Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress
Abraham Lincoln, 1850-1860 (Notes for lecture on law)
Abraham Lincoln, Draft of a Lecture on Practicing Law1, 
The leading rule for the lawyer, as for the man of every other calling, is diligence. Leave nothing for to-morrow, which can be done to-day-- Never let your correspondence fall behind-- Whatever piece of business you have in hand, before stopping, do all the labor pertaining to it, which can then be done-- When you bring a common-law suit, if you have the facts for doing so, write the declaration at once-- If a law point be involved, examine the books, and note the authority you rely on, upon the declaration itself, where you are sure to find it when wanted-- The same of defences and pleas-- In business not likely to be litigated -- ordinary collection cases, forclosures, partitions, and the like, -- make all examinations of titles and note them, and even draft orders and decrees in advance-- This course has a tripple advantage; it avoids omissions and neglect, saves you labor, whenever done; performs the labor out of court when you have leisure, rather than in court, when you have not-- Extemporaneous speaking should be practiced and cultivated-- It is the lawyer's avenue to the public-- However able and faithful he may be in other respects, people are slow to bring him business, if he can not make a speech-- And yet there is not a more fatal error to young lawyers, than relying too much on speech-making-- If any one, upon his rare powers of speaking, shall claim an exemption from the drudgery of the law, his case is a failure in advance
The matter of fees is important far beyond the mere question of bread and butter involved-- Properly attended to fuller justice is done to both lawyer and client-- An exorbitant fee should never be claimed-- As a general rule, never take your whole fee in advance, nor any more than a small retainer-- When fully paid before hand, you are more than a common mortal if you can feel the same interest in the case, as if something was still in prospect for you, as well as for your client-- And when you lack interest in the case, the job will very likely lack skill and diligence in the performance-- Settle the amount of fee, and take a note in advance-- Then you will feel that you are working for something, and you are sure to do your work faithfuly and well. Never sell a fee-note -- at least, not before the consideration service is performed-- It leads to negligence and dishonesty -- negligence, by losing interest in the case, and dishonesty in refusing to refund, when you have allowed the consideration to fail--
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 expression, is common -- almost universal-- Let no young man, choosing the law for a calling, for a moment yield to this popular belief-- Resolve to be honest at all events; and if, in your own judgment, you can not 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--
[Note 1 The occasion for which Lincoln prepared these remarks is, like its date, unknown. From its content, it would seem to be part of a lecture intended for a group of young lawyers just starting out in practice. Younger members of the bar might be expected to seek the advice of a successful, experienced lawyer, especially one with a great reputation as a speaker. Whether it was meant to be read as is, or its statements used as talking points to be expanded on extemporaneously, is not clear. What his partner William H. Herndon referred to as Lincoln's own personal lack of system is not apparent from what Lincoln prescribes for budding lawyers in this lecture, but it seems likely that, rather than on expounding a system of his own, Lincoln was focusing on the most common problems encountered by young lawyers. He also took advantage of these circumstances to address the status of the profession and the need for higher standards of ethical conduct. The date assigned to this document by Nicolay and Hay, July 1, 1850, appears arbitrary and unsubstantiated; Basler suggests that it was probably much later.]
Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois.