Lincoln on Being a Lawyer

by Jeff Haanen

I came across this quote while reading the late Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy Continued, and it was so rich I wanted to pass it on to you:

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 dishonestly 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 judgement 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.

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. 

Well, there you have it. In two paragraphs, Abraham Lincoln gives us both the problem with the law and the solution. Society confers upon lawyers the high responsibility of interpreting and upholding the law, without which the justice system would crumble. Yet most people distrust lawyers. When Gallup does its annual poll of public perception of honesty/ethics in the professions, lawyers are toward the bottom, just above advertisers, car salesmen and member of congressmen (many of whom are lawyers!).

Is this deserved? Maybe, maybe not. But all the same, Lincoln says, Don’t yield to this perception. Be honest. And if you can’t be honest while being a lawyer, quit law, and be honest anyway.

Not so easy. To be sure. But he offers practical wisdom to the young lawyer: Discourage litigation. Find compromise. Count the cost. Be a peacemaker.

And have no fear, says America’s greatest president, there will be plenty of business to go around.  Not only will there be legal disputes a plenty because of fallen human nature, but if you were to actually practice these things, clients would likely beat down your door because you’d have the reputation of being the most honest lawyer in town.

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Jeff Haanen

Jeff Haanen is a writer and entrepreneur. He founded Denver Institute for Faith & Work, a community of conveners, teachers and learners offering experiences and educational resources on the gospel, work, and community renewal. He is the author of An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life and an upcoming two-book series on spiritual formation, vocation, and the working class for Intervarsity Press. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Denver and attends Wellspring Church in Englewood, Colorado.