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The Law of Lawyering According to Lincoln: Honest At All Events

The Pew Research Center recently revealed that only 18 percent of Americans feel that lawyers contribute a lot to the well-being of American society, proving that lawyers are the least liked profession in the country. 

Those statistics are not just sad, they are disheartening.  I suspect that they stem, at least in part, from the belief that lawyers are self-interested, pecuniary, and dishonest.  I am fully convinced that nothing could be further from the truth and believe that, if the American public understood the ethical rules that ground and govern the practice of law, the widely accepted myth of the greedy, dishonest lawyer would crumble.

Yet, while the rules of professional ethics are meant to insure that attorneys conduct themselves with the highest degree of professionalism, and a wealth of legal scholarship and analysis has been poured into considering the rules of ethics and the regulation of attorney conduct, the best, most concise, and most compelling instruction guide for lawyering was written by Abraham Lincoln:

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.  Choose some other occupation, rather than one in the choosing of which you do, in advance, consent to be a knave.

Other than living in a time when lawyers were only men – and thus failing to include women in his proscription against dishonesty – Lincoln got it squarely right.  Lawyers should have an approval rating greater than 18 percent.  Lawyers should, as a profession, be respected for their ethics and professionalism.  Following Lincoln’s rules on lawyering – resolving to be honest at all events – is the best start for us all.


© 2020 SHERIN AND LODGEN LLPNational Law Review, Volume IV, Number 142


About this Author

Debra Squires-Lee, Litigation Attorney, Sherin and Lodgen Law FIrm

Debra Squires-Lee is a partner in the firm’s Litigation Department, co-chair of the Business Litigation and Professional Liability Practice Groups, and co-chair of the firm's Mentoring Committee. Debra is an experienced trial lawyer and concentrates her practice on legal malpractice defense and complex commercial litigation. She defends lawyers and law firms in professional malpractice cases and before the Board of Bar Overseers. She also defends companies in “bet the company” litigation, including defense of trade secret misappropriation claims, complex contract...