There are many ways to imagine the life we live. In stories and myths we see how imagination works and how we might re-vision our lives. It is in our images of self, the imagining and fantasizing of our work that leads to a sustaining sense of self.
I have, over the years, sought out the stories of my students and listened to them talk about their decision to become lawyers and their experience as they undergo their legal rites of passages. They talk about the boredom and challenges of legal education, uncertainties about the work that lies ahead, questions about professional identity, concern about the public's perception of lawyers. There is much in the way of brash talk about the glories that lie ahead. In all of this talk and the various cover stories students devise to talk about their new life, there can be found ideals and mythic images that the new life in law makes possible. The hero image would have us be great warriors, engage in epic courtroom battles, face mean-spirited foes, and prevail in the name of justice. It is not unduly outlandish to suggest that becoming a lawyer, whatever the cover story, is an effort to set out on the mythic quest of the hero.
In listening to and writing about the stories students tell about coming to law school, one finds hints of the heroic. We see the heroic in the quest to become a lawyer, in the trials associated with the rites of passage into professionalism, yet most law students aren't likely to admit that they have set out to be heroes. Some would laugh at the suggestion, but there is something about professionalism, and particularly about lawyering, that sets one upon the hero's path, comic or tragic as it may be.
Before objections are raised, I might note that there are different kinds of heroes. The hero sometimes seeks not to win but to survive, not to embrace the American Dream but to secure respect for modesty and a better life for those relegated to poverty, and a willed effort to eschew adventure of the great world for the comforting fire of the family hearth. Lawyers participate in the myth of the hero in a way that speaks of things familiar and close to home, of loss and suffering, sometimes of tragedy. Underlying it all is the concern for truth, beauty, and justice.
In lawyer stories, the lawyer is often portrayed as a hero. It would, in my view, be a mistake to underestimate the effect that the image of the lawyer hero—Clarence Darrow, Earl Rogers, F. Lee Bailey, Percy Foreman, Edward Bennett Williams, Louis Nizer, Gloria Allrud, Gerry Spence and the other lawyer heroes found in contemporary fiction and film—might have on us as we attempt to imagine ourselves as lawyers.
Self-proclaimed heroes and the war stories they tell may or may not reflect an authentic heroism. Our lawyer heroes may be arrogant egoists, but if so, they tell us something we want and need to hear—that a lawyer's work is at the heart of things, that law work has meaning. To live with the phantasy that life has some great meaning is to see one's self as set upon a quest.
The stories of lawyer heroes and their quests is one way that myth enters the real world. We read about heroes in literature, fairy tales, and journalistic accounts of everyday citizens. We read about lawyers as heroes. We are raised on hero stories, and some of the hero story motif finds its way into our lives. One image of a life in law is that of the heroic quest, a heroism that comes from the work, but more importantly, it comes from how lawyers see themselves in relation to their work and how they talk about the work they do. We are all caught up in the energy of the hero archetype, and so we try to live out that energy, make our own hero's journey, and consequently suffer as heroes are bound to suffer.
It is possible to be heroic in the effort to be real in the face of a culture that would have us become plastic and banal. The myth of the hero is most often encountered as a story of escape and success, going out into the world, "making it," but there is another heroic quest, the one in which we find that which is most real, most truthful in our everyday professional life, in the way we imagine ourselves as lawyers.
The image of the lawyer hero is not without moral consequences. There is first the danger of seeing the lawyer hero as a kind of warrior, engaged in great courtroom battles, waging war with worthy adversaries.
The second danger of the lawyer hero image is the narcissism of self-love. Narcissism results in ignoring the client's needs and concerns, and focusing on technical legal aspects of the client's concerns.
When we look at the way we work and the way we learn, the way we try to understand the relationship of what we know and what we do with our lives, we might see and experience our own lives as mythic stories. Lawyers, judges, law teachers, and law students actively participate in what Jerome Bruner has called a "mythologically instructed community." The community of the law initiated is "mythologically instructed" based on a "library of scripts" that our culture makes available. It is by way of these scripts that we judge the "internal drama" that accompanies our movement from the world of ordinary life into the world of law. By reference to these scripts, we discover patterns for our aspirations and criteria for determining how well we have lived the lives in which faith is placed in law. It is lawyer's living with law, imagining it, and working with it, that law becomes mythic.
The law myth in our stories shapes our imaginations and exercises a gravitational pull on our lives, on our sense of self, on our politics, and on our culture. Consider for example the hero myth that underlies the loose-talk of those who take pride in their prosaic minds. Are we not all raised on hero stories? Do we not, at some level, embrace the myth of the hero and make a place for it in our lives?
Among the most powerful of lawyer stories are those of heroes who speak truth even when others who represent the community are determined not to allow the truth to disturb the existing order. Standing up to a community, as Atticus Finch does, is a matter of character, but it may also be a glimpse of how the hero makes a place for himself in the community. The stories of how we stand against those who have power over us are central to the myths we carry into our professional lives as lawyers.
The lawyer-hero may have little immediate impact on the powerful, but the words of the lawyer spoken and written in response to power—words of an attentive conscience—enable us to see how power works and how it can be confronted. Ethical heroes give instruction, guidance, and inspiration to those undertaking the journeys into the realms of law and power. A professional life is built on power and works with power.
Speaking out, telling truth, and standing up to power are costly. Pursuing the ethic of speaking forth, the lawyer-hero follows the path of suffering. Harper Lee's novel and the film adapted from the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, tell the story of a lawyer, Atticus Finch, who undertakes the defense of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely charged with the rape of a young white woman. The setting is Maycomb, Alabama in 1935. Atticus is visited at home by a group of neighbors and town folk who have gotten word that Atticus actually means to defend Robinson. Link Deas, one of the men in the group, says to Atticus "don't see why you touched it [Tom Robinson's case] in the first place. . . . You've got everything to lose from this, Atticus. I mean everything."
The cost to Atticus of defending Tom Robinson is most evident in its impact on the lives of his children, Jem and Scout, who are trying to learn how to live with the fact that some people in the community make use of the n-word in reference to Atticus.
Encountering what is and imaging what might be, in our professional lives, we engage in struggles that tear at us and wear us down. We derive new strength for such struggle in attending to the stories of heroes like Atticus Finch who speak truth to power, who contribute their heroism to our cultural legacy.
The story of a lawyer like Atticus Finch manifests an aspect of lawyer ethics that we try to deny, the ethic that prevails when the powerful stand over us, act against us, and in the end, prevail. Immobilized by the fear of suffering we, in contrast to our heroes, sometimes submit to the powerful, and live with a world shaped by power that is not truthful. The reality is that power often prevails over truth, that the hero is often defeated. I say defeated in the literal sense because it is in defeat—Atticus loses the Tom Robinson case and Robinson is shot trying to escape—that a hero provides, in Robert Cover's words, "the gesture and aspiration of resistance," a motif that is at once mythic and real.
Self-proclaimed heroes and the stories they tell may or may not reflect authentic heroism. Our heroes may be limited by arrogant egoism, nevertheless, they tell us things we want and need to hear that a lawyer's work is at the heart of things, that our work as lawyers has meaning. To live with the phantasy image, itself a reality, of a life of meaning, of cultural significance, is to see one's self as heroic and to set out upon a heroic quest.
The stories of our most authentic lawyer heroes contain crucial insight into the problem of truth confronted by amoral and immoral power: The insight that we will often lose but that we will never be overcome. Atticus Finch, implanted in our imaginations, makes it more possible for us to elaborate a different moral vision of the life of a lawyer. Atticus tells his son after the jury conviction of Tom Robinson, that he is tired, but not bitter. Losing is no sin; it is our story.
Atticus is not defeated by the social injustice perpetrated by the jury because he knows that the community has failed itself and that it will suffer from its failure. Atticus also knows that his life—along with the lives of his children—is in Maycomb, that he must make a home for himself and his children there, that he must live with those who do not share his vision of social justice. In making a worthwhile life in communities that fail as Atticus did in Maycomb, Alabama, we experience the reality of failure and the mythic power of our heroes.
Robert Cover provides two possible reasons why we go on: First, each of us has an inner life, and from the existence of our inner worlds we create realities that are counterpoised to everyday reality, worlds in which we can make psychological commitments to language that is honest, to truths that express our deepest ethical sensibilities. Such commitments play a fundamental role in social transformation. "[P]owerful, expressive movements of the inner life may," Cover argues, "have revolutionary potential . . . ."
Secondly, the psychological reality of an inner truth, a truth too often seduced and subdued by power, makes our stories worth telling and remembering. History is indeed a chronicle of failed heroes, inflated expectations, misguided visions. It is such a history, says Cover, which "corrects for the scale of heroics that we otherwise project upon the past." By limping, we may learn to walk. In suffering heroic failure, there is a story for those who will imagine a future in which power recognizes truth.
When we study how students come to law school and the rites of passage that the student must endure to become a lawyer, we find that it is not just the famous, the fortunate, or the rich that evoke images of the hero. The image of the hero is fundamental to becoming a lawyer. I don't think it a dramatic overstatement to suggest that we are each touched by a sense of the heroic.
There's an old cliche that says, "You can't fight city hall." Or as my wife says, about Thai society, "big fish eat little fish." Most of us, at one time or another, have had occasion to think about what it means to be an individual and how that individual stands in or against what we call the system. By system we establish order and institutional power, an order and power to which we devote our working lives, an order and power that represents that part of the world we assume to be larger than self: a collective force beyond our direct means to influence or effect.
A system may, for all its value as a measure of order, come to threaten an individual or an entire community. In lawyer films we often find a protagonist who must take on the system, must act as an antidote to the system’s thinking, and must deal with the fact that he or she is already in the belly of the beast. A lawyer who battles the system is a common motif of the lawyer film genre.
Hero & Journey Motif
An Archaeology of Myth
Will Wright, Sixguns & Society: A Structural Study of the Western (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975):
Wright argues that this scene "tells a story." [Id.]
Wright, examining explanations for the Western myth, concludes: "All assume that an emotionally felt cultural conflict is expressed and thereby displaced or resolved in individuals. The suggested conflicts are many—progress versus freedom, law versus morality, violence versus Puritan control . . . but this still does not account for the popularity of the myth. 
The Classical Plot: "It is the story of the lone stranger who rides into a troubled town and cleans it up, winning the respect of the townsfolk and the love of the schoolmarm." . In the classical plot, "the important differentiating factor proved to be the more abstract relationship between the hero and society." . "[O]ne film stands out as a kind of archetype, exhibiting with remarkable purity all the basic components of the classical Western. This film is Shane, which was made in 1953 by George Stevens and remains to this day one of the most successful and popular Westerns ever made." 
"Each film is the story of a hero who is somehow estranged from his society but on whose ability rests the fate of that society. The villains threaten the society until the hero acts to protect and save it. Thus, for analysis, we can reduce each story to three sets of characters: the hero, the society, and the villains." 
Functions in the classical plot [41-48]:
Oppositions in the myth: "Perhaps the most important opposition is that separating the hero from the society, the opposition between those who are outside society and those who are inside society. This inside/outside contrast is fairly rigorous in its typing of the hero and the society, but it is rather relaxed in its treatment of the villains, who are. . .sometimes inside and sometimes outside. A second opposition is that between good and bad, a dichotomy that separates the society and the hero from the villains. Third, there is the clear distinction between the strong and the weak, which distinguishes the hero and the villains from the society. The fourth opposition primarily contrasts the hero with everybody else and is perhaps the typically American aspect of the Western—the opposition between wilderness and civilization; the opposition is similar to the inside/outside contrast but not identical. The villains may be outside of society but are always seen as part of civilization." 
"These four oppositions—inside society/outside society, good/bad, strong/weak, and wilderness/civilization—comprise the basic classifications of people in the Western myth." 
The Vengeance variation of the Classical plot: "Unlike the classical hero who joins the society because of his strength and their weakness, the vengeance hero leaves the society because of his strength and their weakness. Moreover, the classical hero enters his fight because of the values of society, whereas the vengeance hero abandons his fight because of these same values." [Id.]
Wright lays out the functions of the classical Western hero plot in the form of structural propositions:
"[I]n both plots [classical and vengeance] there is movement of an estranged hero into society. Also in both, society is portrayed as weak and inadequate compared to the strength and competence of the heroes and villains. But in the vengeance plot, society is no longer dependent upon the hero for survival and he is no longer directly involved with it. Rather, he is directly involved with the villains through his desire for revenge. Thus, in the classical plot, the hero tries to avoid the villains, while in the vengeance story he tries to avoid the society. In neither case does he succeed, but the image of society has changed somewhat. No longer is it primarily concerned with churches, schools, and progress; now the image stresses the ideas of forgiveness, marriage, and a peaceful, respectable future." 
Notes from: Erich Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1962)(1954)(R.F.C. Hull trans.)
The hero "is compelled to sacrifice normal living. . . ." "The hero, in "conquering normal life—which is the life of the unheroic—always means sacrificing normal values and so coming into conflict with the collective." [378, 375] "He sees things they do not see, does not fall for the things they fall for—but that means that he is a different type of human being and therefore necessarily alone." 
"The hero or Great Individual is always and pre-eminently the man with immediate inner experience who, as seer, artist, prophet, or revolutionary, sees, formulates, sets forth, and realizes the new values, the 'new images.' His orientation comes from the 'voice,' from the unique, inner utterance of the self, which has all the immediacy of a 'dictate."' 
"[T]he hero, like the ego, stands between two worlds: the inner world that threatens to overwhelm him, and the outer world that wants to liquidate him for breaking the old laws. Only the hero can stand his ground against these collective forces, because he is the exemplar of individuality and possesses the light of consciousness." 
"The true hero is one who brings the new and shatters the fabric of old values. . . . 
"The creators [or heroes] form the progressive elements in a community, but at the same time they are the conservatives who link back to the origins. In ever-renewed fights with the dragon they conquer new territory, establish new provinces of consciousness, and overthrow antiquated systems of knowledge and orality at the behest of the voice whose summons they follow, no matter whether they formulate their task as a religions vocation or as practical ethics." [Id.]
Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil 149-151 (Free Press, 1976):
The hero is an archetype. The hero as archetypal figure, is an image that represents some part of our deeper, more remote consciousness, that C.G. Jung called the collective unconscious. "The archetype of the hero . . . appears first in behavior, the drive to activity, outward exploration, response to challenge, seizing and grasping and extending. It appears second in the images of Hercules, Achilles, Samson (or their cinema counterparts) doing their specific tasks; and third, in a style of consciousness, in feelings of independence, strength, and achievement, in ideas of decisive action, coping, planning, virtue, conquest (over animality), and in psychopathologies of battle, overpowering masculinity, and single-mindedness." [James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology xiv (New York: Harper & Row, 1975)]
Edward Whitmont, a Jungian analyst points out that "the hero archetype is a principal form of ego expression; it expresses the focusing of personal will or power effort. . . ." In Whitmont's view
Michael Asimow, When Lawyers were Heroes, 30 U.S.F. L. Rev. 1131 (1996)
Claudia A. Carver, Lawyers as Heroes: The Compassionate Activism of a Fictional Attorney is a Model We Can Emulate (Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird), 11 Los Angeles Lawyer 13 (1988)Gerard Clark, The Lawyer as Hero, 21 Advocate 39 (Spring, 1991)
John Flood, Shark Tanks, Sweatshops, and the Lawyer as Hero? Fact as Fiction, 21 J. L. & Soc. 396 (1994)
Monroe Freedman, Atticus Finch—Right and Wrong, 45 Alabama Law Review 473 (1994)
______________, Argumentum ad Hominen: Atticus Finch as Hero?
130 New Jersey Law Journal 15
______________, Atticus Finch, Esq., R.I.P., 14 Legal Times 20 (February 24, 1992)
______________, Finch: The Lawyer Mythologized, 14 Legal Times 25 (May 18, 1992)
Judith Grant, Lawyers as Superheroes: The Firm, The Client, and The Pelican Brief, 30 U.S.F.L. Rev. 1123 (1996)Orit Kamir, Towards a Theory of Law and Film: A Case Study of Hollywood's Hero-Lawyer and the Construction of Honor and Dignity [on-line text]
Verlyn Klinkenborg, "Law's Labors Lost: The Lawyer as Hero and Anti-hero," New Republic 32 (March 14, 1994)
Marvin Mindes & Alan C. Acock, Trickster, Hero, Helper: A Report on the Lawyer Image, 1982 Am. B. Found. Res.J. 158
Ruth Anne Robbins, Harry Potter, Ruby Slippers and Merlin: Telling the Client's Story Using the Characters and Paradigm of the Archetypal Hero's Journey, 29 Seattle U. L. Rev. 767 (2006)
David M. Spitz, Heroes Or Villains? Moral Struggles Vs. Ethical Dilemmas: An Examination Of Dramatic Portrayals Of Lawyers And The Legal Profession In Popular Culture, 24 Nova L.R. 725(2000)
Steven D. Stark, Perry Mason Meets Sonny Crockett: The History of Lawyers and the Police as Television Heroes, 42 U. Miami L. Rev. 229 (1987)
Thom Weidlich, A Cynical Age Sees Few Heroes in Its Lawyers, National Law Journal 526 (Nov. 29, 1993)
Christopher Vogler, The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (Studio City, California: Michael Wiese Productions, 3rd ed., 2006)(2nd ed. 1998)
[The first edition of The Writer's Journey reportedly sold over 60,000 copies with editions in five languages. In The Writer's Journey, Vogler claims that "all stories consist of a few common structural elements found universally in myths, fairy tales, dreams and movies." Vogler has consulted on feature films that include "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast." He has, according to his estimates, evaluated over 10,000 screenplays for major motion picture studios. Vogler, formerly a story executive at 20th Century Fox is now a full-time writer, producer, and workshop leader.]