There is a vague popular belief that lawyers are necessarily dishonest. … Let no [one] 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.
Honesty is important in every occupation! But lawyers deal with people’s rights and obligations, and their disputes about those rights and obligations. And lawyers often deal with those disputes in court, where witnesses are sworn “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” and where lawyers are considered to be officers of the court in the search for truth and justice. So in some ways honesty may be even more important for lawyers than for those in some other occupations.
More than 160 years after Lincoln prepared those notes, it seems there is still a vague belief among many people that lawyers are typically dishonest. And I know with some people it’s not so vague. But in my 33 years of practicing law, that has not been my experience. My experience with other lawyers, who would usually be representing my client’s adversary in a dispute, is that they are typically honest and trustworthy. Of course there can be mistakes as to the facts, and misunderstandings and disagreements about the parties’ rights and obligations. But the lawyers I have dealt with typically conduct their business with me honestly and care about the truth.
All of us, lawyers or not, should protect our commitment to deal with others honestly. It would serve us all well. And it would make Abe Lincoln proud.