It has been said that more books have been written about Abraham Lincoln than any other historical figure except Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and William Shakespeare. Yet until the publication within [End Page 221] the last decade of works such as Mark Steiner's An Honest Calling: The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln (2006) and Brian Dirck's Lincoln the Lawyer (2007), there were relatively few studies of Lincoln's legal career. Abraham Lincoln, Esq.: The Legal Career of America's Greatest President, a collection of essays edited by Northern Kentucky University law professor Roger Billings and Lincoln Forum chair Frank J. Williams, is the most recent monograph to address this shortage. Although divided into twelve essays under three parts, the book offers some helpful generalizations concerning Lincoln's life in law, in the process debunking several persistent myths (although the story that Lincoln kept documents in his stovepipe hat is blessedly true). Lincoln was not a backwoods lawyer who got by strictly on homespun charm but a technically proficient and well-read attorney. Neither was he a "railroad" or "corporate" lawyer—he took on clients from all walks of life as they came. Indeed, the future president toiled hard at his craft, handling an estimated five thousand cases over the course of his twenty-five year career ("Work, work, work, is the main thing," he advised one correspondent). Like many other lawyers of his time and place, Lincoln's caseload was dominated not by criminal matters—which composed only a small percentage of his practice—but relatively mundane debtor-creditor litigations. His effectiveness as an attorney is reflected in the fact that colleagues frequently hired him to work on appellate cases - Lincoln was "a lawyer's lawyer."
Apart from these generalizations, some of the essays are quite informative. Harold Holzer persuasively argues that Lincoln's years as a lawyer were important because they trained him to write such seminal documents as the Cooper Union address and the Emancipation Proclamation, with the latter in particular reading like a legal brief. Mark E. Steiner's "Does Lawyer Lincoln Matter?" captures how Lincoln encouraged settlement over litigation, particularly in slander cases. In his first of three essays, Billings details Lincoln's debtor-creditor casework, helpfully providing a primer on the promissory notes that were so often the foundation of transactions in the cash-poor Illinois of the early-to-mid-nineteenth century. Legal ethics forms the basis of William T. and Billie J. Ellis Jr.'s "Competence, [End Page 222] Diligence, and Getting Paid: Lincoln's Lessons for Today's Ethical Lawyer," with the authors convincingly asserting that Lincoln surpassed the modern-day ethical standards of the American Bar Association's Model Rules of Professional Conduct (promulgated in 1983). Mackubin Thomas Owens and William D. Pederson delineate the legal impact of Lincoln's presidency, with Pederson making a reasonable case for Lincoln's influence on international law by citing the role of his administration in Francis Lieber's rules of land warfare (issued as General Orders No. 100), which in turn became a model for codes of war such as the Geneva Conventions.
Unfortunately, the quality of the essays is compromised by easily correctable flaws. Far too often the same quote is used twice within two or three pages. There are several instances in which an essay contradicts itself, such as when the Ellises open by portraying Lincoln as "an ethical role model for today's lawyer," yet close with the admonition that "the goal of this chapter has not been to persuade lawyers to model their behavior after Lincoln." And it must be said that Williams's "Lincoln's Lessons for Lawyers" is disappointing, in part because the essay is built around ten proposed traits of a great lawyer but fails to provide examples of several of those traits from Lincoln's legal career.
These weaknesses notwithstanding, Abraham Lincoln, Esq. is a worthy addition to the bookshelf of anyone seeking to learn more about the...