Abraham Lincoln wrote the following sometime in the 1850’s. Why he wrote it is unknown. Perhaps he was giving a speech on the practice of law. If so, we have no record of him delivering it. The notes were never published in his lifetime. I have attempted to live by it during my 37 years as a lawyer, except in the matter of fees. I quickly learned as a young attorney that if a lawyer didn’t get most of his fee upfront, he would not infrequently have to hound a client for payment, or pursue a collection action against his former client, something I found extremely distasteful. I also learned that most clients preferred to know what the total charge was going to be upfront so they could factor that in when making their determination as to whether to hire an attorney. Thus, in most cases, where it is possible to do so, I ask for a fee sufficient to accomplish the task. This is hard to estimate in many cases, and if the case takes longer than I estimated, I normally will continue working until the task is accomplished and charge no extra fee. In certain classes of cases, where litigation is hotly contested, I warn the client that I may have to ask for subsequent fees. I try to do that as little as possible, recalling that if I were the client I would hate the uncertainty as to what the litigation is costing me. Institutional clients with large resources sometimes prefer hourly billing, and I accommodate them, although I warn that in my experience the charges by that method usually exceed the flat fees I normally charge. (This is not done simply out of the goodness of my heart. Time keeping on cases detracts from the time I can expend actually providing legal services, time being the most precious resource for an attorney.) Except as to fees, I have found Mr. Lincoln’s advice to be quite sound.
I am not an accomplished lawyer. I find quite as much material for a lecture in those points wherein I have failed, as in those wherein I have been moderately successful. 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 defenses and pleas. In business not likely to be litigated, — ordinary collection cases, foreclosures, partitions, and the like, — make all examinations of titles, and note them, and even draft orders and decrees in advance. This course has a triple advantage; it avoids omissions and neglect, saves your labor when once done, performs the labor out of court when you have leisure, rather than in court when you have not. Extemporaneous speaking should be practised 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 cannot 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.
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.
Never stir up litigation. A worse man can scarcely be found than one who does this. Who can be more nearly a fiend than he who habitually overhauls the register of deeds in search of defects in titles, whereon to stir up strife, and put money in his pocket? A moral tone ought to be infused into the profession which should drive such men out of it.
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 beforehand, 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 faithfully 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 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.