The Barefooted Lawyer

Lessons on work ethic from Abraham Lincoln

There are a few men who have influenced American political history as the 16th President of the United States, Mr. Abraham Lincoln. His Christ-like patience led America through its bloodiest conflict and prevented its annihilation. Had a lesser man been in his position, there’s no shadow of a doubt that the United States as we know it today would have been relegated to the fallen empires of history. Although his presence in this world was robbed too soon by an assassin’s bullet, his impact, nonetheless, remains undiminished. No wonder thieves attempted to steal his body after his death and ordinary people smeared their handkerchiefs with his blood as a souvenir. I admit that I am a self-proclaimed fanatic of Mr. Lincoln and I owe a lot of my life principles to him. Sometimes when people push me to the edge, I catch myself thinking in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, ‘What would Lincoln have done if he had this problem?’ His life, at least to me, is a source of great strength and encouragement.

American Civil War 1861-1865: Picture adapted from

In my reflections, I often wondered how a person who had less than a year of formal education came to be a lawyer and ultimately President of the United States. The answers revealed a lot. Not only about politics and leadership but also about determination. Although I could talk about so many aspects of the slain President’s life, I will focus only on his impact on work ethic. To put things in simple terms, Abraham Lincoln got the job done in whatever he put his mind to.

Wounded Buffalo

Whether this means it was done successfully or not is another discussion. I would describe his work ethic and determination as that of a wounded buffalo. It wasn’t based on natural talent and skill but on a pure determination to get the job done. Amid heartache and disappointment, he dogged his way through his challenges with incredible courage.

For example, he had to walk for at least three miles just to borrow law books. One schoolmaster had recounted that he had taught more than five thousand students, but Lincoln was the “most studious, diligent, straightforward young man in the pursuit of knowledge and literature” he had ever met. He would study the law for hours and often seemed absorbed in a different world entirely. Eye-witness accounts say that he always used to carry a book in one hand and an ax in the other. After cutting down some trees, he always used to take some time out to read after taking a rest.

Statue in Chicago, Illinois of Barefooted Teenage Abraham reading a book

When I look at how hard lawyers generally have to work to establish their reputations, I never go far in thought before considering him. In Zambia, it is a well-known fact that clearing the Law Practice Qualifications Examinations (LPQE) at the Zambia Institute of Advanced Legal Education (ZIALE) is no walk in the park. It’s quite tough. However, I believe that the media don’t really appreciate the high standards of professionalism that are expected of a lawyer. In all my research on the topic, I have found that a good legal system depends on what type of lawyers are in it. Historically, this profession was only secluded to royalty and for good reason. Good judgment and rational thinking are a strange combination that most people don’t have. The law is probably the oldest profession in the world and we can even trace its origins in the Biblical book of Genesis. One humorist actually said ‘the devil must have been a lawyer…he made Adam breach the contract he had made with God and ultimately sucked humanity into the mess it is in. Even the devil is described as a prosecutor of the brethren.’

A humorist’s idea of a deal with the devil

Putting the jokes aside, I think the law requires a practitioner to have an incredible work ethic. After all, the more experience you have as a practitioner the better you become at dealing with legal problems. You have to admit that being a lawyer is not as easy as they would want us to think. You are dealing with a profession that is tasked with interpreting documents that were written by someone who is dead or for some good reason, cannot be consulted. Myles Munroe actually said,

‘the reason why they call working as a lawyer ‘practice’ is that that’s exactly what it is: Practice. It needs to be practiced for it to be effective.’

Leadership mentor and enthusiast, dr. myles munroe

Turning to our barefooted lawyer, we could see that Lincoln met these standards quite well.

Another thing that is worthy of note about Lincoln’s work ethic was the compassion he had for his clients. There are not many accounts of Lincoln’s law practice because it often gets shadowed by his political successes. However, Dale Carnegie’s book suggests that he was a very compassionate hard-working lawyer. Dale said, ‘Many of his clients, he said, were as poor as he, and he didn’t have the heart to charge them much. Once a man sent him twenty-five dollars; and Lincoln returned ten, saying he had been too liberal. In another instance, he prevented a swindler from getting hold of ten thousand dollars’ worth of property owned by a demented girl. Lincoln won the case in fifteen minutes. An hour later, his associate, Ward Lamon, came to divide their fee of two hundred and fifty dollars. Lincoln rebuked him sternly. Lamon protested that the fee had been settled in advance, that the girl’s brother was entirely satisfied to pay it. “That may be,” Lincoln retorted, “but I am not satisfied. That money comes out of the pocket of a poor, demented girl; and I would rather starve than swindle her in this manner. You return half this money at least, or I’ll not take a cent of it as my share.”’ In my opinion, this kind of compassion is what really shaped his work ethic. You see, he wasn’t just working to get a salary at the end of the month. Although that was important as well. He really felt that what he did really changed and improved the lives of his clients and the people around him. This compassion actually spilled over into his time in the white house. Most presidents never really feel the need to associate with the commoners or at least struggle to do so because of security reasons. Lincoln, on the other hand, had no such qualms. In a letter addressed to a mother who had lost five of her boys in the civil war, he wrote his condolences in words that could be described as some sort of unconscious poetry. He said,

‘Dear Madam, —

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.

I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.

I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln’

Letter to Mrs. Bixby: Boston, 21st November, 1864

There are not too many people of prominence who could’ve said that. In fact, the civil war bore on Lincoln a very sorrowful look. He slept little and ate less. His passionate determination to end the war really took a heavy toll on him. Soon enough, some attendants in the White House saw that their President was treading dangerous waters and suggested that he take a vacation. Lincoln responded by saying that a vacation wouldn’t do him any good because he could not run away from his thoughts. Even in the presence of immense sorrow, he still upheld a very strong work ethic and culture. That’s why he said, “Always remember that your resolution to succeed is far more important than any single thing.”

A picture of Lincoln in the White House

So now, what lessons can be learned from his work ethic? Well, as you can imagine, there are several and I will leave that to you to pick the best ones. For me, personally, I draw a lot of strength from his obsessive-like determination to get the job done. The drive to continue moving forward in the presence of great adversity.

By the way, the reason why I called him the barefooted lawyer is because he often walked barefooted while he worked and studied the law. Like I said previously, he always used to be seen with a book in one hand and an ax in the other. This was a habit that was to remain with him all the way up to his days in the White House. Unlike most Presidents that came before him, he particularly didn’t mind walking around barefooted in the White House.

To be honest, I think Lincoln deserves his seat among the immortals of this world. Even today, his life can be a pillar of great strength. To working professionals, his determination can teach a thing or two about work ethic. History is a good judge and the very fact that his life still inspires today shows that the lessons are still fresh. Fresh for application for anyone bold enough to take the challenge and journey of self-improvement.

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