AuthorCornett, Judy M.


Everyone knows what a "country lawyer" looks like. He (it's always a "he") is middle-aged or older, an avuncular mix of wisdom and good humor. He is a generalist, in a small town, deeply connected to his community. He is trusted and respected. The person who is called upon when trouble threatens. Figures as diverse as Sam Ervin Jr. and Gerry Spence have called themselves "country lawyers," and many lawyer obituaries claim that their subjects were "simple" country lawyers. The familiarity of the country lawyer qualifies it as an archetype in American culture. (1) But, surprisingly, as familiar as the country lawyer archetype is, there has been little analysis of the history, characteristics, or role of the country lawyer in American culture. This Article will examine how the country lawyer came to be a familiar figure in American culture, tracing the archetype through its fictional and non-fictional manifestations. The Article will also analyze how the country lawyer archetype has affected the public perception of the American legal profession.

  1. MYTH

    What is a myth? Typically, the label "myth" refers to "an unfounded or false notion," (2) or a "widespread but untrue or erroneous story or belief." (3) However, the term "myth" as used in this Article refers to a broader definition of the term: "[A] popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; especially: one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society," (4) or a "popular conception of a person or thing which exaggerates or idealizes the truth." (5) The country lawyer is above all a "popular" construct, that is, it embodies what people believe about lawyers. This myth can tell us much about the cultural role of the country lawyer--the myth embodies the "ideals" of society and in turn idealizes reality. The country lawyer is the idealized vision of a lawyer shared by the populace. By understanding the figure, we can understand the ideals of the society from which the lawyer springs.

    It is impossible to pinpoint the origin of the phrase "country lawyer." A British treatise published in 1786 is entitled The Country Lawyer. (6) It is intended for the generalist practicing in small towns and therefore lacking access to large urban libraries, as noted by the author:

    This Work, which is a Collection of all the useful Acts of Parliament, with the adjudged Cases therein, is designed to give persons that information on subjects which daily occur, and which they are frequently at a loss to obtain: they might collect it indeed from a variety of law-books, which the compiler of these pages has with some labour undertaken, but the books would be not only voluminous but expensive. (7) Even lawyers practicing in larger cities outside London could be characterized as "country lawyers," like the attorney described as "a country lawyer and recorder of Newcastle." (8) Although one source describes a "country lawyer" as an "oracle," (9) another asserts that a "Country Lawyer" is always ready to "undertake... a bad Cause from a half-witted Client." (10) In England, the division between city and country had political overtones: the city had supported Parliament in the English Civil War while the country was the bulwark of Royalist support. (11) Thus, although the sources themselves do not have an explicit connotation--is a country lawyer an admired figure or an object of ridicule?--the adjective "country" may imply a conservative, traditional connotation.


    1. Lincoln

      In America, the ur-country lawyer is undoubtedly Abraham Lincoln. (12) The homely but wise "prairie lawyer" (13) taking on any case that comes through the door, embedded in his Springfield, Illinois, community, a man of unimpeachable integrity (14)--this is the original vision of the country lawyer. Lincoln's twenty-four-year legal career developed into the stuff of legend, as remembrances of Lincoln as lawyer were memorialized by Lincoln biographers after his assassination. (15) By attending to the characteristics of legal practice by which his admirers sought to remember him, we can discern the developing contours of the "country lawyer" in America.

      Honesty is a foundational virtue of the country lawyer. The myth of Lincoln begins with his honesty in paying for a book he had borrowed that was damaged by rain. Here is the story as told by James Baldwin:

      Among the books that he read were the Bible, the Pilgrims Progress, and the poems of Robert Burns. One day he walked a long distance to borrow a book of a farmer. This book was Weems's Life of Washington. He read as much as he could while walking home. By that time it was dark, and so he sat down by the chimney and read by firelight until bedtime. Then he took the book to bed with him in the loft, and read by the light of a tallow candle. In an hour the candle burned out. He laid the book in a crevice between two of the logs of the cabin, so that he might begin reading again as soon as it was daylight. But in the night a storm came up. The rain was blown in, and the book was wet through and through. In the morning, when Abraham awoke, he saw what had happened. He dried the leaves as well as he could, and then finished reading the book. As soon as he had eaten his breakfast, he hurried to carry the book to its owner. He explained how the accident had happened. "Mr. Crawford," he said, "I am willing to pay you for the book. I have no money; but, if you will let me, I will work for you until I have made its price." Mr. Crawford thought that the book was worth seventy-five cents, and that Abraham's work would be worth about twenty-five cents a day. And so the lad helped the farmer gather corn for three days, and thus became the owner of the delightful book. (16) Whether or not this story is apocryphal, Lincoln maintained his reputation for honesty even as a practicing lawyer in the rough and tumble of Illinois's Eighth District, based in Springfield. (17) He was known for conceding points he could not contest. (18) On one occasion, he represented a client in a suit for a debt, and upon being presented with a receipt in full signed by his client, he withdrew from the case. (19) His nickname, "Honest Abe," was cemented during this period of his life, surely a signal achievement in light of the "vague popular belief that lawyers are necessarily dishonest," as Lincoln put it in a lecture subsequently titled Notes on the Practice of Law (1850). (20) He placed a high premium on honesty, warning newcomers to the profession:

      Let no young man, choosing the law for a calling, for a moment yield to this popular belief. Resolve to be honest at all events; and if, in your own judgment, you can not be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other occupation. (21) In death Lincoln belonged to the ages, but as a lawyer, he belonged to Springfield, Illinois, and the circuit of which it was center. Lincoln was known as a raconteur who mixed wit with wisdom. (22) For ten weeks twice a year, he rode Illinois's Eighth Circuit, consisting of fourteen counties surrounding Sagamon County. (23) During these journeys with fellow lawyers and the circuit judge, he and his colleagues gathered in inns and taverns to trade stories with the local residents. (24) Ultimately, "[h]e knew virtually everyone he ran into" and "was the most popular lawyer on the circuit." (25) In fact, he was so well known that it was impossible to seat a jury who did not know Lincoln personally. (26) One result of this everyday interaction with small-town residents was a growing understanding and even empathy for just plain folk like farmers, shopkeepers, and craftsmen. As one of his contemporaries remarked: "Few men ever lived who knew, as he did, the mainsprings of action, secret motives, the passions, prejudices, and inclinations which inspired the actions of men, and he played on the human heart as a master on an instrument." (27) Thus, Lincoln exemplified not just legal knowledge but also the practical wisdom about human nature that enabled him to meet everyone on common ground.

      Lincoln had the common touch. Humility was one of his cardinal virtues. He insisted, "I am not an accomplished lawyer." (28) He was unprepossessing in appearance. Edwin Stanton described him as "a tall, rawly boned, ungainly backwoodsman, with coarse, ill-fitting clothing, his trousers hardly reaching his ankles." (29) He was primarily a trial lawyer, and according to one judge who observed him, "[w]hen he came to the argument he had something to say to each juror, and he led each one to believe that, as attorney, his only duty was to help the jury find the truth." (30) "I have sat on the jury in his cases," one Illinois man observed. "He knew nearly every juror, and when he made his speech he talked to the jurors, one at a time, like an old friend who wanted to reason it out with them and make it as easy as possible for them to find the truth." (81)

      Lincoln's lack of formal education, his storytelling skills, his ordinary appearance--all of these factors combined to make him accessible to non-lawyers. He used his legal knowledge and wit to "unmask pretense and vanity" and always maintained his "faith in the worth and fundamental goodness of plain people." (32)

      Although he eventually became known as a "railroad lawyer" (33) because he so often represented the Illinois Central Railroad, Lincoln had a wide-ranging general practice. (34) He and his law partners handled more than 5,000 cases, of which 1,000 or more concluded with jury verdicts. (35) The vast majority of Lincoln's practice was civil, with more than 3,000 cases classified as "debtor and creditor." (36) His criminal practice was limited; he and his law partners "handled only 27 murder cases." (37) In addition to his practice in the Eighth Illinois Circuit Court, Lincoln had an active appellate practice, appearing in "more than 400...

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