August 2014 Bar Bulletin
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August 2014 Bar Bulletin

The Lincoln Example:

Creating a Foundation for Professionalism

By Stacey L. Romberg


Prior to becoming president, Abraham Lincoln practiced law for almost 25 years in Illinois. He formed three partnerships, working as a junior partner to John Todd Stuart (1837–1841), junior partner to Stephen T. Logan (1841–1844) and, finally, senior partner to William H. Herndon (1844–1861).

Like many lawyers of his day, Lincoln represented clients in a variety of civil and criminal matters. The majority of his trials involved debt collection (representing both creditors and debtors), but he also represented clients in slander, divorce, dower and partition, mortgage foreclosure, railroad cases, patents and murder.1 An accomplished appellate lawyer, Lincoln also appeared before the Illinois Supreme Court 175 times.2

Lincoln possessed a remarkable ability to put his ego aside. In doing so, he could perform his professional obligations with a high degree of professionalism and ethics. A striking example can be found by examining Lincoln's relationship with Edwin Stanton.

In 1855, Lincoln was retained as counsel for the John Manny Company of Rockford, Illinois, which was accused of infringing a patent for the original crop reaper. The other attorneys representing the Manny Company thought that Lincoln could potentially serve as "window dressing" if the case was tried in Illinois, due to his prior experience with the local trial judge.3

However, those attorneys failed to communicate with Lincoln about his anticipated role, or lack thereof, in the case. The Reaper Case was later transferred to Cincinnati. The Manny Company then retained Edwin Stanton, known as an outstanding trial lawyer. Even though the other lawyers on the case didn't respond to his inquiries, Lincoln showed his characteristic diligence by traveling to Chicago to obtain a copy of the court file. He then went to Rockford to inspect the reaper. He thereafter prepared his trial brief.

Lincoln arrived at the Cincinnati hotel where the Manny Company legal team lodged, introduced himself to his co-counsel, and suggested they all "go up in a gang" to the courthouse. Stanton curtly refused and inquired to another co-counsel "why he brought that damn longed armed ape here? ... He does not know anything and can do you no good."

Stanton even demanded that Lincoln withdraw from the case, which he politely did. His co-counsel assumed Lincoln's trial brief was "trash" and threw it away without review.4

Although he was entirely ignored by Stanton and the other attorneys, Lincoln elected to remain in Cincinnati to observe the one-week trial, hoping to improve his skills by watching the notable attorneys argue the case. He dined alone each evening. Upon returning to Springfield, Lincoln initially refused to accept the remainder of his agreed-to legal fee, stating that he hadn't earned it since he did not make any legal arguments.5

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