DTCI: An old lawyer’s timeless advice on the practice of law

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dtci-schulz-bradley.jpgAmericans have a tendency to attribute almost any wise advice to Abraham Lincoln. While many of these attributions are questionable, one piece Lincoln actually wrote was a document titled “Notes on the Practice of Law.” The “Notes” are remarkably relevant to today’s practice. Four of Lincoln’s suggestions are especially noteworthy.

1. “The leading rule for the lawyer…is diligence. Leave nothing for to-morrow which can be done to-day.”

We all have a limited amount of time to dedicate to the practice of law. As a result, we need to use our time wisely, both on tasks we enjoy and on those we don’t.

We all have “those cases.” The case may deal with an unfamiliar area of law, or it may be distasteful for some other reason, and we simply avoid it. “Those cases” can also be demands on our time. The task will be tedious, and so we put it off. Again, the case languishes as a result.

Diligence cures these issues. Diligence creates familiarity, which creates comfort. Diligence renders “those cases” not so difficult or unpleasant. Diligence also keeps even the onerous cases moving. One of the best pieces of advice I received as a young lawyer was three simple words: “Do it now.”

2. “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.”

It may seem strange that a lawyer should “discourage litigation.” Lawyers are called to be zealous advocates for their clients. Too often, we believe that zealous advocacy and compromise cannot coexist.

Yet lawyers are also called to be advisers. As an adviser, lawyers are to be aware of moral, economic and social factors relevant to the client’s position. Lincoln reminds us that compromise offers considerable advantages. It allows clients to resolve matters while they maintain some control over the result. Also, litigation often generates Pyrrhic victories. Your client got a little more money at trial than the last offer, but you hired three experts and the client missed four days of work in the process. This hardly resembles victory.

3. “Never stir up litigation. A worse man can scarcely be found than one who does this…A moral tone ought to be infused into the profession which should drive such men out of it.”

We use “collegiality” to describe what Lincoln is talking about. Lincoln could look to his own life for an example of why collegiality is essential. Lincoln served as counsel for a client with several other attorneys, one of whom questioned his intelligence, commented on his physical appearance and demanded the country bumpkin lawyer withdraw. The lawyer, Edwin M. Stanton, would become Lincoln’s Secretary of War.

Several lessons stand out. Today’s nemesis may be tomorrow’s ally. Lincoln’s collegiality allowed him to see past Stanton’s faults.

The Indiana legal community is comparatively small, and the chances of working with a former opponent cannot be ruled out. We serve ourselves, our clients and our employers well if we show collegiality and professionalism.

Moreover, our reputation is perhaps our most important asset. It should not be news that we all know if you are pleasant to work with or a complete jerk. Your reputation influences everything from your chances for referral work to being asked to serve on that prestigious board you have your eye on.

4. “[R]esolve 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.”

A close cousin of collegiality, many regard an honest lawyer as nothing more than an oxymoron. Yet honesty is essential to the legal system. Indeed, the oath all attorneys in Indiana take includes promises to “be consistent with truth.” There are, however, more practical reasons to follow this course.

The practice of law is difficult enough — which is why they call it the “practice” of law. There is little need to further complicate the practice with half-truths, double meanings or otherwise sacrificing honesty for the sake of winning. Zealous advocacy is not a license to discard honesty.

Lincoln’s advice rings true today, which suggests he was on the right track. In only one respect do Lincoln’s words ring hollow. He begins the “Notes” with a simple sentence: “I am not an accomplished lawyer.” With all due respect, Mr. President, I beg to differ.•

Bradley J. Schulz practices at State Farm Litigation Counsel in Indianapolis and is a member of the DTCI board of directors. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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