A VERY BRIEF SUMMARY OF THE LEGAL CAREER OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN
Courthouses where Abraham Lincoln pleaded cases included Macon County's First Courthouse (left), the Menard County Courthouse (center) and the Metamora Courthouse (right). Source of illustrations: Bernhardt Wall's Following Abraham Lincoln 1809-1865.
Abraham Lincoln, who attended school for less than a year, became a lawyer under an Illinois law enacted in 1833. This law
stated that to be a lawyer someone had to "obtain a certificate procured
from the court of an Illinois county certifying to the applicant's good
moral character." Lincoln actually went to the Illinois Supreme Court to
get his certificate. On September 9, 1836, a license to practice law was
issued to Abraham Lincoln by two of the justices of the Illinois Supreme
Court. Later, in a more formal session, on March 1, 1837, Lincoln appeared
before the clerk of the Illinois Supreme Court and took an oath to support
the Constitution of the United States and of Illinois. Lincoln swore he
would "in all things faithfully execute the duties of Attorney and Counselor
at Law." Lincoln was then formally enrolled as an attorney licensed to
practice law in all the courts of the state of Illinois.
2. Perhaps Lincoln's greatest asset as a lawyer was his ability to simplify cases. He was able to reduce even complex cases to a few key points. He
put legal disputes into simple focus. He had a gift for brevity and clarity. Lincolnís special talent was logical oral argument and not legal research.
He had an uncanny ability to 'read' juries and influence them with his persuasive arguments.
3. Lincoln was a "jack-of-all-trades" when it came to his law
practice. Generally speaking, he would accept any case (whether civil or
criminal) brought before him. Lincoln accepted cases from
farmers arguing over cows all the way up to corporate railroad cases.
Many of his cases were related to breach of contract and debt collection, as those were the substance of a high percentage of
cases heard in the courts at that time in history. In all Lincoln and his partners handled over 5,000 cases.
(The Papers of Abraham Lincoln project maintains a database on Lincoln's law practice that currently contains 5,173 cases involving Lincoln and his partners.)
4. Twice a year Lincoln departed Springfield and traveled the Eighth Judicial Circuit. Although the border of the circuit
shifted over time it was located in central Illinois and included as many as 14 counties. Along with a small group of attorneys and a judge, Lincoln traveled to the various county
seats to try any case that was ready. In essence they were bringing the court to the people. The small group often traveled from town to town by horseback and would spend at least a few days (and sometimes up to a week or more)
in each county seat trying cases. The group completed the 400-500 mile loop in roughly 11 weeks.
5. Lincoln argued several hundred cases before the Illinois Supreme Court, and he made his one and only United States Supreme Court appearance in 1849 in the case of Lewis v. Lewis. The case was about the construction of the statute of
limitations of Illinois in its application to a suit brought by a
non-resident plaintiff. Lincoln argued on behalf of Thomas Lewis. The
court decided against Lincoln and his client, and the majority opinion was
rendered by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney. Justice John McLean wrote a long
dissenting opinion in which he held in accordance with Lincoln's
6. Lincoln's fees were usually in the $5 to $20 range, but he once charged $5,000. Lincoln represented the Illinois Central Railroad throughout the 1850's. In the McLean County
Tax case, a case Lincoln won for the railroad, he charged his
largest fee ever: $5,000. The case was called Illinois Central Railroad v. McLean County.
The Illinois Central Railroad owned 118 acres of land in McLean County, Illinois, and the county assessor levied a tax of $428.57 on the railroad's property. The railroad argued that the Illinois General Assembly act incorporating the railroad exempted the railroad from taxes. The railroad hired Lincoln and sued McLean County for an injunction to stop the county from selling railroad land to pay taxes. The parties reached an agreement, in which the court would dismiss the bill, thus ruling for McLean County, and the railroad would appeal the case to the Illinois Supreme Court, where the only question would be whether the county had a lawful right to tax the Illinois Central Railroad property. Lincoln continued to represent the railroad in court. The Illinois Supreme Court reversed the judgment. Walter B. Scates, who was chief justice, ruled that the legislature could exempt property from taxation. Therefore, the charter of the Illinois Central Railroad was constitutional. Lincoln received $5,000 for his legal services, but he had to sue the railroad to collect his money.
8. In 1861 when Lincoln was about to depart Springfield and travel to the White House, he pointed to the sign hanging from his law office. It said "Lincoln and Herndon." He told Herndon, "Let it hang there undisturbed." He promised Herndon that should he return to Springfield after his term they would go right on practicing law "as if nothing had ever happened."
At some point during the 1850's Lincoln prepared to give a law lecture. There is no record of whether or not he ever gave the lecture. Here are his "Notes for a Law Lecture:"
I am not an accomplished lawyer. I find quite as much material for a lecture in those points wherein I have failed, as in those wherein I have been moderately successful. The leading rule for the lawyer, as for the man of every other calling, is diligence. Leave nothing for to-morrow which can be done to-day. Never let your correspondence fall behind. Whatever piece of business you have in hand, before stopping, do all the labor pertaining to it which can then be done. When you bring a common-law suit, if you have the facts for doing so, write the declaration at once. If a law point be involved, examine the books, and note the authority you rely on upon the declaration itself, where you are sure to find it when wanted. The same of defenses and pleas. 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. 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. Extemporaneous speaking should be practised and cultivated. It is the lawyer's avenue to the public. However able and faithful he may be in other respects, people are slow to bring him business if he cannot make a speech. And yet there is not a more fatal error to young lawyers than relying too much on speech-making. If any one, upon his rare powers of speaking, shall claim an exemption from the drudgery of the law, his case is a failure in advance.
Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser---in fees, expenses, and waste of time. As a peacemaker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough.
Never stir up litigation. A worse man can scarcely be found than one who does this. Who can be more nearly a fiend than he who habitually overhauls the register of deeds in search of defects in titles, whereon to stir up strife, and put money in his pocket? A moral tone ought to be infused into the profession which should drive such men out of it.
The matter of fees is important, far beyond the mere question of bread and butter involved. Properly attended to, fuller justice is done to both lawyer and client. An exorbitant fee should never be claimed. As a general rule never take your whole fee in advance, nor any more than a small retainer. 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. Settle the amount of fee and take a note in advance. Then you will feel that you are working for something, and you are sure to do your work faithfully and well. Never sell a fee note---at least not before the consideration service is performed. It leads to negligence and dishonesty---negligence by losing interest in the case, and dishonesty in refusing to refund when you have allowed the consideration to fail.
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 the popular belief---resolve to be honest at all events; 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 one in the choosing of which you do, in advance, consent to be a knave.
In 1855 19-year-old Isham Reavis applied for student's position in Lincoln's law office. Lincoln replied to the young man as follows:
Isham Reavis, Esq. Springfield,
My dear Sir: Novr. 5- 1855
I have just reached home, and found your letter of the 23rd. ult. I am from home too much of my time, for a young man to read law with me advantageously. If you are resolutely determined to make a lawyer of yourself, the thing is more than half done already. It is but a small matter whether you read with any body or not. I did not read with any one. Get the books, and read and study them till, you understand them in their principal features; and that is the main thing. It is of no consequence to be in a large town while you are reading. I read at New-Salem, which never had three hundred people living in it. The books, and your capacity for understanding them, are just the same in all places. Mr. Dummer is a very clever man and an excellent lawyer (much better than I, in law-learning); and I have no doubt he will cheerfully tell you what books to read, and also loan you the books.
Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed, is more important than any other one thing. Very truly Your friend
While riding the circuit Lincoln often stayed in private homes. When he was in Sullivan he often stayed at the home of Joe Thomason. (The drawing of Thomason's home is from Following Abraham Lincoln 1809-1865 by Bernhardt Wall.)
Books dealing with the topic include A. Lincoln: Prairie Lawyer by John J. Duff (New York, Bramhall House, 1960), Lincoln As A Lawyer by John P. Frank (Chicago, Americana House, 1991), Abraham Lincoln: The Lawyer-Statesman by John T. Richards (Union, New Jersey, The Law Book Exchange, LTD., 1999), and Lawyer Lincoln by Albert A. Woldman (New York, Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994). For
a detailed account of the trial of "Duff" Armstrong please see Moonlight: Abraham Lincoln and the Almanac Trial by John Evangelist Walsh (New York, St. Martin's Press, 2000).
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