I always assumed he was championing the cause of the little guy. Within the last week I read somewhere that Abe’s days of riding the circuit to courts around Illinois and the Midwest were as a trial lawyer for the railroads. If that’s true, he certainly was not championing the cause of the underdogs while he was a lawyer. He would have been in the business of using every trick in the book to make certain that those with the money got their ‘justice’ and that the little guy received no justice.
[On the circuit, Lincoln left] home and family for nine or ten weeks at a time, driving over muddy or dusty roads, now under a hot sun and again through pelting showers or all-day rain, putting up with the scanty comforts and monotonous fare of cheap hotels and boarding houses, where the lawyers slept two in a bed and six or eight in a room, and spending long hours in court for the ten, twenty, or fifty dollar fees, occasionally supplemented by larger ones, which, along with the more substantial fees he earned in the State Supreme Court and the Federal Courts in Springfield and the interest he received from a few notes and mortgages, added up to an annual income of some $2500.
Abraham Lincoln practiced law for nearly twenty-five years in the Illinois courts. . . . Lincoln handled cases in almost all court levels: justice of the peace, county, circuit, appellate, and federal. . . . Like many of his colleagues at the bar, Lincoln was a general practice attorney and represented clients in a variety of civil and criminal actions including debt, slander, divorce, dower and partition, mortgage foreclosure, and murder.
Lincoln handled many different categories of litigation during his career. Debt-related issues filled the court system during the antebellum period, and the majority of Lincoln’s legal cases consisted of debt collection. In this type of litigation, he represented both creditors and debtors. As plaintiff attorney for creditors, he won the majority of cases because many defendants failed to appear and defaulted. As defendant attorney for debtors, he lost the majority of cases because the legal system favored creditors over debtors. He also handled cases relating to land titles, inheritance, patents, and railroads.
In the 1850s, the Illinois legislature chartered railroads, and many of them began construction. These events increased litigation over issues of right of way, stock subscriptions, fencing, and damages to real property. Lincoln generally supported the development of railroads all over the state, but that did not prevent him from opposing the railroad companies in the courtroom. He became involved in railroad litigation and represented individuals nearly as often as railroad corporations. The Illinois Central Railroad secured his legal services more often than any other railroad, and Lincoln opposed them in only a few cases.
Lincoln’s legal career did not consist solely of litigation. He maintained an office practice that included writing deeds, registering land, paying taxes, receiving money, and giving legal advice.
According to entries in their fee book, Stuart and Lincoln generally received $5 to $10 for legal fees, but in People v. Truett, an 1838 murder case, they received $500. Stuart and Lincoln generally divided fees equally. On average, Lincoln and Herndon charged a typical client $5 to $20. However, there were several occasions when Lincoln either charged his clients nothing or charged them a substantial amount. . . . Lincoln’s federal practice probably supplied him with much of his income. A case could not be heard in the U. S. Circuit Court unless it involved a dispute exceeding $500. As a result, Lincoln charged his federal clients higher fees. He probably charged clients less while practicing in the state circuit courts because disputes involved lesser amounts.
“Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed, is more important than any other one thing.”
“If you wish to be a lawyer, attach no consequence to the place you are in, or the person you are with; but get books, sit down anywhere, and go to reading for yourself. That will make a lawyer of you quicker than any other way.”
The leading rule for the lawyer, as for the man of every other calling, is diligence.
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. .. . 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.
“A man of deep emotions, Lincoln craved the power to put his feelings into words. Of a commonplace poem he had once declared: ‘I would give all I am worth and go in debt, to be able to write so fine a piece as I think that is’; and, unsatisfied with the clarity and fluency that are the lawyer’s tools, he had attempted to write poems of his own.”
- Thanks for taking me on this tangent, Kevin. Now, back to my Repairman Jack novel.