steve Solomon in a murder case, he gets stomped by Russian mobsters in BUM RAP.

Poor Jake Lassiter

I sometimes feel guilty for handing Lassiter such a rough life. In a dozen legal thrillers, he has flirted with disbarment, death…and dangerous dames. But now…oh now, he faces his greatest opponent yet: himself.

“Thirty seconds after the jury returned its verdict, I decided to kill my client.”

That’s the opening line of BUM LUCK. Jake Lassiter has just WON a murder trial, successfully defending Miami Dolphins’ superstar Thunder Thurston, charged with killing his wife. Problem is, Lassiter believes his client is guilty and vows to do something about it. Rough justice. Vigilante justice.

Lassiter’s pals Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord are stunned. “You must have played football too long without a helmet,” Solomon says, not realizing the nugget of truth embedded in the wisecrack.

jake lassiter bum luck
In “Bum Luck,” Jake Lassiter is in his deepest jam yet.

Lassiter begins to suffer crippling headaches and memory loss. He’s even more irritable than usual. And his plan to kill his own client rattles family and friends. His bizarre behavior extends to his law practice. The State Attorney believes Lassiter bribed a juror in the Thurston murder trial. His denial – claiming he wanted to lose the case – gets him nowhere. A grand jury plans to indict Lassiter for bribery, even as he plots to kill his client.

Jake Lassiter Defends Satan: an Insurance Company

Lassiter’s life gets even messier when he’s forced to represent an insurance company that refuses to pay the orphaned children of a deceased martial arts fighter. “Defending insurance companies is like fiddling with the thermostat in hell,” he complains.

In the course of the civil case, Jake Lassiter crosses paths with Dr. Melissa Gold, a neurologist with a specialty in Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (C.T.E.) It’s the fatal brain disease afflicting retired N.F.L. players. Long-time readers will recall that Lassiter suffered numerous concussions as a football player, including one play in which he made the tackle, recovered a fumble, got turned around, and ran to wrong end zone. That earned him the unfortunate nickname “Wrong Way Lassiter,” something that followed him from gridiron to courtroom.

So, yes, I’ve placed my hero on a shaky tree limb and I’m tossing rocks at him. Will he fall or make his way safely to terra firma?

– Will Lassiter kill Thunder Thurston…or be killed?

– Does Lassiter suffer from C.T.E.?

– Will he lose his practice…and his life?

When pre-publication news leaked out about the plot, some readers wrote me, pleading not to kill Lassiter. “Are you insane?” one asked. “Why would you kill your meal ticket and my guilty pleasure?”

Well, it’s not as if I’d be the first author to knock off a main character. I suppose Brutus could have only wounded Julius Caesar, but that’s not the way it played out. Not to mention Hamlet, Macbeth, and BOTH Romeo and Juliet.

But no spoilers here. I’m rooting for Lassiter to make it out of this jam and hope you are, too.

For more info and to read an excerpt, please check out this site’s BUM LUCK PAGE.

BUM LUCK is available in ebook, paperback, and audio formats from Amazon. Or, if you prefer, here are the links to order trade paperbacks from Barnes & Noble and Indiebound.