Denver Bar Association
June 2009
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How to Leave Your Own Legacy, as Inspired by Lincoln

by Hon. David M. Ebel
U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals


National Law Day this year commemorated the 200th Bicentennial of President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Lincoln’s legacy of liberty still inspires us today. But just how did Lincoln achieve that legacy?

Lincoln’s First Legacy is the legacy of accepting responsibility for your own life. Lincoln understood that the world did not owe him a living. His law firm did not owe him a stream of clients or meaningful work. The only person who owed him anything was himself. He owed himself an education, and so he read voraciously night and day. He owed himself a job, and so he sought out a wide array of jobs, from farmer to rail splitter to lawyer.

I have never forgotten a Lincolnesque-type moment years ago when I was practicing at Davis Graham & Stubbs. One of our senior partners, Don Hoagland, and I were meeting with a young associate about the possibility of cultivating a new client the young associate knew.

The young associate asked if the firm would pay for him to take the potential client and his wife to dinner at a fancy restaurant. Quite to my surprise, Don Hoaglund, who is a mild-mannered man, jumped up from his chair and said, "This is supposed to be your client. If he is not important enough to you to spend your money to dine him, then he is not important enough to the firm for us to spend our money."

What Don Hoaglund was saying was that it was the young associate’s responsibility to develop clients, to develop legal skills, to develop a reputation. Although the firm can provide some resources, ultimately whether you become a successful lawyer is up to you and you alone.

Lincoln’s Second Legacy is a legacy of immersing oneself in real life and learning from real people. As a young man, Lincoln experienced the life of laboring men and women, and so he learned about those lives. As a lawyer, he traveled the circuit representing people from all walks of life, living in their towns and sharing stories with them at night in pubs and around campfires. More than anything else, it was experiences with real people in real life that most prepared Abraham Lincoln for the challenges of the presidency.

Years ago, on a cold, wintery Tuesday evening at the Denver Bar Association pro bono program, a young woman had come up to me and said she needed my help to persuade her landlord to turn on the electricity in his garage. This didn’t seem to be a very important legal issue until she explained that the garage was where she lived as a single mother with her baby. The garage didn’t have any heat, but that was okay because she had blankets and coats from the Salvation Army. It was also okay, she said, that the electric light wouldn’t work, because she could keep the baby entertained at night by talking to it and singing. She didn’t really expect a lot of the landlord because, after all, she was not paying very much rent. The problem was that she needed her electric heating pad to thaw out and warm the baby’s formula. Without electricity, she was afraid that the formula would freeze and the baby could not be fed. Then, she turned to me and said, rather matter-of-factly, "Well, I don’t mean to complain, but you know how it is." YOU KNOW HOW IT IS? I couldn’t even imagine how it is. But, after representing her, I learned a little bit about how it is.

Fortunately, even in today’s environment of legal specialization, expectations of 2,000 billable hours, passive entertainment on television and remote inter-connectivity on the Internet, that is still a way to experience real life. It is called pro bono legal work. Go to the Colorado Bar Association Web site, at www.cobar.org. There is a link there to 54 different organizations in our community that could use pro bono assistance.

Lincoln’s Third Legacy is his legacy as a storyteller. Read his speeches; read the accounts of his closing arguments. Many of these accounts are filled with stories. You will read almost no language about "party of the first part" or "the aforesaid" or "res ipsa loquitur."

Lincoln understood that stories, and often humor, is the way the human brain has been hardwired to process information. One need only to read the Old Testament to understand that. That is probably also the purpose behind many nursery rhymes. For example, "Ring-Around-the-Rosie" addressed the terrible condition of the Black Plague in a manner that made it seem less frightening to children.

Juries appreciate stories; your friends appreciate stories; your clients appreciate stories. Of course, the most compelling stories that Lincoln ever told were stories of his own life experiences, because ultimately a great storyteller has to tell his own stories.

How often do you tell stories? Do you use anecdotes, analogies and symbolism? Lincoln did, and it’s what drew people to him.

Lincoln’s Fourth Legacy is to appreciate the value of the word "no." You are all Type A personalities, I assume, and you have been told the power of the word, "yes." Yes, take the opportunities that are offered you. Yes, accept the challenges. Find a way to say yes to your clients’ requests.

In fact, soon enough you will come to see how "yes" can enslave you. By the simple expectancy of a partner telling you what good work you are doing, or a client telling you how important you are or how critical it is to achieve a particular result, you can be lead to say yes to all kinds of work, time commitments, and even ethical quagmires that you really should say no to.

Lincoln knew the power of no. He chose not to run for re-election to the Congress, even though he had the advantage of incumbency. He hadn’t found the job satisfying, and he knew that a further commitment to an unsatisfying job prevented him from pursuing better opportunities. At one point in his career, he was offered the governorship of the new Oregon territory. It must have been attractive and prestigious, but he said no. It’s a good thing, because it would have shunted him off to a backwater where he probably would not have ever been heard from again.

About 150 years ago, Lincoln set the slaves free — at least those in Confederate territory. Today, you can discover that Lincoln’s legacy of saying no can set you free from our modern-day version of slavery — being indentured to jobs or client expectations, which are not your life’s calling and which crowd out better opportunities, particularly opportunities you do not yet even know about.

Indirectly, Law Day honors lawyers, as the primary guardians of the law. It was President Eisenhower who first proclaimed Law Day, to counteract a longstanding national holiday of the Soviet Union on May 1. Instead of a parade of military might, like the Soviets, however, he decided to commemorate America’s commitment to government under law. In effect, he was saying that it is the law that can trump your armies.

Similarly, Lincoln fought against succession because he believed it to be illegal under the compact among states in the Constitution. He abolished slavery because he believed it to be against the most basic law of the land, the Declaration of Independence. In each case, he predicated his actions not on some feel-good abstract notion, but on the bedrock of the law.

We all know Lincoln’s legacies. But the question with which I now leave you is this: What will be your legacies to future generations? How can you, as lawyers, prepare yourselves now for the challenges that life and the law have in store for you in the future? Lincoln’s legacies can point you in the right direction.


This essay is a shortened version of a speech by U.S. Circuit Judge David M. Ebel (pictured above), presented at the DBA Young Lawyers 2009 Annual Law Day Luncheon at The Oxford Hotel. For the full version, click here.


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