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.

bonfire
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.

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.

Legal Thrillers: Best of All Time

By Paul Levine

(First of a series)

What are the greatest legal thrillers of all time? I’m defining the term broadly. To me, a legal thriller is any novel in which courtroom scenes or the justice system play a major role in the plot.

To get technical about it, Wikipedia defines the legal thriller as:

“[A] sub-genre of thriller and crime fiction in which the major characters are lawyers and their employees. The system of justice itself is always a major part of these works, at times almost functioning as one of the characters. In this way, the legal system provides the framework for the legal thriller much as the system of modern police work does for the police procedural.”

The justice system itself is often put on trial in legal thrillers. Justice is not just delayed, but also denied…until a courageous and outgunned lawyer – like the hero of a classic Western – enters the fight.

The late comedian Lenny Bruce, who was frequently charged with obscenity for his on-stage acts, cynically observed: “In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls.”

My own character, lawyer Jake Lassiter,  has a similar view of the “so-called justice system.” Lassiter practices in Miami, where a sign hangs above the bench in every courtroom. “We Who Labor Here Seek Only the Truth.”

The Courtroom Sign is Fodder for Ridicule in Legal Thrillers
The Courtroom Sign is Fodder for Ridicule in Legal Thrillers

“There ought to be a footnote,” he complains in State vs. Lassiter.  “Subject to the truth being concealed by lying witnesses, distorted by sleazy lawyers, and excluded by lazy judges.”

MY TOP LEGAL THRILLER: “ANATOMY OF A MURDER”

“Anatomy of a Murder” (1958) by John Voelker, writing as Robert Traver. The plot was based on a case Voelker had handled as a young defense lawyer.  This iconic novel is a pure legal thriller centered around a suspenseful murder trial that could go either way. Defense lawyer Paul Biegler’s client admits the killing, but claims justification because the victim allegedly raped his wife. Biegler doesn’t trust his client or the wife…bringing verisimilitude to the book. (Take my word for this. Trial lawyers often don’t know whether to believe their clients).

The story raises many issues, some legal, some practical. Was the killing justified? Was the client temporarily insane? Will Biegler get paid? The courtroom scenes ring with authenticity.  And unlike many of the popular legal thrillers of the era (Perry Mason, anyone?), justice is not always achieved.

In this sense, “Anatomy” ushered in the modern era of courtroom drama.  Stated another way, would there have been a Grisham or Turow without Voelker?  And, no, I am not forgetting Agatha Christie’s earlier “Witness for the Prosecution,” the short story that became a play, and then a classic movie, where justice was ill served.

anatomy cover

A personal note here. When I sold my first novel, “To Speak for the Dead,”  my editor told me the story reminded her of “Anatomy,” which I’d never read. So, I borrowed a copy from the library and concluded two things:

1. “Anatomy” is a great book.

2. It bore little resemblance to “Dead,” except both pay homage to the art of combative cross examination.

WRITING A FAN LETTER TO THE AUTHOR OF MY FAVORITE LEGAL THRILLER

I liked “Anatomy” so much I wrote John Voelker a fan letter, saying I admired his work and asking whether he minded Otto Preminger changing key elements of the ending in the movie adaptation. (I’d also rented the film from Blockbuster. You remember Blockbuster’s VHS tapes, right?) I received a handwritten reply in green felt tip pen. First, Voelker apologized for his penmanship, saying that he was in his eighties and his eyes were failing. Then, he admitted something I have never heard an author say: “Yes, Preminger changed my ending. He made it a great deal better, don’t you think?”

How humble!

Preminger made several brilliant decisions. He hired Wendell Mayes, a screenwriter skillful at literary adaptations. He shot the film in the Upper Peninsula towns where the story was set, instead of Hollywood back lots. He hired Duke Ellington to both score the film and appear in it. To shoot the film in gorgeous black and white, he hired Sam Leavitt who had just won the Oscar for best cinematography for “The Defiant Ones.” And then there was the cast. James Stewart, Lee Remick, George C. Scott, Arthur O’Connell, Ben Gazzara, Eve Arden, and the non-actor Joseph Welch as the judge.

Befitting the novel, the film became a classic, as was its poster designed by Saul Bass.

Film poster for "Anatomy of a Murder," perhaps the greatest legal thriller ever filmed.
The classic poster for “Anatomy,” perhaps the greatest legal thriller ever filmed.

THE OSCARS CALL ON MY FAVORITE LEGAL THRILLER…BUT HANG UP THE PHONE

The film was nominated for seven Academy awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Stewart, playing the defense lawyer Voelker had been in real life. Stewart lost the award to Charlton Heston for his role in “Ben-Hur.” May I officially demand a recount? Same for best picture where “Ben-Hur” also topped “Anatomy.” George C. Scott and Arthur O’Connell were both nominated for supporting actor and probably split the “Anatomy” vote between them. Neither won. Lee Remick was not nominated for her stunning portrayal of the alleged rape victim. Academy voters should probably be tarred and feathered for overlooking Remick in favor of, among others, Doris Day for “Pillow Talk.”
lee remick in anatomy

So, please check out my favorite legal thriller of all time, “Anatomy of a Murder.”  Then get the classic film from Netflix or Amazon Instant Video and determine which ending you like better.

Next time. More favorite legal thrillers. Will it be “To Kill a Mockingbird?” Or something more contemporary. John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill” or Scott Turow’s “Presumed Innocent?”

For now, Court stands adjourned!

Paul Levine