A Docket That Reflects Then And Now
Few lawyers today have a practice as diverse as Abraham Lincoln’s was in the years before the Civil War. But it was a caseload that still should sound familiar to lawyers practicing today.
Lincoln’s practice encompassed nearly every kind of claim or dispute imaginable in frontier Illinois. Even as he rose to the head of his profession in the course of his 25-year career, the substance of his caseload didn’t change all that much. After his famous U.S. Senate campaign against Stephen A. Douglas in 1858, Lincoln was still handling debt actions, divorces, slander lawsuits and replevin cases involving horses and mules, just as he had done two decades earlier as the junior partner of Stuart & Lincoln.
As a lawyer, Abraham Lincoln took business as it came. He didn’t have any choice. His third (and last) law partner, William Henry Herndon, noted that there were few retainers available in frontier Illinois, and “the greatest as well as the least had to join the general scramble for practice.”
The Papers of Abraham Lincoln project maintains a database on his law practice that contains 5,173 cases involving him and his partners.
Lincoln wasn’t a “litigator” in the modern sense. He was a trial lawyer. He and his partners took more than 1,000 cases to jury verdicts.
Lincoln practiced primarily in the Illinois circuit courts. Although he “traveled the circuit” throughout his career, he and his partners handled more than 2,300 cases in Sangamon County, which includes Springfield, where Lincoln lived during most of his years in practice. At the time, the state circuit courts had three main divisions: common law, chancery and criminal.
Common-law cases made up roughly two-thirds of Lincoln’s circuit court practice. The largest two categories of these cases were assumpsit (1,240 cases) and debt (667 cases).
Chancery made up about a quarter of Lincoln’s docket in the circuit courts. There, he handled such equity matters as petitions to foreclose mortgages (more than 200 cases), to partition real estate (142 cases) or to sell real estate to pay debts (75 cases). He was a lawyer in 145 divorce cases and 44 dower petitions.
Lincoln handled relatively few criminal cases. The famous Duff Armstrong murder case, also known as the Almanac Trial, was hardly typical of Lincoln’s practice—he handled only 26 other murder cases.
The majority of Lincoln’s cases involved debt. Of the 5,173 cases in the Lincoln law practice database, 3,170 are indexed under “debtor and creditor.” He represented creditors more often because debtors routinely failed to appear.
While Lincoln is sometimes thought of as a “railroad lawyer,” that work actually was a small part of his docket, and primarily during the 1850s as railroads began to spread across the United States. (As president, he signed the law that made construction of the first transcontinental railroad possible.) He handled 133 cases involving railroads, representing various lines 71 times and opposing them 62 times.
Lincoln and his partners handled more than 400 appeals before the Illinois Supreme Court; in roughly half, they were hired specifically for the appeal. Lincoln also was involved in at least 340 cases in the federal district and circuit courts.
Much of Lincoln’s docket would be familiar to lawyers practicing today, but in some cases they would find issues that seem, well, 150 years old. Few modern lawyers would be comfortable with the scope of cases that he handled. Ours is an era of specialization, and specialization never crossed Lincoln’s mind. But in handling a wide range of cases, he had one enormous advantage over today’s lawyers: In his era, the law was not as complicated, and there was not as much of it.
But in Lincoln’s time, and ours, the key to handling your docket remains the same. As Lincoln once advised, “Work, work, work, is the main thing.”
Mark E. Steiner Professor, South Texas College of Law, Houston. He is the author of
Mark E. Steiner