Lincoln: Trial Laywer and Political Strategist

By Debra Henley, FJA Executive Director

That Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer is fairly well known. What is not as widely realized is that he was a special breed of lawyer – a trial lawyer. Lincoln employed his wisdom, wit, preparation and uncanny insight into the needs and desires of others to obtain the best outcome possible for his clients and ultimately for the Union. Each member of the Florida Justice Association should feel a deep sense of pride for what you do for people every day in your practice. To be a trial lawyer is to carry forth through the generations not only an American tradition, but an American right. A noble profession perpetually in pursuit of a laudable ideal – Justice.

Lincoln was an exemplification of what it means to be a trial lawyer. “The leading rule for the lawyers, as for the man of every other calling is diligence.  Leave nothing for tomorrow which can be done today,”  Abraham Lincoln – circa 1850.

That Abraham Lincoln was also a highly skilled political strategist should be apparent given his tremendous accomplishments at a pivotal time in American history. We are drawn into this aspect of      Lincoln’s political career by the Steven Spielberg movie Lincoln which might very well have been titled, Lincoln and the Art of Politics. At its essence, the film is an intriguing portrayal of law-making. I was under the impression that the movie would be a biographical account of the 16th President through the Civil War; however, the focus was on the intricate strategy to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery through the 38th Congress.

It should not have been surprising to me, (although oddly enough it was), that the Lincoln Administration sought the assistance of lobbyists for this monumental task. The chief lobbyist, W.N. Bilbo, adroitly portrayed by James Spader, demonstrated the lengths to which the lobbyists of yesterday, (and still today) go for “the vote.”  In this 19th century version of political lobbyists, Bilbo and his team of ragtag comrades basically fly by the seat of their pants as they go about influencing delegates long before lobbying became the mainstream business it is today. True to form, the trio of “consultants” along with Lincoln’s key advisors, carefully constructed a plan of action for each targeted member of Congress and did what it took to secure the critical number of concessions, “walks,” and votes.  A key scene in the film shows Lincoln advising that sometimes when heading true north, walking in a straight line may not be the quickest route. We have learned as a result of the last two decades of legislative battles over the civil justice system, that there are swamps, mountains and lakes in the way, just as Lincoln described.  

The Florida Justice Association prepares for the inevitable attacks faced by your clients and your practices year after year; sizing up the legislative landscape, determining the lay of the land, and ensuring that we have the right personnel and strategies in place to achieve the best result for those who are seeking or will someday seek redress in Florida’s courts. Revert to Lincoln’s admonishment about the need for preparation and diligence.  There is simply no substitute for it in this line of work or yours.

In Lincoln’s day, mankind stood in the balance. There was never more at stake in the history of America. Our task pales in comparison, yet its importance deserves recognition. The Florida Justice Association, its volunteer leaders and members, lobbyists, veteran staff, and new additions to the staff will do our due diligence; leave nothing to chance and nothing on the table as we fight on behalf of your practices and your clients. As we gear up in February for the challenges ahead, I hope that all of you will take a moment to remember Abraham Lincoln, the trial lawyer from Illinois, during the month of his birth and may we together, forever sustain the blessings of Liberty, Freedom, Equality and Justice for All.

The action report this month contains a preview of the challenges to the Civil Justice System that lay ahead when the Legislature convenes this year March 5 – May 3, 2013(see Legislative Preview, page AR19).  If you would like to join us, please go to our website and select a few days to come to Tallahassee – you can sign up for the day(s) you plan to be in Tallahassee and/or sign up to sponsor a lunch during session by visiting our website.

 I can assure you that your trip will be worthwhile, and that you will leave with an appreciation of the business of lobbying and value of being a member and supporter of the Florida Justice Association and FJ PAC.