Login | January 21, 2019

Law Bulletin: Justice Hyman’s lessons from Lincoln

Law Bulletin columnist

Published: December 28, 2017

In this first of my three-part interview with 1st District Appellate Justice Michael B. Hyman, he describes Abraham Lincoln’s ability to remain professional, civil and gracious as an example for all lawyers.

Justice Hyman says mediators need to look to the 16th president.

“Lincoln was a great mediator because he was a peacemaker. Making peace was more important to him than litigating. If he could amicably resolve a case, he would try his darnedest to do so,” Hyman said.

Hyman has consistently been recognized for his many contributions to the judiciary. Who would have thunk it when we were both work-a-day lawyers riding Metra together? We both became judges, and he rose to acclaim. He was like Jiminy Cricket to my Pinocchio, my conscience. I did and still do bug him often for advice. As much as anyone ever has, Hyman embodies the decency, fairness and dignity that comes with being a judge.

He’s also a Lincoln devotee with memorabilia lining the walls and shelves of his chambers.

Why Lincoln?

“He is someone who had less than a year of formal education, who was self-taught, whose life was extremely difficult, who learned law on his own, who went bankrupt as a merchant due to his partner’s misdeeds yet paid off all the debts himself, who was so despondent at one point that his friends thought he might use a knife to kill himself if they didn’t take it away from him — and who, later in life, lead the nation out of a situation that could have destroyed us. Nonetheless, he became our greatest president, his utterances have embraced our national conscience.”

Here’s one Lincoln story Hyman thinks of when encountering incivility.

“Lincoln wouldn’t let his personal feelings interfere with his professional judgment. Once he was retained to represent a defendant in a big federal patent case in Illinois. The defendant hired him because their eastern U.S. lawyers thought Lincoln might have some influence on the judge.

As local counsel, Lincoln said he would prepare the case for trial. At that time there wasn’t much in terms of depositions but there was some discovery, and Lincoln obtained documents and worked hard for months, meeting with the client in Rockford, getting familiar with the facts, studying case law.”

“Then the trial was moved to Cincinnati, and his co-counsel decided they no longer needed Lincoln’s services. One of them said that he did not want to jeopardize the case by associating with ‘that long-armed baboon.’ No one had the courtesy to tell Lincoln not to attend the trial. Only at the courtroom on the first day of trial did Lincoln learn he was dismissed. His opening, which he had painstakingly drafted, was thrown away by co-counsel without being read. They completely ignored Lincoln and relegated him to the gallery.”

“Rather than return to Springfield in disgust, Lincoln sat in the courtroom and watched the trial. His co-counsel never spoke a word to him throughout the trial. When the case concluded, the judge — this is back in the mid-1850s — invited all the attorneys to his home for dinner, except for Lincoln.”

“Lincoln returned to Springfield. While he did not enjoy his time in Cincinnati, he said nothing about his shabby treatment. The lawyer who treated him so rudely and called him hurtful names was Edward Stanton, later appointed by Lincoln as his secretary of war.”

“Despite their past, Lincoln felt that Stanton was the most qualified person for the position, and Lincoln did not let Stanton’s disdain for him (or Lincoln’s disappointment in his treatment by Stanton) intrude on his responsibilities as president. Stanton would soon develop a deep respect and admiration for Lincoln.”

“Lincoln didn’t hold a grudge or harbor ill feelings. He did not let anger fester or get in the way of his thinking, his decisions or his relationships.”

Hyman always has advocated passionately for lawyer civility.

“Often in negotiations people do not have sufficient respect for the other side, which negatively impacts negotiations, or they show anger or a similarly strong emotion. As professionals, lawyers should not let their emotions get the best of them. But, as we know, some lawyers get tied into their own emotions, and react accordingly.”

Litigators appearing before Hyman, be aware. He strongly believes, “Being zealous isn’t being mean, disrespectful, dishonest or offensive. The best lawyers I ever faced were lawyers who were courteous and civil and diplomatic, always. It never helps a lawyer’s cause to act any other way. Nor has it ever won the day in court.”

Not ever?

“Not ever, at least in my courtroom.”

Hon. Michael R. Panter (Ret.) is a senior mediator at ADR Systems of America LLC. He previously served in the Law, Family and Municipal Divisions of the Cook County Circuit Court. He was a trial lawyer for 30 years. Share responses and comments at mikepanter.com.