Through the ages, lawyers and politicians have often been vilified. At their worst, they may appear to be two-faced, selfish wordsmiths, willing to say whatever words might best sway the public. However, they can also be heroes. Some may salvage a city, state or nation. Some may clear the names of the falsely accused or help the injured recover from their financial wounds. Some may do both, and one such hero was Abraham Lincoln, trial lawyer.
While most people know about Lincoln’s struggles to free the slaves and hold the nation together, relatively few have heard about his career as lawyer. Yet, just as Lincoln’s political career set a high bar for all those who followed him, his legal work highlights much of the good that lawyers can do, too.
Separating the truth from the legends
Times have changed since Lincoln worked as an attorney. As noted in The Federal Lawyer, Lincoln was self-taught before he gained admittance to the Illinois bar in 1837. He served as the junior lawyer in two partnerships before serving as the senior attorney in a third. During his career, he took on hundreds of cases, some of which he brought to the Illinois Supreme Court. He even took one case to the United States Supreme Court.
Lincoln’s work as an attorney has assumed a legendary quality in the years since his death. The truth, however, might be a bit more mundane. The Federal Lawyer suggests Lincoln might have done most of his work in collections. Even so, Lincoln earned a strong reputation for his legal skills, and he worked some remarkable cases. Some of these cases have since become legend.
In one trial, Lincoln famously cleared his client of murder by trapping the prosecution’s key witness in a lie. The witness had claimed to see the man strike the victim under the light of the full moon, but Lincoln referred to an almanac that noted the moon had been only one-quarter full that night. Indeed, it wasn’t even visible at the time of the incident. The night would have been nearly pitch dark at the time the witness claimed to have seen Lincoln’s client strike the victim.
4 reasons Abraham Lincoln was a successful lawyer
In 1850, Lincoln was at the height of his legal game, and he wrote a set of lecture notes aimed for law students. These notes identify some of the work and traits that Lincoln felt were key to his success:
- Preparation is number one. No lawyer, not even Lincoln, can expect to succeed without doing the work ahead of trial or negotiations.
- Speech-making is important. You don’t have to think too long about Abraham Lincoln before you associate him with one of his famous speeches. This wasn’t an accident. Lincoln noted that attorneys should practice creating and delivering their addresses for maximum impact on their audiences. Jurors are human, and part of the trial lawyer’s job is to touch their emotions.
- Compromise when it is a good option. Lincoln had a strong record in trial. However, he also acknowledged that he could often best satisfy his client’s interests by working toward a good settlement, rather than drawing the matter out in court.
- Dishonesty harms the profession. We have all heard of “Honest Abe,” and the reports are that Lincoln earned his reputation as “Honest Old Abe” during his time as a lawyer. Dishonesty, he noted, harms the profession. However, it also harms an attorney’s reputation.
Lincoln, himself, appears to have made this final point with a witty remark during a trial. While he was questioning the potential jurors, Lincoln kept asking if they were familiar with the opposing attorney. Many of them said they were, and the judge eventually interrupted, arguing that Lincoln was wasting time. He told Lincoln he wouldn’t disqualify the jurors just because they knew the other attorney. To this, Lincoln replied by saying the judge had misunderstood him. Lincoln worried he might be at a disadvantage if the jurors did NOT know the other attorney.
A legacy of honesty, hard work and persuasive arguments
We may know Abraham Lincoln best as the 16th president of the United States. Yet, his legal work was also an important part of his legacy. We wouldn’t know Honest Abe the president if we hadn’t first seen Honest Old Abe the attorney. We wouldn’t have heard of him at all if he hadn’t put in the hard work, focused on the details and won so many trials in his client’s favor. Lincoln the president set a great example for future presidents. Similarly, Lincoln the lawyer set a great example for all aspiring attorneys.