Abraham Lincoln, by artist John Holcomb

In the February issue of Arizona Attorney (online February 1), we will run a great essay on what Abraham Lincoln can teach us modern-day lawyers. In some ways, his advice proves that we’ve learned very little since the 19th Century.

The essay is by lawyer Mark Rubin, who examines President Lincoln’s Notes for a Law Lecture. It’s in our recurring series titled “Law’s Attic.”

(Excuse me while I insert one small pitch for Law’s Attic, our feature that “sheds light on remarkable historical events whose anniversary is upon us. The feature is comprised of occasional short essays on noteworthy cases, laws or legal events whose anniversary is ripe—whether they occurred 10 years ago, or 500.” If you have suggestions for legal historical events that we should cover in 2011, contact me at arizona.attorney@azbar.org.)

Along with the many things Lincoln advised lawyers about (which Mark covered so well), he always spoke about the “vague popular belief that lawyers are necessarily dishonest.” Our 16th President continued:

“I say vague, because when we consider to what extent confidence and honors are reposed in and conferred upon lawyers by the people, it appears improbable that their impression of dishonesty is very distinct and vivid. Yet the impression is common, almost universal.”

As the Metaphysical poet George Herbert said ...

Back to the future in 2011, how true that is. Americans have a real like–hate relationship with lawyers even now.

In law associations, much hand-wringing occurs over how we can tell the world about the good deeds lawyers accomplish. How can we improve the reputation of a profession that appears to be in decline (the reputation, that is, not the profession)?

OK, I get it. Lawyers, myself included, would prefer to have a good rep rather than a bad one. But we may be fighting against a straw man. For as Lincoln himself suggested, the popular belief about dishonest lawyers is a vague one. Many people may dislike the profession (or think they do), but they tend to like their own lawyer, or anyone they know who is a lawyer.

In my December Editor’s column, I wrote about renewed calls for lawyers to give more of their skills pro bono—in many ways, a troubling request:

Lawyering is very hard work. And contrary to what the popular media portray, that work is about more than billing and collecting and mortgaging second and third homes. It is about commitment to the needs of others, whether they be individuals or businesses.”

“That is what makes a call for pro bono service such a complicated project. The American Bar Association designated a week in October as a National Pro Bono Celebration. In support of that event, I published a few stories online about pro bono in Arizona (here, here, here, here and here). But urging service out of already-service-driven people feels a bit like, well, badgering.”

... Living Well Is the Best Revenge (by the band Midtown)

So yes, Lincoln and everyone else are right that we should safeguard our profession’s reputation. But at the same time, I remind my fellow lawyers—and friends who are not lawyers—that to speak about the good that lawyers do, you need only speak about what lawyers do. For in almost every way, the law is a profession of service to others.

As the poet George Herbert once suggested, the best revenge is not a giant PR campaign, or photos of lawyers kissing babies—it’s just living well, and lawyering the same way.