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March 2017Volume 47Number 8PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

Lawyer Lincoln: A lesson in character

On March 24, 1836, the clerk of the Sangamon County Circuit Court deemed Abraham Lincoln “a man of good moral character,” then the basic requirement for bar admission. No exam or test of qualifications. A good moral character was the sole criterion.

Lincoln’s legal career has inspired generations of lawyers, especially Illinois lawyers, as to how we should behave and interact with others. Lincoln followed his keen inner moral compass, at a time when there were no codes or rules of professional conduct. So assured was Lincoln’s moral nature that he developed the reputation of being trustworthy, truthful, and principled before he became a lawyer. As Lincoln said, “I would rather be a little nobody, than be an evil somebody.”

Lincoln valued doing what fairness required. As the authors of an article on Lincoln’s legal practice put it, “[W]here most lawyers would object, he would say he ‘reckoned’ it would be fair to let this in, or that; and sometimes when his adversary could not quite prove what Lincoln knew to be the truth, he ‘reckoned’ it would be fair to admit the truth to be so-and so.” Similarly, Lincoln scholar Brian Dirck says Lincoln exemplified honesty in both his moral and ethical sense—he was “frank, unapologetic[,] and practical.”

Lincoln would reject a case, even quitting in the midst of trial, if he believed the cause to be without merit. He saw trials as a means to promote morality, to achieve fairness and equity. Once, while trying a case out-of-town, he retired to the local hotel and sent the judge a message through a lawyer friend that he would not be returning. “My hands are dirty,” Lincoln told the friend, “and I came over to clean them.”

While Lincoln distinguished himself in the courtroom, he would not let deceit, unpleasantness, discord, and dishonor enter into his advocacy. Were he practicing in the 21st Century, Lincoln would disapprove of petty discovery battles or aggressive pretrial motion practice. As Lincoln said of his approach to practicing law, “I want no disputes and fusses with men about simple unimportant facts. I must conciliate.”

Lincoln heeded his conscience whenever it conflicted with client loyalty. “No client ever had money enough to bribe my conscience or to stop its utterance against wrong and oppression,” Lincoln told his partner William Herndon. “I will never sink the rights of mankind to the malice, wrong, or avarice of another’s wishes, though those wishes come to me in the relation of client and attorney.”

In addition, Lincoln saw himself as defending decency, as a guardian of public order and public morals. There are countless stories of Lincoln the selfless lawyer. He would go out of his way not to take advantage of a situation or a client. But should a client flat-out refuse to pay what Lincoln considered a fair fee, he would not hesitate to sue the client. (He never drew a retaliatory malpractice claim, but his were far different times). For instance, after successfully securing tax exempt status for the Illinois Central Railroad, he had to sue for his fee, and secured the largest fee he ever received, without jeopardizing his relationship with the Illinois Central, which continued to hire him.

For Lincoln, the cultivation of a good moral character was the standard by which he practiced law. It should be our ultimate standard as well.

Rehearing:When the conduct of men is designed to be influenced, persuasion—kind, unassuming persuasion--should ever be adopted. It is an old and a true maxim, that a ‘drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.’” A. Lincoln, Temperance Address, Feb. 22, 1842.

This article was originally published in the Feb/Mar 2017 issue of the CBA Record, and is reprinted with permission.

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