Conflict Resolution

That Lincoln Quote

For as long as I’ve been active in conflict management, I have been confronted with a quote from Abraham Lincoln about not stirring up litigation.  I first saw it on a pamphlet at CPR in 1998.  Since then I have since seen it in articles, pamphlets, traning materials, mediation center literature, law school courses, PowerPoint presentations, and every other imaginable medium and context, in at least 10 different countries including China.

But there’s a better one.

The well-known citation comes from a document usually titled “Notes on the Practice of Law” and dated about July 1850.  It is an admonition to young lawyers, and in addition to encouraging diligence and thoroughness, includes this passage:

Discourage litigation.  Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can.  Point out to them how the nominal winner is often the real loser — in fees, and expenses, and waste of time.  As a peace-maker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man.  There will still be business enough.

The familiarity of this advice may have blunted its freshness and clarity.  I found another, even more common-sense, admonition when reading (intermittently I assure you) the 10-volume biography of Lincoln published in 1890 by his trusted secretaries, John G. Nicolay and John Hay.  While directed to a young man in private, the advice seems entirely appropriate — indeed logically compelling — to commercial decision making as well.

It seems that a young officer was to be court-martialed for quarelling with one of his associates, and it was Lincoln’s task to prepare a reprimand.  In a mixture of self-taught Shakespeare, small-town congeniality, and plain common sense, he wrote:

The advice of a father to his son, “Beware of entrance to a quarrel, but being in, bear it that the opposed may beware of thee!” is good, but not the best.  Quarrel not at all.  No man resolved to make the most of himself can spare time for personal contention.  Still less can he afford to take all of the consequences, including the vitiating of his temper and the loss of self-control.  Yield larger things to which you can show no more than equal right; and yield lesser ones though clearly your own.  Better give your path to a dog than be bitten by him in contesting for the right.  Even killing the dog would not cure the bite.

Is it too much of a stretch to replace the reference to the “man resolved to make the most of himself” with the “company resolved to maximize shareholder value”?

Nicolay and Hay wrote that these words reveal “the principles which ruled the conduct” of our greatest president.  They also suggested that the passage “deserves to be written in letters of gold on the walls of every [high school] and college.”

As the former Governor of Alaska would say, You betcha!

1 Comment
  1. Peter,

    Great extension on Lincoln’s oft-quoted advice to young lawyers. Your former colleague, Tom Stipanowich, has been doing quite a bit of research on Lincoln in the dispute resolution context. Thomas J. Stipanowich, Lincoln’s Lessons for Lawyers, Pepperdine Law Magazine (Fall 2009), available at Tom also did the sketch of Lincoln — framed versions were gifts to Pepperdine Practice Skills participants in Malibu this year.

    Keep up the fine work,


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