Last month, Harper Collins announced that they would publish Harper Lee’s novel, Go Set a Watchman. Lee’s debut novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, brought the noble local attorney Atticus Finch into the public imagination.

The coverage of Go Tell a Watchman has focused on Tonja Carter, Lee’s nonfictional attorney. Carter, a 2006 graduate of the University of Alabama Law School, is Lee’s estate lawyer. She is also the former law partner of Lee’s recently-deceased sister, Alice. Carter’s role in this process has been extralegal. Often described in the media as a “close friend” of the Lee, Carter found the manuscript of Go Set a Watchman when she was checking on the original copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. She has also largely mediated the conversation between Lee, her editor, and her publisher, and, according to The Guardian, negotiated Lee’s deal with HarperCollins. In an interview, Lee’s editor, Hugh Van Dusen said, “I think we do all our dealing through her lawyer, Tonja. It’s easier for the lawyer to go see her in the nursing home and say HarperCollins would like to do this and do that and get her permission.”

Lee brought suit against Samuel Pinkus, her literary agent, in 2013, alleging that a copyright assignment she made to his company was a direct result of his taking advantage of her and her attorney (Alice)’s trust, age, and increased frailty. Now that it’s two years later, and Lee is a little blinder, just as deaf, and runs her literary communication through Attorney Carter, there is some concern (and pieces chastising those concerned, in a What would Atticus Finch think? tone) that the Go Set a Watchman deal implicates the undue influence issues raised in the (settled) Pinkus litigation.

While the ethical codes of Alabama and the ABA do not speak directly to the issue of a single person from acting as an author’s friend, estate attorney, and literary agent, it seems prudent, from an optics standpoint, for an attorney to commit to a single role: work with Lee as she expands her literary legacy, or work on her legacy documents in the back room.

Lauren C. Ostberg

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