Central Illinois’ most famous attorney took an interesting route to the White House, working in a variety of industries before he found his way to the practice of law and politics.
As Abraham Lincoln undoubtedly learned during his tenure as a lawyer, a love of the law is not all that is necessary to become a successful attorney or run a successful practice or business. Lincoln had to grow and adjust his legal business as the political and economic landscape of central Illinois evolved during his time as a practicing lawyer—just as all businesspeople must do today to stay viable in our ever-changing economy.
Like many people starting their careers today, Lincoln did not begin at the top. He worked a variety of different jobs—as a store clerk, representative in the Illinois General Assembly, postmaster, surveyor and store owner. In fact, he did not start his legal career until after he became an elected official, when he won the 1834 election to represent Sangamon County in the Illinois General Assembly. Lincoln had previously considered a career in law, but didn’t think that he had enough education. He had attended school only sporadically when he was younger, but he showed his love of reading and debating while living and working in New Salem, Illinois, by reading the classics and joining the debating society.
It took the encouragement of a future mentor, John Todd Stuart, to spur Lincoln towards a legal career. A colleague of Lincoln’s in the Illinois General Assembly in Vandalia, Stuart had a law practice in Springfield, and Lincoln would travel there from New Salem to borrow legal books and teach himself about the law when the General Assembly was not in session. There was no requirement that he attend law school, and so, after an examination given by the Illinois Supreme Court, Lincoln was issued a license to practice law on September 9, 1836.
Lincoln’s career as an attorney mirrors the paths of many in today’s workplace. He was a member of several partnerships that were dissolved and discontinued. First, Lincoln was a junior legal partner in Stuart’s legal practice, but that partnership was dissolved after Stuart won a second term in the United States Congress. He then partnered with Stephen T. Logan for three years, a partnership that ended when Lincoln decided that he wanted to start his own practice. Lincoln began his own practice and hired a junior partner, William H. Herndon, to assist him. Lincoln and Herndon remained partners throughout Lincoln’s presidency and until his death. According to Herndon, Lincoln had intended to return to their law practice after he served his two terms as president.
Lincoln’s law practice changed with the fluctuating political landscape of central Illinois and as various new opportunities presented themselves. When he first started his career as an attorney, he primarily represented clients in Sangamon County and handled cases regarding debts, representing both creditors and debtors. When a new bankruptcy act was passed in 1841, he began to take on bankruptcy cases. Lincoln eventually expanded his service area to the entire Eighth Judicial Circuit, which, by 1849, consisted of 14 counties, including Sangamon, Tazewell, Logan and McLean. One judge would hear cases in all of the counties, staying in each for a day or several weeks, depending on the caseload of that particular county.
When judges and lawyers travelled to the different counties to hear cases, they were said to be “riding the circuit.” The judges and other court members traveled from county to county on horseback, and when the weather and roads were particularly bad, they would stay at farmhouses along the way. The practice of literally riding the circuit eventually gave way to travel by rail, as rail lines grew to connect the counties and make travel on the circuit easier.
Lincoln would travel to these counties to provide legal services in the spring and fall, when the weather cooperated. For some time, he was the only attorney to travel to all 14 counties in the Eighth Judicial Circuit, besides the assigned state’s attorney and judge. Lincoln would travel to the county where the judge was holding court, and other attorneys would often enlist his assistance on cases, or clients would approach him on their own. He sometimes advertised his legal services in the local newspapers or informally partnered with another local attorney.
Lincoln, in a sense, developed a regional presence. As the only attorney to travel the entire Eighth Judicial Circuit, he earned the nickname “Honest Abe” and created an enduring reputation that propelled and followed him to the White House. He was innovative in his approach to expanding his law practice and his innovation, no doubt, helped him to become widely recognized throughout the state on his path to becoming president.
Lincoln’s career path, as well as his management and cultivation of his law practice, provides insight to the business climate of his day. Earning a reputation for integrity, providing valuable services for clients, and taking calculated risks to grow a local business into a regional one are relevant lessons for today’s business people. There are, indeed, still lessons to be learned in our modern era from Lincoln’s time as a central Illinois attorney “riding the circuit.” iBi