Fictional prosecutors are the heroes of most legal television shows, but fictional defense attorneys are the heroes of most legal thriller novels. Pamela Wechsler, a former prosecutor with seventeen years of courtroom experience, takes a look at her opponents and examines her favorite fictional defense attorneys in literature. Wechsler is the author of two legal thrillers: Mission Hill and The Graves, which will be out this spring.
Great criminal defense attorneys are intuitive and cunning. Some are driven by the need to protect their clients, others have a natural flair for the law. I examined fictional defense attorneys with one question in mind—it’s the question prosecutors often ask each other: If you were arrested, which defense attorney would you hire? Here are my top fictional contenders.
It’s impossible to draw up this list without starting with Atticus Finch. It’s almost unfair to other fictional attorneys that he exists at all. He’s the perfect model of self-control and moral compass… and a great dad to boot. Prequel controversy aside, Finch is the attorney laymen define the profession by, law students dream to one day become, and practicing lawyers wish they could measure up to. He almost makes me want to try my hand at representing the accused.
This is probably not the typical tale of a defense attorney taking on a client and getting more from the relationship than a fee, but it is a classic story that has endured nonetheless. Sydney Carton is the kind of character that I love to write about—a sharp legal mind, wasting in the body of a slovenly alcoholic, to the point where it’s all too easy for others to take credit for his brilliant maneuvers. But as Carton slowly pulls himself together, he manages to do far, far better things than he’s ever done, and we admire him for it.
Sandy Stern is nothing if not a total scene-stealer. He’s not the protagonist, yet his quick wit and bold tactics make him the most memorable legal mind in the novel… and that includes Rusty Sabich, the prosecutor on trial for murder. Stern is the defense attorney you love to hate—and love to watch at work even more.
Firstly, a word about female attorneys: We exist (on both sides of the courtroom, even)! Though it sometimes feels they’re far and few between, it’s heartening to see that fictional women are graduating law school at increasing rates. Here, Rebecca Hardy tackles an intricate crime alongside her father Dismas Hardy, but her instincts and intelligence have one looking forward to the day when she takes center stage on her own.
John Grisham’s most autobiographical character is a mix of ambition, strong moral center, and lack of self-assuredness. Jake Brigance remains a man set apart in his Southern small town even in the sequel, having gained notoriety, but not wealth, from his role in the Hailey trial.
Paul Biegler is a prosecutor’s worst nightmare: a distractingly folksy charmer with a penchant for antics that frequently turn the courtroom into a theater. A former District Attorney who lost his re-election bid, Biegler may be new to the defense side, but more than game to use a a risky version of the temporary insanity plea in defense of an admitted killer.
Sir Wilfrid Robarts
Sir Wilfrid Robarts goes toe-to-toe with the best of the best–even against his doctor’s orders. Ever-suspicious and prone to getting in too deep, Sir Wilfrid isn’t content with getting his verdict, he needs to find the real killer.
Pamela Wechsler spent over fifteen years working as a criminal prosecutor at the local, state and federal levels. She has served as an assistant district attorney and assistant attorney general in Boston, and she was a trial attorney for the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.. She has investigated and prosecuted a wide variety of crimes, including: murder, witness intimidation, sexual assault, drug trafficking, stock market manipulation, and political corruption. Pam has worked as a producer, writer, and legal consultant for numerous network television shows. Her credits include: Law and Order; Law and Order: Criminal Intent; Law and Order: Trial by Jury; Conviction; Canterbury’s Law; Doubt; and Bull. Pam grew up in the Boston area and is a graduate of Tufts and Boston University School of Law. She is the author of Mission Hill and The Graves.