A Lawyer at Heart
Lincoln’s legal background imbued his presidency with a sense of justice
Posted Feb 1, 2009 9:49 PM CST
By H. Thomas Wells Jr
Our profession’s proud achievements and contributions are many, but one is often overlooked.
Among the 43 individuals who have served as president, 26 have been lawyers. From John Adams to Barack Obama, lawyers have occupied the White House at a 60 percent rate—far more than any other line of work.
Of all the lawyer-presidents, the one who embodies the best of our profession is, of course, Abraham Lincoln. This month, as we celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth, we honor not only Lincoln the president, but also Lincoln the lawyer. His legacy of liberty will also be the theme of this year’s Law Day (lawday.org).
The ABA publication America’s Lawyer-Presidents: From Law Office to Oval Office reminds us that many of the lawyers who have led our nation were educated long before law schools in America were commonplace. They learned about the law from their own life experiences and initiative. They were admitted to the bar in processes far less formal than today’s.
Lincoln was one of them. Living in near poverty, his family had early problems with the law. His father lost part of a Kentucky farm due to title flaws and was involved in litigation over other farm properties.
EARLY GLIMPSES OF BRILLIANCE
When he was about 18 years old, Lincoln faced a legal challenge involving his operation of a ferryboat. After hearing the young man’s successful defense, the justice of the peace advised Lincoln to “read up a bit on the law.” Lincoln did so, devouring the dry Revised Laws of Indiana. “The more I read,” he said, “the more intensely interested I became. Never in my whole life was my mind so thoroughly absorbed.”
After studying the law while working in a general store in New Salem, Ill., and serving in the state legislature, Lincoln was admitted to the bar in 1836. Though he soon lost his first case, he became one of the premier lawyers in Illinois.
Unlike other lawyer-presidents whose careers focused largely on politics and other pursuits, Lincoln worked considerably in private practice until shortly before his election.
As a lawyer, Lincoln honed his reputation for honesty. One story involves a client who sent him $25 for his legal services. Lincoln replied with a note: “You must think I’m a high-priced man. You are too liberal with your money. Fifteen dollars is enough for the job. I send you a receipt for $15 and return to you a 10-dollar bill.”
TAKE A LESSON
We can learn from Lincoln’s approach to practicing law, which he outlined in his notes for a law lecture. His advice included the following:
• “The leading rule for the lawyer … is diligence. … Leave nothing for tomorrow which can be done today. Never let your correspondence fall behind.”
• “Extemporaneous speaking should be practiced and cultivated. It is the lawyer’s avenue to the public. … And yet there is not a more fatal error to young lawyers than relying too much on speechmaking. If anyone, upon his rare powers of speaking, shall claim an exemption from the drudgery of the law, his case is a failure in advance.”
• “Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser: in fees, expenses and waste of time. As a peacemaker, the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough.”
Lincoln’s example for our profession still resonates. So does his service to the country, which was shaped by our profession’s preparation and ideals. As President William McKinley noted, “The best training [Lincoln] had for the presidency, after all, was his 23 years’ arduous experience as a lawyer traveling the circuits of the courts of his district and state.”
And, as Albert Woldman wrote in Lawyer Lincoln, “The great living issues which divided the nation were secession and slavery—questions of law, of constitutionality, and of right and wrong.”