Simon Lelic's top 10 lawyers in fiction

From Harper Lee to Franz Kafka, the novelist makes the case for characters 'who are, in many ways, the perfect protagonists'

Simon Lelic is a novelist. His books are Rupture, The Facility and, published this month, The Child Who. He lives in Brighton with his wife and two young boys.

Buy The Child Who by Simon Lelic at the Guardian bookshop

"It was never my intention to write a novel about a lawyer. The law, I always suspected, is dry; its agents, dull. And The Child Who, as I first imagined it, was to be a book about children. About parents, too, and what can happen when we, as fathers and mothers, fail. There was no place in the tale, as far as I could tell, for a man of law.

"But then I heard Jon Venables's former solicitor talking on the radio. Venables had just been returned to jail for committing offences you can't have failed to read about in the national press. This was 17 years after the James Bulger case, and Lee had no professional involvement any more. What was clear from his tone, however, was how emotionally engaged with Venables's fate he remained.

"My story, as I'd imagined it, suddenly turned inside out. The novel would still be about the things I'd suspected it would be, but finally I'd found my way in. Lawyers, after all, work right at the heart of things. They bring an objectivity to events that was precisely the perspective I was looking for. And yet, contrary to rumour, lawyers are people too. They see, hear and cannot help but feel. They are, in many ways, the perfect protagonists, challenged daily by rights and wrongs. No wonder, I suppose, that lawyers appear in fiction as frequently, and as memorably, as they do."

1. Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

A shoo-in at number one. Heroically decent, Atticus is the lawyer you would want on your side – if only because you could be certain, if he was, that you were in the right. He's a pretty good dad, too. My dad is great – I've no complaints – but I think even he would understand why I would choose Atticus as my fictional father-figure back-up.

2. Matthew Shardlake in Dissolution by CJ Sansom

Not the kind of bloke you would choose to go for a drink with (the night would end early, I suspect, with everyone at the table in a funk), but you wouldn't want him sniffing around your dirty secrets either. A melancholic hunchback with a heart, Shardlake is a terrific guide to the seedy politics of the 16th century.

3. Sandy Stern in Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow

Rusty Sabich is the main protagonist – in Presumed Innocent as well as the sequel, Innocent – but Sandy Stern is the star of the show. If you'd done wrong, and Atticus had refused your case, you'd call Sandy. His cigar habit means he doesn't come cheap, but he'd be worth every cent. Just ask Rusty.

4. Sergeant of the Lawe in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

Again not a man you'd call on for a pint, but prudent and wise ("war and wys") and knowledgeable to the point of self-importance. "Nowher so bisy a man as he ther nas / And yet he semed bisier than he was." The Man of Law uses all his lawyerly tricks to invoke sympathy for the heroine of his tale, almost as if her were pleading her case in court. You still wouldn't want to have a drink with him, though.

5. Dr Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson

Now here's a lawyer you would have fun in a bar with. His legal skills are questionable, however. Or perhaps that's unfair. Perhaps it's just the "… two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-coloured uppers, downers, screamers, laughers … and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls …" that he and his client carry in the trunk of their car that have blunted his professional edge.

6. Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

A young, self-pitying, but brilliant lawyer, unlucky nevertheless in life and love. His redemption in Dickens's tale is complete when he takes his former client's place on the guillotine, declaring, "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known." One of the great last lines.

7. Tom Hagen in The Godfather by Mario Puzo

It's impossible to think of Tom Hagen without picturing Robert Duvall. A "family" lawyer who has only one client, Tom is the man you call even if your problem isn't exactly … legal. An all-round fixer and consigliere, who only shows his limitations when it's time to go to the mattresses.

8. Mitch McDeere in The Firm by John Grisham

Callow and loaded with debt, Mitch is seduced by the promise of more money than even a lawyer could shake a stick at. His decision to join Bendini, Lambert & Locke, however, almost costs him his life. Ultimately he proves himself as being more capable than even his employers had hoped. He did a pretty good job for John Grisham, too: The Firm was the novel that launched its author into bestsellerdom.

9. George Edalji in Arthur & George by Julian Barnes

A lawyer accused, this time, and championed by a writer: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, no less. George is a Birmingham solicitor, content in hardworking obscurity until he is swept to national prominence – and infamy – by The Great Wyrley Outrages. His story reads like a thriller, all the more gripping because it is based on real events.

10. Herr Huld in The Trial by Franz Kafka

A man with "a considerable reputation as a defending counsel and a poor man's lawyer" according to Joseph K's uncle, in reality Herr Huld is pompous, verbose and, from K's point of view, worse than useless. Huld is ostensibly on K's side, but turns out to be very much a part of his nightmare. The advocate, to finish on, you wouldn't want to end up with.

Contributor

Simon Lelic

The GuardianTramp

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