Lessons for Young Lawyers from Lincoln

The practice of law has changed in many important ways over the years, but in many others it has not. In today’s cutthroat, competitive culture, we have a tendency to romanticize what things were like in the legal profession “back in the day.”

When we think of the “Giants” of our profession, those who left a lasting, indelible impact, names such as Darrow, Webster and Marshall come to mind. These lawyers shared many similar characteristics, including intelligence, courage and high ethical standards. They also lacked something that almost all lawyers today have in common: none graduated from law school. They read the books. They apprenticed. They learned by doing. And in the process they shaped the law, and the legal profession, in ways that are studied in law school classrooms across the country today.

Abraham Lincoln followed a similar path. We’ve all heard the stories of Lincoln studying his law books by candlelight in a log cabin. He lacked the formal legal training that is taken for granted in today’s profession. But while Lincoln may not have had a Harvard law degree, he – like many other legal stalwarts – learned through the school of hard knocks the principles and practices of what it takes to become a successful and respected lawyer.

Lincoln did not consider himself to be an accomplished lawyer. His legal career was relatively pedestrian in comparison to his political one. But in his various letters and essays, Lincoln shared wisdom and advice that is just as valuable today as I’m sure it was over 150 years ago when he delivered it.

In particular, Lincoln frequently corresponded with young, aspiring lawyers about the best ways to train to become a lawyer. Law schools obviously existed, but weren’t required, and for many young people, working and studying with a lawyer as an apprentice was the only path to the profession.

Letter to John M. Brockman on September 25, 1860

J. M. Brockman, Esq.
Dear Sir: Yours of the 24th. asking “the best mode of obtaining a thorough knowledge of the law” is received. The mode is very simple, though laborious, and tedious. It is only to get the books, and read, and study them carefully. Begin with Blackstone’s Commentaries, and after reading it carefully through, say twice, take up Chitty’s Pleadings, Greenleaf’s Evidence, & Story’s Equity &c. in succession. Work, work, work, is the main thing. Yours very truly
A. Lincoln

There’s probably no more timeless advice than this, and it cuts across professions. There’s always going to be someone smarter, better connected, better funded, more articulate, more polished, taller, thinner, better looking, funnier…you get the idea. But the ability to work hard is the one thing exclusively under your control. It’s not an innate or bestowed quality. Even in Lincoln’s day, hard work was the ultimate differentiator.

Note, however, that Lincoln was not simply extolling the virtues of undirected, unfocused work. Too often one’s hard work – late nights, billable hours – are worn like a badge and bandied about to build up one’s self-importance. There’s no discussion of the value or productive output of the work. Work for work’s sake is no virtue.

Lincoln was writing about the importance hard work in service of self education. Many lawyers draw too bright a distinction between their legal education and their legal career, as if one ends and the other begins. But the need for education doesn’t end once law school is finished. In many ways it just begins.

Notes from a Law Lecture, July 1, 1850

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. 

“Honest Abe” lives up to his reputation in this admonishment to young, aspiring lawyers. The issue of honesty is, of course, drilled into lawyers’ heads in the context of discussions about morals and ethics. You have to be honest with clients, the court, colleagues and adversaries. Period.

Less discussed is the importance of honesty in the context of business development. One’s business development success is dependent on the ability to establish trust. In fact, it’s only possible to develop business in a manner proportionate to the trust you’ve earned with a prospective client. Bank lots of trust and the prospective client lets down its guard and welcomes you into its circle. And the foundation of trust is honesty.

If you’re a young lawyer looking to build a foundation for business development, take Lincoln’s advice and “resolve to be honest at all events.” Have self-awareness and know what you’re good at and what needs work. Be yourself. Don’t cloak yourself with the characteristics of who you think you should be, or who you wish you were. Have patience – if you put the work in your time will come.

Letter to Isham Reavis on November 5, 1855

My dear Sir:
I have just reached home, and found your letter of the 23rd. ult. I am from home too much of my time, for a young man to read law with me advantageously. If you are resolutely determined to make a lawyer of yourself, the thing is more than half done already. It is but a small matter whether you read with any body or not. I did not read with any one. Get the books, and read and study them till, you understand them in their principal features; and that is the main thing. It is of no consequence to be in a large town while you are reading. I read at New-Salem, which never had three hundred people living in it. The books, and your capacity for understanding them, are just the same in all places. Mr. Dummer is a very clever man and an excellent lawyer (much better than I, in law-learning); and I have no doubt he will cheerfully tell you what books to read, and also loan you the books.

Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed, is more important than any other one thing. Very truly Your friend
A. Lincoln

In his great book, The War of Art, author Steven Pressfield refers to the fear we all feel when confronted with a challenge as the “Resistance.” The resistance is what leads us to make decisions based not on what we desire, but rather what we think others desire of us. Pressfield decries this mindset as it robs us of our authentic self: “Our job in this life is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.”

Your career and more importantly your life, therefore, comes down to a choice between two paths. One feels safe, the other fraught with risk. One lies within the comfort zone, the other outside of it. One leads away from fear, the other straight toward it.

As Lincoln notes, you – yourself – must resolve to succeed. You can’t count on anyone else to guide you and lift you up. If you’re lucky you’ll have some great mentors along the way. But people change and circumstances change, and the only constant is you.

Many of us tell ourselves that we will take action “when the time is right.” But the only time that is ever right is right now. Eight years as an associate will go by way faster than you think. Waiting for the fear to go away is a hopeless strategy – it never will. At some point you have to be more afraid of settling in your life and career than you are of chasing your dreams and failing.

Take Lincoln’s advice. Resolve. Then act.

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