Since the inception of the profession, attorneys have tended not to be folks favorite people. Some hypothesize it is because we at times argue for that in which we do not believe, or perhaps it dates to a discomfort with legal systems (a feeling which dates to before the great days of Babylon) and our comfort in that setting. For whatever reason, it is unusual to find an attorney who, 144 years after his death, is still considered one of the most admired people in our nation. It is interesting, thought – in this the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, very little is being discussed about his profession and practice!
The earliest notes concerning Lincoln as an attorney are dated to 1835, when he would have been twenty six. While some colleges of the day allowed students to “read” law, and to study the authoritative texts of the day, law schools, bar associations and bar exams as we know them today did not exist. For all intents and purposes, Lincoln apprenticed himself to an established attorney, working in his office and gradually learning the profession. The practice of the day was that, as he gained competence, he would have worked with his mentor on some cases before finally taking a minor case before a tribunal such as a Justice Court. From there he would have worked his way up. The majority of his work seems to have been in the Circuit Court, which would roughly correspond to a combination of today’s County and District Courts.
Records in Illinois are somewhat sketchy. Between the Chicago fire of 1871, and the disasters and deterioration that can befall a county courthouse, and the realization that the folk responsible for these records had no idea that they would ever be important, many are missing. Those that remain paint a portrait of a very active law firm. Most firms of the day were general practitioners. People were more likely in those days to settle disputes without attorneys, so lawyers had to move over large areas of country in their practice, and take nearly any kind of case. Lincoln and his partners did trial work in courts from the lowest (Justice) level to major criminal and civil cases, as well as appellate work. They appeared frequently in federal court, and one time before the U. S. Supreme Court. The documents that have been compiled show that the firm handled at least 5173 cases and 496 “nonlitigation” activities (wills and the like) in a thirty year period. This works out to about 173 cases a year, which admittedly sounds light for a modern firm. Recalling that the “partnership” appears to have rarely had more than two men and they often had a day long journey to the appropriate court makes the numbers seem more reasonable.
Abraham Lincoln seems to have accepted a very wide variety of cases. One major client of the firm was the Illinois Central Railroad, however, he sued them twice – considerably less than he sued the other railroads of the day! Generally his suits against them involved imminent domain issues in which he represented the landowner. The vast majority of his cases were civil in nature, whether involving bankruptcy, debts, land disputes or injuries. He did a little probate work, and had two admiralty cases!
Much of his civil docket involved debtors and creditors. Researchers believe this to be largely due to public response to the Bankruptcy Act of 1841. As a young man, Lincoln was a partner in a general store with William Berry, an unsuccessful venture which landed him as a defendant in several civil suits about 1832. His criminal practice was quite diverse, for all that it included fewer than 300 cases. His defense work is led by 40 cases for theft, followed by 30 for selling liquor. We know he defended 27 for murder, another 21 for varied levels of assault, and 8 for obstructing a road. In a time when most men were required by law to work on the county roads, he defended 8 for “failure of duty as a road supervisor”.
After reading the records of his cases, most researchers come away with a respect for Lincoln as a tactician. Contrary to the country bumpkin image, his arguments to the court were as sophisticated and technical as could be desired, while those to the jury were earthy. His contemporaries considered him at his best before the state Supreme Court. In his speaking and writing, Lincoln preferred mediation and what is now known as alternative dispute resolution to proceeding into the courtroom. His belief in the system, however, was such that he was comfortable taking representing a slave owner against those who would declare his slaves free – believing that the right result under law would always be achieved.Politically, Lincoln was a Whig; in keeping with the beliefs of that party, he focused on the rule of law, minimizing the moral autonomy of the attorney. In other words, as long as he did his job, he was not responsible for the outcome.
Drafts of several of Lincoln’s pre-Presidential talks have survived. In one, apparently designed for young attorneys or those considering the profession, he commented: “There is a vague popular belief that lawyers are necessarily dishonest – I say vague, because when we consider to what extent confidence, and honors, are reposed in and conferred upon lawyers by the people, it appears improbable that their impression of dishonesty is very distinct and vivid.Yet the impression is common – almost universal. Let no young man, choosing the law for a calling, for a moment yield to this popular belief. Resolve to be honest at all events…”
Many argue that Lincoln’s time as a flatboat pilot, store keeper, or inventor (he held one patent for a mechanism to refloat boats) was as important in creating the man we honor as the 16th President as his legal career. Most important was probably the ability to understand people, tempered with an unswerving honesty. He had a pride in each of his professions – and somehow has remained a respected lawyer through the years.
Lisa Peterson is the County Attorney for Nolan County. Comments about this column may be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org