Reflecting Lincoln

By Urquhart, Quentin F., Jr. | Defense Counsel Journal, April 2013 | Go to article overview

Reflecting Lincoln


Urquhart, Quentin F., Jr., Defense Counsel Journal


In Lincoln, Steven Spielberg directs an epic historical drama chronicling our Sixteenth President's final months in office, when he was faced with the crucial decision of whether to end the Civil War through compromise or make a final attempt to pass legislation that would abolish slavery once and for all. Daniel Day-Lewis brings Abraham Lincoln to life and puts on display the myriad of skills he used to convince Congress to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution while simultaneously working to end the bloodiest war in our nation's history. Where did Lincoln, a man who seemed to have come from nowhere after serving one unremarkable term in the House of Representatives and having lost two consecutive Senate races, acquire those talents? The key to answering that question may lie in his training and experience as a lawyer.

From 1837 to 1860 Lincoln practiced law in the State of Illinois, where he became an accomplished trial and appellate lawyer. While he represented individuals in matters like disputed wills and criminal proceedings, Lincoln was also willing to take on major commercial clients from New York, Philadelphia and Boston. In fact, he may have been one of the first true "local counsel." Although he did not leave behind extensive writings related to his career as a lawyer, the few that survive provide a window into a man whose advice rings just as true today as it did in the mid-1800's. Interestingly, many of Lincoln's comments on the law are directly reflected in the Tenets of Professionalism we all ascribe to as members of the IADC. These maxims, which are published each year in our Member Directory and in each issue of the Defense Counsel Journal, set forth the ideals of professionalism we all aspire to achieve in the performance of professional services for our clients.

As members of the IADC we endeavor to "conduct ourselves before the court in a manner which demonstrates respect for the law and preserves the decorum and integrity of the judicial process." (Tenet 1). Lincoln similarly believed that respect for the legal system should be an essential part of American life. In an address before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois in 1838 he preached that "reverence for the laws be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap--let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primmers, spelling books, and in Almanacs; let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice."

In the IADC we recognize "that professional courtesy is consistent with zealous advocacy" and that we "will endeavor to maintain a collegial relationship with our adversaries." (Tenet 2). We further agree to "cooperate with opposing counsel" and aspire not to "make groundless accusations of impropriety or attribute bad motives to other attorneys without good cause." (Tenets 3 and 8). Lincoln lived these maxims in a way that few of us could imagine today as he travelled "the circuit" for months at a time with his fellow lawyers. After fiercely battling against one another in court each day, they would retire to the local tavern for food, drink and sharing of stories. Although Lincoln was rarely bested at trial, a fellow lawyer noted that "[h]e arrogated himself no superiority over anyone--not even the most obscure member of the bar" and that there was no "lawyer [who] ever practiced in the courts with Mr. Lincoln who did not in all his after life have a regard for him akin to personal affection. …

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