I’m working my way through Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which distills leadership lessons from the careers of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, and LBJ. Solid read so far.
One of the highlights is the section where a chastened Lincoln responds to his failed stint in congress (following his failed stint in the Illinois state legislature) by deciding to become an elite trial lawyer:
The half-decade that followed Lincoln’s brief and unhappy tenure in Congress is often depicted as a period of withdrawal from public life. He himself claimed that he “was losing interest in politics.” Although one might suspect his claim, it is undeniable that he practiced law more assiduously than ever before. Furthermore, this waiting period was anything but a passive time; it was, on the contrary, an intense period of personal, intellectual, moral, and professional growth, for during these years he learned to position himself as a lawyer and a leader able to cope with the tremors that were beginning to rack the country.
So how did our nation’s most celebrated Vampire Hunter transform himself into a Super Lawyer?
What fired in Lincoln this furious and fertile time of self-improvement? The answer lay in his readiness to gaze in the mirror and soberly scrutinize himself. Taking stock, he found himself wanting. . . . Upon resuming his legal practice after returning to Illinois, he noted with matter-of-fact candor: “I am not an accomplished lawyer.” Lincoln had already practiced law for twelve years and was earning sufficient money to support his family. But after a long hiatus politicking, he felt that his legal prowess had atrophied while the profession had grown more complex and sophisticated in his absence, requiring greater powers of reasoning and “a broad knowledge of the principles” beneath the statutory law. . . . Acknowledging “a certain lack of discipline–a want of mental training and method”–Lincoln began to apply himself mightily . . . .
For context, this is taking place circa 1850, when Lincoln is 40 years old. People were already complaining that the practice of law is getting complicated. Ecclesiastes 1:9 etc.
Lincoln throws himself into riding the circuit with judges, lawyers, witnesses, and bailiffs:
Lincoln relished this convivial setting; but more importantly, it was on the circuit that he managed to create the time and space needed to conduct his intensive course of study–a curriculum that extended well beyond the practical parameters of the law. He studied philosophy, astronomy, science, political economy, history, literature, poetry, and drama. From his earliest years, when unable to understand what someone had said, he would turn the phrases over in his mind, battering them against his brow until he could capture their meaning. So, now, with mathematics, he persisted “almost to the point of exhaustion” until he could proudly claim that he had “nearly mastered the Six Books of Euclid.”
Sidenote: Euclid is on the St. Johns’ great books reading list. Back to our A storyline:
Lincoln “would read and study for hours,” [his law partner] recalled, long after everyone else had gone to sleep, “placing a candle on a chair at the head of his bed,” often remaining in this position until 2 a.m. . . . Not only did Lincoln stay up later than colleagues, but “he was in the habit of rising earlier.”
Almost surely unelated: the circuit riders would “settle in the local tavern for the night, always forced to share rooms and often beds.” Lincoln was reportedly a moderate drinker. The legal profession as a whole, not so much.
At any rate, we get to my favorite part:
So successful did Lincoln become in defending his clients and speaking before juries, that he soon developed “the largest trial practice of all his peers in central Illinois.”
The key to Lincoln’s success was his uncanny ability to break down the most complex case or issue “into its simplest elements.” He never lost a jury by fumbling with or reading from a prepared argument, relying instead “on his well-trained memory.” He aimed for intimate conversations with the jurors, as if conversing with friends. Though his arguments were “logical and profound,” they were “easy to follow,” fellow lawyer Henry Clay Whitney observed. “His language was composed of plain Anglo-Saxon words and almost always absolutely without adornment.” An Illinois judge captured the essence of Lincoln’s appeal: “He had the happy and unusual faculty of making the jury believe that they–and not he–were trying the case.”