f/k/a archives . . . real opinions & real haiku

February 19, 2004

Lawyer Lincoln Was a Bargain

Filed under: pre-06-2006 — David Giacalone @ 11:29 am

penny sm penny over

Our Feb. 12 post A Lincolnesque Law Practice? has been very warmly received, suggesting a craving for positive lawyer role models.  Today, a savvy visitor was kind enough to share the result he received when converting into today’s dollars the highest fee mentioned in the materials quoted in our posting — the $500 fee in the 1838 murder case of People v. Truett, becomes $9434 in 2003 dollars.

Using our own arithmetic wizardry, we estimate that Abe’s $5 fees for many client matters would have been about $95 now.  And, his annual income while riding the circuit, about $2500, would be about $47,000 now  Those numbers should humble a lot of modern lawyers, and hopefully make them reflect upon what the search for ever-higher income has done to the practice of law in America. 

afterwords: In a Comment here, Evan Schaeffer pointed out that Lawyer Lincoln once charged $5000 to a railroad client, in a case where the judgment saved the railroad half a million dollars a year in taxes.  Evan notes that the fee would be $104,166 in today’s dollars.  I had this reply: —

Lincoln asked first for $2000 and then for $5000, after being insulted by the client, which refused to pay the fee.  If he had asked for one-third of the client’s tax savings in one year (as many current trial lawyers might do), he would have asked for $166,667 dollars, or over $31 million in today’s dollars.  (Of course, many modern lawyers, who charge a contingent fee based on savings, would use more than one year’s result to calculate the fee.).

Thank you for helping me understand even better the difference between Lawyer Lincoln and many of today’s lawyers.


  1. David: As you know, I was one of the fans of your Lincoln post. Here’s an anecdote about one of Lincoln’s largest fees from “Lincoln” by David Herbert Donald. After Lincoln won a major case for the Illinois Central Railroad, he billed the railroad $2,000. The railroad scoffed at the bill, saying it was “as much as Daniel Webster himself would have charged.” Lincoln then asked some of his fellow attorneys what they would have charged, and he submitted a revised bill for $5,000. Again the railroad refused to pay, so Lincoln sued.

    Donald continues: “At the hearing before David Davis in McLean County, Lincoln argued his own case, pointing out that his fee was not unreasonable. Had the decision gone the other way, the railroad company would have had to pay out half a million dollars a year in local taxes. The court promptly returned a verdict in his favor … The action did not interrupt his amicable relationship with the Illinois Central Railroad, which he continued to represent in numerous subsequent cases.”

    That fee is about $104,166 in today’s dollars — not even close to being “tobacco money,” as my friends call it, so your points about modern lawyers are well taken. Judge David Davis was later appointed by Lincoln to the U.S. Supreme Court and served for fifteen years.

    And a final, unrelated thought: If Lincoln had been practicing today just to the South in Madison County, Illinois, the newspapers would have pointed to Davis’s Supreme Court appointment as a quid pro quo for the fee decision. And maybe the newspapers *did* say that back then — when it comes to lawyers and politics, things haven’t changed all that much.

    Comment by Evan — February 19, 2004 @ 12:27 pm

  2. Thanks, Evan, for yet another grace note to this humble weblog.  It’s an excellent anecdote (and antidote, too).
    How does a busy p/i lawyer find so much time for weblog perusal, commentary and authorship?  Living off your windfalls?

    p.s. I meant to get back to you re Elvis Costello.  I’m also a fan of his, although I lost track of him around 1985.  Among my faves: “Alison,” “Watching the Detectives,” “Red Shoes,” (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding.” 

    Comment by David Giacalone — February 19, 2004 @ 4:15 pm

  3. […] You can learn more about Abraham Lincoln’s lawyering (including what kind of fees he charged) at f/k/a, in the posting A Lincolnesque Law Practice? And see, Lawyer Lincoln Was a Bargain […]

    And see “Lincoln’s Message to lawyers and litigators” at shlep.

    Comment by shlep: the Self-Help Law ExPress » Blog Archive » Lincoln’s message to lawyers and litigators — February 11, 2007 @ 4:16 pm

  4. What Lincoln said…

    Abraham Lincoln, as we’re sometimes reminded around this time of year, made a living as a practicing lawyer, much of it in trial practice. For some reason this website has never gotten around to citing……

    Comment by Overlawyered — February 15, 2007 @ 10:38 pm

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