Chancellor Weiss’s Remarks to Law Graduates May 28, 2009

Judge Davis, Justice Traylor, Chairman Roy, President Lombardi, Members of the Board of Supervisors, Colleagues, Parents, Friends, Golden Grads, and Members of the Law Center Class of 2009:

This year marks, as you know, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln.

From the age of 27 until he was elected President in 1860 at the age of 51, Lincoln spent most of his career as a practicing lawyer based in Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln traveled around the state, “riding the circuit” and trying almost every imaginable kind of case.

You are our Lincoln bicentennial class. So let’s consider together just a few of the many lessons to be learned from Lincoln the lawyer.

First, like his political career, Lincoln’s career as a lawyer had its share of disappointments.

In Team of Rivals, her award-winning book about Lincoln and his cabinet, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin recounts one particularly humiliating episode in Lincoln’s legal career.

By 1855, Lincoln had built a solid reputation as an Illinois trial lawyer.  A Philadelphia patent law firm hired Lincoln as local counsel in Chicago to help defend an important patent infringement case. The Philadelphia firm, according to Goodwin, wanted a local lawyer “who understood the judge and had his confidence.”

Lincoln spent many hours working on a long brief and preparing himself to work side by side on the case with his big time co-counsel from the big city.

But as he continued to work, Lincoln heard nothing from the lead counsel, who had promised to forward him pleadings and depositions in the case but had not done so. Lincoln traveled to Chicago on his own to check the record, to figure out what was going on. Only then did he find out that the case had been transferred to Cincinnati and that no one had bothered to tell him.  A prominent Ohio lawyer, Edwin M. Stanton, had been hired to replace Lincoln as local counsel there.

Undaunted, brief in hand, Lincoln took it upon himself to travel to Cincinnati to join the team representing his client.

When Lincoln arrived there, however, dressed in poorly fitting clothes and (to those inclined to be superficial in their judgments) giving the appearance of a country bumpkin lawyer far out of his league, he was treated most rudely, to say the least.

At the hotel where all the lawyers were staying, he ran into Stanton and an associate leaving for court. As Goodwin tells the story, Stanton pulled the associate aside and whispered, “Why did you bring that damned long armed Ape here … he does not know anything and can do you no good.”

Stanton and the other big city lawyers ate their meals together every day. For the entire week Lincoln was in Cincinnati, they never asked Lincoln to join them. Lincoln sat as a spectator in the courtroom, not at counsel table. One evening, when the judge on the case hosted the lawyers at dinner, Lincoln was not even invited.

These put downs must have stung Lincoln terribly. Leaving town, he wrote a note to the wife of the one local lawyer who had shown Lincoln some hospitality. In the note, Lincoln said he never expected to come to Cincinnati again. “I have nothing against the city, but things have so happened here as to make it undesirable for me ever to return here,” Lincoln wrote.

Yet, not even six years later, Lincoln would appoint the same lawyer who had treated him so shabbily, Edwin M. Stanton, his secretary of war. As Lincoln saw it, Stanton was only man who could marshal the resources necessary to hold the Union army, and thus the Union itself, together. Lincoln overcame his personal feelings and was able to put the interests of the country ahead of his own pain and resentment at his shabby treatment. And, over the next four years, Stanton would come to love Lincoln more than any person outside of his own family.

As Goodwin writes, “Though Lincoln desired success as fiercely as any of his rivals, he did not allow his quest for office to consume the kindness and openheartedness with which he treated supporters and rivals alike …” He had, she writes, “a singular ability to transcend personal vendetta, humiliation, or bitterness.”

Later, Lincoln himself would say: “No man resolved to make the most of himself can spare time for personal contention.”

What, then, does this touching story hold for you, Class of 2009? Lawyers today, as they were in 1855, are by definition trained intellectual combatants and competitors. We are taught to advocate zealously for our clients—to fight fiercely for our client’s cause.

But as we know from the experiences of many true soldiers, a life of combat has its risks as well as its rewards. Lincoln recognized that the life of a lawyer presents an unusually great danger of corroding or blunting the human impulses of empathy and generosity.

So the take away from this story is to take a cue from Lincoln and to shy away from a professional life of bickering and, as Lincoln put it, “personal contention.” Keep your eye at all times on the values of forgiveness and understanding. Give your opponent a break if you can. And do this not just because it is right, but because you will be a happier person and a happier, not to mention more successful lawyer, if you do.

Before I close, let me share with you briefly two other lessons bequeathed to us by Lincoln the lawyer.

Sometime between 1850 and 1860, around the time of his humiliation in Cincinnati, Lincoln was asked to present a lecture to a group of young lawyers just starting out in law practice. His notes for that lecture still exist, on two sheets of a legal pad, his handwriting clear and modern.

Here’s how Lincoln began that talk: “I am not an accomplished lawyer,” he wrote. “I find quite as much material for a lecture, in those points wherein I have failed, as in those wherein I have been moderately successful.”

Some might say Lincoln was being falsely modest in his introduction. I believe he was being direct and factual. Every lawyer who practices for any length of time knows two things: that he will win some and lose some, and that he will make some mistakes along the way.

The very first thing Lincoln wanted those young Illinois lawyers to know was not to demand perfection of themselves and, implicitly, not to try to win at all costs.

That doesn’t mean that you should justify sloppiness and poor preparation by simply recalling that even the best lawyers don’t always win. It does mean that you should keep your disappointments in check—everyone has them—and not be so preoccupied with winning that you run roughshod over your own fundamental values.

Live to fight another day. “Resolve to be honest at all events,” Lincoln told the young lawyers, “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.”

Finally, I want to leave you with a few of Lincoln’s words that to me are freighted with the most important message of all. A lawyer, Lincoln told the young lawyers of Illinois, “has a superior opportunity of being a good man.” (Sadly, of course, there were no women lawyers in Lincoln’s day.) So let’s translate that a bit: “a lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good person.”

What Lincoln meant, I think, is that our training as lawyers qualifies us uniquely to bring together the life of the mind with the life of the spirit—to fuse together in our professional existence challenging and exciting intellectual tasks with worthwhile work that makes a real difference in the lives of other people. Lawyering thus meets our critical human need to find a higher purpose in what we do with all of our education and all of our hard work.

The law offers many pathways to fulfillment, that fusion of mind and spirit that Lincoln had in mind and that his own life embodied. For some of you, fulfillment will lie in becoming great trial lawyers, accomplished in the courtroom. For others, it will be protecting children or the underprivileged, corporate law, or real estate law, prosecuting those accused of crimes… or defending those accused of crimes.

What matters is not the pathway you choose but that it be one that measures up to your own ideals and that it provides you with satisfaction and fulfillment.

There are many other fields of human endeavor that provide this opportunity—medicine, teaching, the clergy, humanitarian work, to name a few. But, let’s face it, there are few other fields of endeavor in which it is so easy to lose your way—so easy to become a legal automaton, a hired gun, a mouthpiece, who’s really good at the law but for whom the law is just a good paying job without meaning—for whom a day at the office is filled with success on someone else’s terms but devoid of meaning for you.

And, frankly, I fear that many pathways in the legal world circa 2009 are particularly threatening to the self-esteem, independence, and long-term satisfaction of young lawyers like you.

You will have to be particularly vigilant not to fall into one of these traps. Far too many of this country’s finest law school graduates soon become casualties of dehumanizing hours, mind-deadening document reviews, and little hope of progression to the professional fulfillment that they dreamed of when they chose to attend law school in the first place.

Robert Penn Warren, the great novelist and poet who taught here at LSU in the 1930s, once captured in only a few words the dangerous limbo of professional indifference. In Dragon Tree, Warren uses as his backdrop the natural beauty and drama of a raging river in springtime:

Spring comes early, ice
Groans in the gorge. Water, black, swirls
Into foam like lace white in fury. The gorge boulders boom.
When you hear, in darkness, the gorge boulders boom, does your heart say “No comment?”

After you leave us today, as the weeks turn into months, and months into years, remember the goals you set for yourself and check in often to make sure you are on track to achieve them. If you stand on the bank of the raging stream of legal life and the “gorge boulders” are “booming” but your heart says “No comment”, take stock of where you are, what you are doing, and for whom you are doing it. Don’t settle. Don’t sell out.

Long after you have forgotten the rules of law you have learned in your classes, long after you have forgotten case names and code sections and even the names of Supreme Court Justices, you must fight to preserve the ideals and the dreams you had for yourself when you came and went, through our doors, day by day for the last three years.

So: Class of 2009: Go forth. Prosper. Multiply. Bill. Collect. (And, whatever you do, contribute to LSU Law!) But, please, promise me, and promise yourselves, this one thing: that if one day your heart says “No comment”, you will think of Lincoln, you will think of this day, you will think of your days here at LSU Law, and you will do what it takes to reconnect with “the better angels of your [legal] nature.”