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Lessons from our state’s greatest lawyer

April 25, 2009

Someday, when I look back on my life, I know I will regard my being president of The Chicago Bar Association during the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth as one of the highest highlights.


By E. Kenneth Wright Jr.
The Chicago Bar Association

To preside over such a large group of lawyers and judges in the Land of Lincoln during such an auspicious time has been one of the great privileges of my life. I think, as lawyers celebrating American law on this Law Day, we can do no better than to look to Lincoln’s example as a man of character.

I’ve pointed out in other venues this year, but I think it bears repeating, that I find five great traits in Lincoln’s personality that made him the icon he became. They are also qualities that would make any lawyer, indeed any person, a great man or woman.

They are people skills, honesty, a strong work ethic, integrity and civility. This combination of qualities is traceable throughout Lincoln’s career and served him his whole life.

People Skills

Getting along with others, from the adorable to the disagreeable, stands any lawyer in good stead. Lincoln was known to be easygoing and approachable to just about everyone and under the surface he was masterfully tactful and adroit in coping with personalities.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, the nation's 16th president.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, the nation's 16th president.

In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book about Lincoln’s cabinet, ”Team of Rivals,” historian Doris Kearns Goodwin illuminates this quality of his with many, many examples. With this assembly of brilliant, capable but often-difficult secretaries and advisors, he frequently played peacemaker and confidante and always made the individuals in question feel that he knew and understood their perspectives.


Every schoolchild knows that ”Honest Abe” was a sincere man who strove for honesty in all of his dealings.

In ”Notes for a Law Lecture,” Lincoln advises that all lawyers must ”resolve to be honest in all events; and if you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer.”

Honesty in one’s dealings was essential to practice, he said. Without it, a lawyer has nothing to offer his clients. Indeed, the legal system itself will flounder.

Hard Work

As Lincoln once quipped, ”Things may come to those who wait … but only the things left behind by those who hustle.”

No one would assign the adjective lazy to Lincoln. Growing up in the place and in the family that he did, doing physical labor by day and studying on his own by evening, all to become a lawyer, revealed his intense drive not just to excel but for real intellectual and even spiritual self-improvement.

It is said that Lincoln had a little less than one year of formal education, that the rest of his knowledge was self-attained. To me, this reveals a fire in the belly to improve himself as a man. Studying his life, it’s easy to see that he was not content to be average at anything.

Perhaps this is the desire that engendered his leadership qualities. At a perilous political moment, he pursued the dangerous and highly unpopular course that eventually led to his veneration by his countrymen and people around the world.


At the time Lincoln and William Herndon, John Todd Stuart and Judge John Logan were law partners, there existed no ethical rules for lawyers. Yet Lincoln practiced law with the highest sense of propriety and transparency.

The story is told of Lincoln being hired by a farmer to sue a railroad. It seems that one of the company’s trains had struck the farmer’s cow. When the company heard that Lincoln had been hired, it offered him a much larger fee and a retainer for the future.


Abe, of course, refused, saying that the company had ”exposed its hand.” He went on to obtain a substantial settlement for the farmer.


Lincoln was a model of the way lawyers should comport themselves. Not a single story I can find suggests otherwise.

An example of the way he defused tense situations can be found in the tale of his angering a prominent Democrat while campaigning for William Henry Harrison in 1840. W.G. Anderson took offense at a remark of Lincoln’s and wrote him a note asking for a clarification of the offense. Lincoln’s note in response was calm and nonargumentative.

”You say my ‘words imparted insult.’ I meant them as a fair set-off to your own statements, and not otherwise; and in that light alone I now wish you to understand them. You ask for my ‘present’ feelings on the subject. I entertain no unkind feeling to you, and none of any sort upon the subject, except a sincere regret that I permitted myself to get into such an altercation.”

Without arguing, or engaging in defending his own words, Lincoln avoided unnecessary rancor or further fighting with dignity.

I suggest, on this celebration of our country’s greatest asset, its laws, that all of us take to heart the lessons of our state’s greatest lawyer and our country’s greatest president.

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