One Hundred and Seventy-Five Years ago a wiry country lawyer traveled the states of the old Northwest Territory, often sharing rooms and meals with opposing counsel and the circuit judge as they dispensed justice from county seat to county seat. While I would not recommend similar sleeping arrangements today, modern trial lawyers can still learn valuable lessons from Abraham Lincoln.

  1. Be modest. Too many lawyers, even good ones, are often too full of themselves. Be more like Lincoln, who began remarks to law students on the practice of law with the statement “I am not an accomplished lawyer.” Avoid frilly language. As Lincoln said, “I never went to school more than six months in my life, but I can say this: that among my earliest recollections, I remember how, when a mere child, I used to get irritated when anybody talked to me in a way I could not understand.”
  2. Be honest. As Lincoln warned, “If in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer.” Do not let hunger for a win get in the way of the truth. As Lincoln stated, “I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true,” and “I must stand with anybody that stands right, stand with them while he’s right, and part with him when he goes wrong.” You will be wise to avoid any testimony that is not direct and truthful. As Lincoln noted, “no man has a good enough memory to be a successful liar.”
  3. Be civil. While there was much more familiarity between members of the Bar in Lincoln’s time, particularly given that they were often sharing the same bed while riding the circuit, it is still important to be civil and courteous. As Lincoln admitted, “I’ve always wanted to deal with everyone I meet candidly and honestly. If I’ve made any assertion not warranted by facts, and it is pointed out to me, I will withdraw it cheerfully.”
  4. Value compromise. Even in Lincoln’s day, litigation was stressful and costly. As a result, Lincoln counseled, “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.”
  5. Don’t carry a grudge. Lincoln was working on a big case in Chicago that was transferred to Cincinnati where “big city” lawyers who were more sophisticated took a leading role in the case and minimized Lincoln’s involvement. Rather than being bitter, Lincoln observed the trial and learned much from the lawyers he watched. One of them, who had treated him with disrespect, was later needed when the Union required an intelligent, forthright and well-organized individual to supervise the Union’s war effort. So, Lincoln reached out to that lawyer and named Edwin Stanton as his Secretary of War. Together they helped win the Civil War.

Trial lawyers who apply these commonsense principles of a simple country lawyer will be rewarded with fine reputations and equally fine results.