Prior to becoming president, Abraham Lincoln practiced law for almost 25 years in Illinois. He formed three partnerships, working as a junior part-ner 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 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. 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.
Lincoln, however, elected to remain in Cincinnati to observe the one-week trial, hoping to improve his skills by watching the notable attorneys argue the case.4
How did Lincoln set his ego aside? A mere five years later, Lincoln became the 16th president of the United States. Stanton, who had served as the U.S. attorney general in the prior Buchanan administration, continued making cutting remarks about the new president, calling him “an imbecile.”5
Nonetheless, when he faced the choice of who should serve in the critical role as secretary of war for the fractured union, Lincoln chose Stanton. Lincoln dispassionately considered Stanton’s great intellectual abilities and dogged determination to perform the daunting task of leading the Union to war. Despite the slight, Lincoln determined that Stanton was the best man in America to assume that key position.
“It was this indomitable drive that Lincoln had sought when he put aside any resentment at the humiliation Stanton had inflicted years earlier in Cincinnati. The bluntness and single-minded intensity behind Stanton’s brusque dismissal of Lincoln at that first acquaintance were the qualities the president valued in his secretary of war,” said author Doris Kearns Goodwin a century and a half later.6
History proves Lincoln chose wisely. He developed an effective working relationship with Stanton, which proved instrumental in preserving the Union. And, over time, Stanton came to hold Lincoln in high esteem and they developed a close friendship.
As practicing lawyers, we can improve our professionalism by following Lincoln’s example. Initially, consider Lincoln’s diligent representation of the Manny Company. Lincoln didn’t focus on his co-counsel’s lack of communication. He instead concentrated on how to best serve his client.
He performed every task needed to provide thorough representation and showed up in Cincinnati fully prepared to argue the case. Lincoln’s decision to stay in Cincinnati after Stanton’s mistreatment further demonstrates his professionalism. He put aside his personal pride, behaved with extraordinary grace under trying circumstances and made the best of the situation.
Also, much can be learned from Lincoln’s subsequent appointment of Stanton to his Cabinet. Again, Lincoln remained focused on doing his job to the best of his ability. Once the appointment was made, Lincoln then confidently moved forward to heal past wounds and to create an environment where both men could put their talents to best use for the war effort.
In practicing law, we often find ourselves in situations that tempt us to focus on our own bruised egos rather than on performing our professional obligations with skill and integrity. How will we react? I invite you, the next time you see yourself in such a situation, to think of Lincoln.
Stacey L. Romberg, attorney at law, practices in the areas of business law, estate planning and probate: www.staceyromberg.com.
1 http://www.papersofabrahamlincoln.org/narrative_overview.htm#Types of Cases.
3 “Lincoln on Professionalism” CLE DVD.
4 Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals 175 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006).
5 Id. at 559–60.
Originally published in the December 2011 issue of the King County Bar Association Bar Bulletin. Reprinted with permission of the King County Bar Association.