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23 Jan

Lessons From Lincoln, Washington and King

By Kevin J. Palmersheim

January 23, 2014

From mid-January through February, the calendar includes some important, but often overlooked, dates. No, I am not referring to Valentine’s Day or the annual Presidents’ Day Furniture sale (although if you happen to forget your significant other on Valentine’s Day, it may be wise to pick up a comfortable couch at the furniture sale for you to sleep on).

Starting with the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, and continuing with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, America celebrates the memory of three great leaders. Although each lived in a different century, their contributions to this country’s structure and law have endured and will continue to impact many future generations. While the legal community is diligent about documenting the influence these historic figures had on the letter of the law, lessons could still be learned on honoring the spirit they sought to inspire.

Abraham Lincoln had been a practicing lawyer, and so he probably had the most direct impact on the daily practice of law. He rode the judicial circuit, arguing cases involving railroads and livestock. Lincoln was unabashed about the business aspects of practicing law and is known for the saying, “a lawyer’s time is his (or her) stock in trade.” This was later amended, of course, to include, “except when you can negotiate a contingency fee of one-third of the livestock.”

Lincoln’s statement was an acknowledgement that lawyers are compensated for their knowledge and experience, as well as the importance of the services they provide. However, this rule apparently does not currently apply to the compensation of public defender appointees. These attorneys represent clients whose most basic constitutional rights are at stake, but are compensated at the comparatively low rate of $40/hr (a rate that does not cover most law firms’ overhead).

To add to the problem, funding has been tight for the District Attorneys’ and Public Defenders’ offices over the last 5 years and so attorneys there are being asked to take even more cases. I find it unacceptable that one segment of our bar is asked to accept poor levels of compensation and funding to represent clients in dire need of good legal advice and to carry out our society’s needs to prosecute crimes.

Although not a lawyer, George Washington was also influential when it comes to constitutional rights. Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention and his popularity with citizens was a strong factor in persuading enough states to ratify the supreme law of the land.

Washington is probably best known, however, as the figurehead for honesty. Children still learn the mythical story of our first president, which goes something like this: George Washington received a time out for hacking into cherrytree.com, but he avoided more severe punishment – such as the loss of his Xbox for a week – because he was honest about his indiscretion (the story has evidently been updated since we were kids).

Few people disagree with the general principle that one should tell the truth. Unfortunately, politicians and business executives often skirt the truth in the interest of re-election or personal bonuses. This standard of honesty would not likely pass muster with a group of grade school kids, and it should not be acceptable to the rest of us, either.

Martin Luther King, Jr. battled other barriers of legal hypocrisy, including literacy tests for registering voters and segregation in public accommodations, education and employment. His efforts contributed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited segregation, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which eliminated literacy tests and other discriminatory voting devices. We must never lose sight of the goal of living in a country where all citizens can register to vote and have their ballot counted.

Although Dr. King’s efforts remedied many forms of direct discrimination, disparate treatment of people on the basis of race, gender or religion continues. These more subtle forms of discrimination may be predicated on the ignorance of a few (the refusal to hire minorities, for example) or on the policies adopted by the majority that appear facially reasonable but are implemented with discriminatory intent.

Disparate treatment is also still present within the legal profession. There are increased numbers of women and minorities attending law school and practicing law than in the past. Unfortunately, the number of minority attorneys in positions of leadership has still lagged behind significantly. The recent Wisconsin survey on the Economics of Practicing Law reveals a continuing discrepancy in average salaries between men and similarly situated women.

So, as we honor these three great persons from America’s history, we should certainly celebrate the positive achievements they fostered. On the other hand, let us not overlook the lessons we still need to learn. The legal profession bears some responsibility to see that things improve. Anyone who ignores that responsibility deserves to go sleep on the couch.

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Kevin J. Palmersheim

About the author

Kevin Palmersheim is a founding shareholder of the firm as well as its managing attorney. In addition to the knowledge and experience that Kevin brings to legal issues as a highly-experienced business attorney, he is also adept at being creative and flexible in representing clients' interests both in court and in negotiations.

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