Legal Commentary by Monte Vines

Lincoln on Honest Lawyers

Lincoln memorial sideviewAbraham Lincoln was a lawyer before getting into politics. His papers include notes he prepared for a law lecture. Here is part of what he prepared for the law students:

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.

7 Responses to Lincoln on Honest Lawyers

  1. Much like physicians, lawyers can only be effective in disseminating truth as doctors can be diagnosing an illness because so much depends upon each client representing accurate, factual and complete information. Like any profession, there are attorneys who do not uphold the integrity of their chosen profession but my experience over 3.5 decades is that most lawyers embrace the integrity of truth and justice as central and fundamental, and do not twist truth just for the sake of prevailing.

  2. I believe the same to which you speak and comment that lawyers are honest and true in both the practice of law and in person and do hold a higher standard to themselves of both honesty and fairness. I also believe by the time parties are in need of litigation and are in court system they are upset and frustrated with the situation before them, and this frustration colors the process and emotion they feel. Many times dispute resolutions and litigation are of a compromising nature while parties involved want to win, thus with a resolution at hand mediation or court rulings, the emotional feelings of the parties may not be settled.

  3. Good message about honesty for everyone, Monte. As a recovering lawyer, I can appreciate the need for honesty and integrity in all of our dealings, both in business and in our personal lives. I’ve found that the lawyers I work with in my commercial real estate practice are indeed honest, trustworthy and represent their clients with zealous advocacy. I’m always comfortable referring clients to your law firm.

  4. Thank you for sharing this, Monte. It reminded me of something I learned from my Dad many years ago. He told me that if I told the truth I would not have to worry about remembering what I said.

  5. So, Monte, 160 years ago Abe found it necessary to make the above statement. And today “there is still a vague belief among many people that lawyers are typically dishonest.” Sounds like you guys need a new PR firm!

    Or better yet, discourage lawyers from becoming politicians. That will cure the image issue really quickly.

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