The Lincoln Lawyer
Before Abraham Lincoln became our greatest president, he was a great corporate lawyer. And before he was a corporate lawyer, he was a brilliant trial lawyer.
In the 1840s, Lincoln represented a Revolutionary War widow who had been bilked out of most of her pension. The widow had retained a claim agent to help her collect the $500 pension. The agent then kept half the pension for himself, claiming it was part of the contract.
Here are Lincoln’s notes for his closing argument:
“No contract. Not professional services. Unreasonable charge. Money retained by defendant – not given by plaintiff. Revolutionary War. Describe Valley Forge privation. Ice. Soldiers’ bleeding feet. Plaintiffs’ husband. Soldier leaving home for army. SKIN DEFENDANT. Close”
From the notes, it appears Lincoln made scrambled eggs of the traditional closing points set out in Aristotle’s Rhetoric.
Aristotle wrote that a great speech should begin with ethos, which means basically establishing a rapport with the audience, assure them that you have something worthwhile to say.
Next, the speech should move to logos, appealing to reason and logic to explain why your argument is fair.
Finally, the speech moves to pathos, appealing to emotion to sway the audience toward your argument.
Lincoln appears to have left ethos out altgother, but maybe that was because he was Lincoln. Instead, Lincoln started out with a cold reading of the law. It is not a contract, and not a valid payment, he pointed out.
Only then did Lincoln pour on the pathos, pointing out the sacrifice the war veteran had made for his country and the outrageous conduct of the agent. It is interesting to note that Lincoln held back on the scorn until the end of the argument, so that the audience is more likely to remember this injustice, rather than the moral debt owed to the widow.
Lincoln shows us that rules are merely guideposts, and we should trust our own judgment before we blindly follow two thousand year old outlines.