Abraham Lincoln, who attended school in 1815 for less than a year, became a lawyer under an Illinois law enacted in 1833. This law stated that to be a lawyer, someone had to "obtain a certificate procured from the court of an Illinois county certifying to the applicant's good moral character." Lincoln actually went to the Illinois Supreme Court to get his certificate. On September 9, 1836, two of the justices of the Illinois Supreme Court issued a license to practice law to Abraham Lincoln. Later, in a more formal session, on March 1, 1837, Lincoln appeared before the clerk of the Illinois Supreme Court and took an oath to support the Constitution of the United States and of Illinois. Lincoln swore he would "in all things faithfully execute the duties of Attorney and Counselor at Law." Lincoln was then formally enrolled as an attorney licensed to practice law in all the courts of the state of Illinois.
Lincoln always had a law partner. In order, his law partners were: (1) John Todd Stuart, 1837 to 1841; (2) Stephen Trigg Logan, 1841 to 1843; and (3) William "Billy" Henry Herndon, 1844 to 1854. Lincoln's offices with all his partners were always in Springfield, Illinois.
Lincoln's greatest asset as a lawyer was his ability to simplify cases. He was able to reduce even complex cases to a few key points. He put legal disputes into simple focus. He had a gift for brevity and clarity. Lincoln's unique talent was a logical oral argument rather than legal research. He had an uncanny ability to 'read' juries and influence them with his persuasive arguments.
Lincoln was a "jack-of-all-trades" when it came to his law practice. Generally speaking, he would accept any case (whether civil or criminal) brought before him. Lincoln accepted cases from farmers arguing over cow ownership up to corporate railroad cases. Many of his cases were related to breach of contract and debt collection, as those were the substance of a high percentage of court cases at that time. In all, Lincoln and his partners handled 5,173 cases, per the "Papers of Abraham Lincoln" project maintains a database on Lincoln's law practice.
Twice a year, Lincoln departed Springfield and traveled the Eighth Judicial Circuit. Although the border of the circuit shifted over time, it was located in central Illinois and included as many as 14 counties. Along with a small group of attorneys and a judge, Lincoln traveled to the various county seats to try any ready case. In essence, they were bringing the court to the people. The small group often traveled from town to town by horseback and would spend at least a few days, sometimes more than a week, in each county seat trying cases. The group completed the 400-500 mile loop in roughly 11 weeks.
Lincoln argued several hundred cases before the Illinois Supreme Court, and he made his one and only United States Supreme Court appearance in 1849 in the case of Lewis v. Lewis. The case was about the construction of the Illinois statute of limitations in its application to a suit brought by a non-resident plaintiff. Lincoln argued on behalf of Thomas Lewis. The court decided against Lincoln and his client, and the majority opinion was rendered by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney. Justice John McLean wrote a lengthy dissenting opinion which he held in accordance with Lincoln's contentions.
Lincoln's fees were usually in the $5 to $20 range, but he once charged $5,000. Lincoln represented the Illinois Central Railroad throughout the 1850s. In the 1853 McLean County Tax case, a case Lincoln won for the railroad, he charged his largest fee of $5,000 ($192,725 today). The case was called Illinois Central Railroad v. McLean County. The Illinois Central Railroad owned 118 acres of land in McLean County, Illinois, and the county assessor levied a tax of $428.57 on the railroad's property. The railroad argued that the Illinois General Assembly act incorporating the railroad exempted the railroad from taxes. The railroad hired Lincoln and sued McLean County for an injunction to stop the county from selling railroad land to pay taxes. The parties reached an agreement in which the court would dismiss the bill, thus ruling for McLean County. The railroad would appeal the case to the Illinois Supreme Court, where the only question would be whether the county had a lawful right to tax the Illinois Central Railroad property. Lincoln continued to represent the railroad in court. The Illinois Supreme Court reversed the judgment. Walter B. Scates, who was chief justice, ruled that the legislature could exempt property from taxation. Therefore, the charter of the Illinois Central Railroad was constitutional. Lincoln received $5,000 for his legal services but sued the railroad to collect his money.
Other Lincoln cases of note include the "Chicken Bone" case, the "Effie Afton" case, the Trailor Murder case, and the famous 1857 trial of William 'Duff' Armstrong ("the Almanac Case").
In 1861 when Lincoln was about to depart Springfield and travel to the White House, he pointed to the sign hanging from his law office, which said "Lincoln and Herndon." He told Herndon, "Let it hang there undisturbed." He promised Herndon that should he return to Springfield after his term, they would go right on practicing law "as if nothing had ever happened."
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.