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Today, the federal government is closed. Thus, there should be fewer telephone calls, filings may wait another day, and a moment or two will be available to reflect on the one lawyer traditionally honored today — Abraham Lincoln. While Lincoln’s name is universally recognizable, many have only the vaguest ideas about him. Most know our 16th president as the one who freed millions from slavery. Some can recite parts of the Gettysburg Address. Others know that Lincoln was a practicing attorney before he was president. Lincoln’s accomplishments are remarkable considering his background. Born in poverty in a part of the United States populated by few literate people, where books were scarce, Lincoln had only about one year of formal education. The deaths of family members and loved ones burdened him from a young age. In a struggle to stave off bankruptcy, Lincoln took on many occupations, including store clerk, flatboat pilot, rail splitter, surveyor, and postal worker. Yet he so admired lawyers that he willed himself to rise above his circumstances, teaching himself to read, write, and master the art of public speaking. As a lawyer, Lincoln developed characteristics setting him apart from most men. Besides gaining a reputation for honesty, Lincoln acquired analytical powers enabling him to make unusually sound judgments while under tremendous stress. Further, he learned to bear himself with such civility that he seemingly never carried a grudge or kept enemies. After his improbable election as president in 1860, these qualities were crucial to his success in guiding the nation through its greatest crisis and, thus, redefining the United States. In the early 1850s, before becoming president, Lincoln wrote a lecture about practicing law, which was published after his death. Much of what he wrote still resonates today. ADVICE FROM A GREAT MAN “The leading rule for the lawyer,” Lincoln started, “as for the man of every other calling, is diligence. Leave nothing for tomorrow which can be done to-day.” Likewise, he advised that the cases of a lawyer who believes his gifts of speech exempt him from “the drudgery of the law” will be “a failure in advance.” Although Lincoln was a litigator, he wrote: “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. . . . A moral tone ought to be infused into the profession which should drive such men out of it.” While understanding the need for lawyers to be paid, Lincoln saw something else as well. “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. As a general rule never take your whole fee in advance, nor any more than a small retainer. When fully paid beforehand, you are more than a common mortal if you can feel the same interest in the case, as if something was still in prospect for you, as well as for your client. And when you lack interest in the case the job will very likely lack skill and diligence in the performance.” The public perception of lawyers in Lincoln’s day was similar to that of today. “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.” Lincoln’s advice remains compelling more than 150 years later. Although none of us will likely measure up to his greatness, perhaps if we use his lecture as a beacon to follow, we also may leave positive marks on humankind.
Ronald A. Berutti, a partner at Weiner Lesniak in Parsippany, N.J., concentrates on complex business, real estate and benefits litigation, and defense of insurance and financial professionals. A version of this article originally appeared in the New Jersey Law Journal , an ALM publication.

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