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Lincoln's Advice to Lawyers

Before Abraham Lincoln was elected President, he practiced law for nearly 25 years in Illinois. Occasionally his writings reveal advice he offered lawyers or aspiring lawyers. In this selection of quotations you will notice his emphasis on self-education, the method he used to enter the profession. At the time, studying with an established lawyer was far more common than attending law school. Lincoln came from an impoverished background and could not afford law school, let alone college or preparatory school. In his autobiography of 1860 he wrote that he "studied with nobody."

Letter to Isham Reavis on November 5, 1855

My dear Sir:
I have just reached home, and found your letter of the 23rd. ult. I am from home too much of my time, for a young man to read law with me advantageously. If you are resolutely determined to make a lawyer of yourself, the thing is more than half done already. It is but a small matter whether you read with any body or not. I did not read with any one. Get the books, and read and study them till, you understand them in their principal features; and that is the main thing. It is of no consequence to be in a large town while you are reading. I read at New-Salem, which never had three hundred people living in it. The books, and your capacity for understanding them, are just the same in all places. Mr. Dummer is a very clever man and an excellent lawyer (much better than I, in law-learning); and I have no doubt he will cheerfully tell you what books to read, and also loan you the books.

Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed, is more important than any other one thing. Very truly Your friend
A. Lincoln

Letter to William H. Grigsby on August 3, 1858

My dear Sir:
Yours of the 14th. of July, desiring a situation in my law office, was received several days ago. My partner, Mr. Herndon, controls our office in this respect, and I have known of his declining at least a dozen applications like yours within the last three months.

If you wish to be a lawyer, attach no consequence to the place you are in, or the person you are with; but get books, sit down anywhere, and go to reading for yourself. That will make a lawyer of you quicker than any other way. Yours Respectfully,
A. Lincoln

Letter to James T. Thornton on December 2, 1858

Dear Sir
Yours of the 29th, written in behalf of Mr. John W. Widmer, is received. I am absent altogether too much to be a suitable instructor for a law student. When a man has reached the age that Mr. Widner has, and has already been doing for himself, my judgment is, that he reads the books for himself without an instructor. That is precisely the way I came to the law. Let Mr. Widner read Blackstone's Commentaries, Chitty's Pleadings's -- Greenleaf's Evidence, Story's Equity, and Story's Equity Pleading's, get a license, and go to the practice, and still keep reading. That is my judgment of the cheapest, quickest, and best way for Mr. Widner to make a lawyer of himself. Yours truly
A. Lincoln

NOTE: Lincoln sometimes misspelled Widmer's name in the above letter.

Letter to John M. Brockman on September 25, 1860

J. M. Brockman, Esq.
Dear Sir: Yours of the 24th. asking "the best mode of obtaining a thorough knowledge of the law" is received. The mode is very simple, though laborious, and tedious. It is only to get the books, and read, and study them carefully. Begin with Blackstone's Commentaries, and after reading it carefully through, say twice, take up Chitty's Pleadings, Greenleaf's Evidence, & Story's Equity &c. in succession. Work, work, work, is the main thing. Yours very truly
A. Lincoln

For interesting reading, see also Notes from a Law Lecture


Source: Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler et al.

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