Over the course of more than two decades before becoming president, Abraham Lincoln became known as one of the most able trial lawyers in Illinois. His clients ranged from huge railroads to local citizens with small claims to accused murderers. Lincoln worked in the trenches and had to make many difficult choices, some of which many attorneys face even today. One such decision that faced Lincoln was what to do when during the course of representing a client he came to believe that his client was in the wrong. Today lawyers can turn to detailed rules of professional responsibility to assist in resolving the dilemmas that arise in the practice of law. The person we now know as "Honest Abe," however, had to make his decisions without the aid of intricate guidelines on professional conduct. Those choices, made by a person regarded so highly for his integrity, are instructive as to how the modern legal profession could revise its expectations of attorneys who represent clients they believe are culpable. Part II of this article briefly examines the formation of Lincoln's reputation for honesty and integrity before he began his legal practice. Part II then explores Lincoln's philosophy regarding honesty in the practice of law and reviews historical accounts of the level of zeal Lincoln exercised in representing clients he came to believe were culpable.Part III.A scrutinizes the zealous advocacy requirements of the Model Code of Professional Responsibility and the Model Rules of Professional Conduct as they would have related to Lincoln's representation of such clients. Part III.B suggests rethinking the philosophical underpinnings of the Model Code and Model Rules approach to zealous advocacy in the adversarial process. Finally, Part III.C posits possible alternatives to the current understanding of zealous advocacy that would give today's attorneys the choice to conform their conduct more closely to Lincoln's personal resolution of the issue.
Andrew L. Reisman,
An Essay on the Dilemma of "Honest Abe": The Modern Day Professional Responsibility Implications of Abraham Lincoln's Representations of Clients He Believed to Be Culpable,
72 Neb. L. Rev.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/nlr/vol72/iss4/9