Abraham Lincoln’s Legal Ethics
Lincoln accepted fees that he regarded as fair, sometimes even refusing to accept fees. He was certainly not a “job creator,” not rich, by the standards of the time, and his wife tended to spend money freely. Certainly with a growing family and some political ambitions, he could have used more money but he was unwilling to treat his clients in what he regarded as an unfair manner whatever the professional customs of the time dictated. When confronted by an ethical dilemma, he went his own way. He did not appear to be concerned with the question, “What does everybody else do?”
“CATCH ‘EM AND CHEAT ‘EM.”
The lawyers on the circuit traveled by Lincoln got together one night and tried him on the charge of accepting fees which tended to lower the established rates. It was the understood rule that a lawyer should accept all the client could be induced to pay. The tribunal was known as “The Ogmathorial Court.”
Ward Lamon, his law partner at the time, tells about it:
“Lincoln was found guilty and fined for his awful crime against the pockets of his brethren of the bar. The fine he paid with great good humor, and then kept the crowd of lawyers in uproarious laughter until after midnight.
“He persisted in his revolt, however, declaring that with his consent his firm should never during its life, or after its dissolution, deserve the reputation enjoyed by those shining lights of the profession, ‘Catch ’em and Cheat ’em.'”
And another story –
CREDITOR PAID DEBTORS DEBT.
A certain rich man in Springfield, Illinois, sued a poor attorney for $2.50, and Lincoln was asked to prosecute the case. Lincoln urged the creditor to let the matter drop, adding, “You can make nothing out of him, and it will cost you a good deal more than the debt to bring suit.” The creditor was still determined to have his way, and threatened to seek some other attorney. Lincoln then said, “Well, if you are determined that suit should be brought, I will bring it; but my charge will be $10.”
The money was paid him, and peremptory orders were given that the suit be brought that day. After the client’s departure Lincoln went out of the office, returning in about an hour with an amused look on his face.
Asked what pleased him, he replied, “I brought suit against ——, and then hunted him up, told him what I had done, handed him half of the $10, and we went over to the squire’s office. He confessed judgment and paid the bill.”
Lincoln added that he didn’t see any other way to make things satisfactory for his client as well as the other.
And another –
NEVER SUED A CLIENT.
If a client did not pay, Lincoln did not believe in suing for the fee. When a fee was paid him his custom was to divide the money into two equal parts, put one part into his pocket, and the other into an envelope labeled “Herndon’s share.”
And still one more –
“RATHER STARVE THAN SWINDLE.”
Ward Lamon, once Lincoln’s law partner, relates a story which places Lincoln’s high sense of honor in a prominent light. In a certain case, Lincoln and Lamon being retained by a gentleman named Scott, Lamon put the fee at $250, and Scott agreed to pay it. Says Lamon:
“Scott expected a contest, but, to his surprise, the case was tried inside of twenty minutes; our success was complete. Scott was satisfied, and cheerfully paid over the money to me inside the bar, Lincoln looking on. Scott then went out, and Lincoln asked, ‘What did you charge that man?’
“I told him $250. Said he: ‘Lamon, that is all wrong. The service was not worth that sum. Give him back at least half of it.’
“I protested that the fee was fixed in advance; that Scott was perfectly satisfied, and had so expressed himself. ‘That may be,’ retorted Lincoln, with a look of distress and of undisguised displeasure, ‘but I am not satisfied. This is positively wrong. Go, call him back and return half the money at least, or I will not receive one cent of it for my share.’
“I did go, and Scott was astonished when I handed back half the fee.
“This conversation had attracted the attention of the lawyers and the court. Judge David Davis, then on our circuit bench (afterwards Associate Justice on the United States Supreme bench), called Lincoln to him. The Judge never could whisper, but in this instance he probably did his best. At all events, in attempting to whisper to Lincoln he trumpeted his rebuke in about these words, and in rasping tones that could be heard all over the court-room: ‘Lincoln, I have been watching you and Lamon. You are impoverishing this bar by your picayune charges of fees, and the lawyers have reason to complain of you. You are now almost as poor as Lazarus, and if you don’t make people pay you more for your services you will die as poor as Job’s turkey!’
“Judge O. L. Davis, the leading lawyer in that part of the State, promptly applauded this malediction from the bench; but Lincoln was immovable.
“‘That money,’ said he, ‘comes out of the pocket of a poor, demented girl, and I would rather starve than swindle her in this manner.'”
From – LINCOLN’S YARNS AND STORIES
A Complete Collection of the Funny and Witty Anecdotes that made Abraham Lincoln Famous as America’s Greatest Story Teller With Introduction and Anecdotes
By Alexander K. McClure
(This material is in the public domain.)