Abraham Lincoln is an icon of American history. He is prominently named in various opinion polls as among the best Presidents in the history of the United States. His stature as a great President is perhaps best reflected currently in the stream of events constituting a national two-year celebration of his 1809 birth. Even before that, however, scholarly and popular interest and Lincoln’s life and Presidency continued unabated, as indicated by the steady publication and success of books about him. Notable among these works is David Herbert Donald’s best-selling biography of our sixteenth President titled Lincoln.
Although Mr. Donald’s compelling book offers readers knowledge and insight into all aspects of Lincoln’s life and Presidency, as a recent reader I was struck by how often the work caused me to think about the subject of contemporary legal ethics. This is not entirely surprising. In addition to his revered position as a preeminent leader of our nation at a critical time in history, Lincoln is also regarded by a number of legal scholars as an icon of American lawyering. He has been described as a model of the sort of lawyer who once embodied the true values of the legal profession, as a standard against which to judge how far today’s profession has fallen in its ethics, and as an ideal toward which lawyers should again strive in order to recapture the proper focus and emphasis on professionalism. It is also not too surprising that I, as a long-time teacher of legal ethics, would tend to reflect upon the biography of a leading lawyer from the perspective of that subject. Still, in choosing to inform myself through Mr. Donald’s book I had not anticipated that my reactions would so frequently involve digressions into the subject of legal ethics.
In this Article, I offer these insights. Let me clarify that I do not purport, nor am I competent, to review Mr. Donald’s book or to provide a broader look into or comment on Lincoln’s life, law practice, or role in history. Instead, I intend merely to describe here what lessons I learned or had reinforced about lawyers’ ethics by my reading of Mr. Donald’s account of Lincoln’s life.
Eugene R. Gaetke, Lessons in Legal Ethics from Reading about the Life of Lincoln, 97 Ky. L.J. 583 (2009)