Lincoln the Lawyer

This book by Professor Brian Dirck examines Abraham Lincoln’s career as a lawyer, but it is more than that. It also gives us insight into what it was like to be a lawyer in the mid-19th Century, especially on the frontier. Professor Dirck tells us, “My guiding question has been: what would Lincoln have seen when he practiced the law? … this study does yield useful dividends for American legal history. There are few modern book-length examinations of the lawyers who lived and practiced in Lincoln’s day, and many basic questions about them remain unanswered. What was the day-to-day life of a typical lawyer in Civil War-era America? What did he do? What types of cases did he see, and what was the overall shape of a typical legal practice–not just a prominent case or two, but the hundreds of cases that accumulated in an antebellum lawyer’s professional experience over time? Lincoln offers an opportunity to provide answers because his career is so well documented.” [p. ix] His major purpose, he tells us, is to illuminate “Abraham Lincoln, and what the law did both to and for him.” [p. x]

Lincoln’s legal career, as Professor Dirck tells us, took up a significant chunk of his life. “With only a brief respite during his congressional term, he practiced law for a quarter of a century prior to his presidency. Or put another way, he held national elective office for 1981 days, which constituted approximately ten percent of his entire life; he was a licensed, active attorney for 8,552 days, or about 40 percent of his life. Many (if not most) of the people he knew prior to the Civil War were connected in one fashion or another to the Illinois bench and bar.” [pp. x-xi]

Lincoln was a hard-working, dedicated lawyer who did his homework and made sure he was prepared when going into court, and whose sense of ethics was second to none. “Those who have read the ‘notes for a law lecture’ usually focus their attention on the document’s final paragraph, in which Lincoln addressed the vexing matter of legal ethics and what he called the ‘vague popular belief that lawyers are necessarily dishonest.’ Lincoln found this puzzling, pointing out that Americans who denounced lawyers for their duplicity often entrusted those same lawyers with high public office. Nevertheless, he wanted his fellow attorneys to avoid ethical impropriety. ‘Resolve to be honest at all events,’ he admonished, ‘and if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other occupation, rather than the one in the choosing of which you do, in advance, consent to be a knave.’ … But he actually devoted only a small section of the ‘notes for a law lecture’ to the issue of professional ethics. Lincoln spent more time discussing the mundane, everyday realities of a lawyer’s trade. ‘The leading rule for the lawyer, as for the man of every other calling, is diligence,’ he wrote, ‘leave nothing for to-morrow which can be done to-day.’ He suggested that ‘in business not likely to be litigated,–ordinary collection cases, foreclosures, partitions, and the like,–make all examinations of titles, and note them, and even draft orders and decrees in advance.’ Lincoln pointed out that ‘this course has a triple advantage; it avoids omissions and neglect, saves your labor when once done, performs the labor out of court when you have leisure, rather than in court when you have not.’ Lincoln also discussed lawyers’ fees. ‘The matter of fees is important, far beyond the mere question of bread and butter involved,’ he wrote, ‘Property attended to, fuller justice is done to both lawyer and client.’ He admonished lawyers to avoid overcharging for their services, and he also felt it was a good idea to receive only a small part of the total fee in advance. ‘When fully paid beforehand, you are more than a common mortal if you can feel the same interest in the case, as if something was still in prospect for you, as well as for your client. And when you lack interest in the case the job will very likely lack skill and diligence in the performance.’ ” [pp. 2-4]

This book is excellent. It gives us insight into Abraham Lincoln’s personal habits as he approached his profession, lets us peak at the world of the nineteenth century lawyer, and gives us an idea of how Lincoln thought. I can highly recommend it for Lincoln students and students of the war.

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