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Abraham Lincoln and Dispute Resolution

The June 22 CPR Council meeting featured a presentation on Abraham Lincoln and dispute resolution by the International Institute for Conflict Prevention & Resolution’s former CEO & President Thomas J. Stipanowich, the William H. Webster Chair in Dispute Resolution and a law professor at the Straus Institute at Pepperdine University’s Caruso School of Law in Malibu, Calif.

He served as CPR’s president and CEO from 2001 to 2006, and returned to discuss his project, “The Lincoln Way: Abraham Lincoln as a Problem Solver and Manager of Conflict.” 

Stipanowich began his presentation discussing the United States’ fascination with Lincoln, the 16th president. Possibly the nation’s most familiar historical figure along with George Washington, Lincoln lived one of the most documented and written-about lives from the nineteenth century. Almost everyone feels some level of familiarity with Lincoln, attaching him to particular principles, life experiences, or lifestyles. Lincoln was also a self-taught lawyer who worked on a broad spectrum of cases ranging from pig-stealing incidents to representation of railroads.

Stipanowich said he was attracted to Lincoln’s legacy through a telling quote: “Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. As a peacemaker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough.” The quote came from Lincoln’s lectures to fellow lawyers around 1850, many of whom were trial attorneys.

From this quote, Stipanowich saw a striking similarity between Lincoln’s peacemaking spirit and CPR’s mission to reduce conflict to enable purpose.

As Stipanowich’s project title suggests, Lincoln was a lifelong problem solver and a conflict manager.

Lawyer Lincoln encouraged fellow trial lawyers to discourage litigation and always sought ways to resolve conflict out of the courtroom to avoid the often-unsatisfactory result through trials. Stipanowich found evidence that Lincoln was an informal mediator and had served as an arbitrator. Once, he organized a minitrial with a judge outside the court, with the judge rendering a nonbinding decision that settled a dispute without going to trial.

Stipanowich found Lincoln recognizing that, especially for reputational conflict–a popular type of suit at the time–going to trial is not the best way, whether one is representing the plaintiff or the defendant. It was better to reach a negotiated settlement privately.

As a politician, Abraham Lincoln navigated across party lines to achieve resolutions in the context of a mega-negotiation to address every stakeholder group. He had contacts in different parts of the country, reaching out to border states and southern politicians. It was his awareness of changing circumstances that led to his campaign leading to the Emancipation Proclamation. The African American community’s support was critical for restoring the union as a growingly important constituency and a necessary force in the military.

As an individual, Lincoln wrestled with internal conflict on self-image, religion, and relationships. Stipanowich found Lincoln to be tremendously influenced by reading the autobiography of Ben Franklin as a teenager, thus developing an enduring rationalist spirit. Lincoln was clear in his mission and ambition: “Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.” In pursuit of such honor and respect, Lincoln wrestled with depression, a broken engagement, and an avoided duel.

Through navigating conflicts and periods of crisis stemming from his internal and external conflicts, Lincoln built and rebuilt a transformational leadership. Lincoln’s rational, problem-solving spirit is just as relevant today for lawyers, corporations, and interested parties. In Stipanowich’s 2009 article, “Lincoln’s Lessons for Lawyers,” he summarized Lincoln’s legal practice principles:

  1. Use litigation as a last resort—and be frank with your client about its costs and risks.  
  2. Try to be objective in assessing your client’s case; avoid “irrational optimism.” 
  3. Begin negotiating cooperatively and encourage the reliance of others by behaving in a logical and predictable way. Look for trade‐offs.
  4. Seek creative ways of bridging the gap to an agreement that achieves a client’s key goals and priorities in a simple, straightforward manner.
  5. Do not place your own financial interests or ego above the interests of the client.

Thomas, Stipanowich, “Lincoln’s Lessons for Lawyers” Dispute Resolution Magazine 18  (Feb. 1, 2010) (available at https://bit.ly/3INyalO).

author

Xin Judy Wang

Judy Wang is currently a CPR Intern. Xin (Judy) Wang Judy Wang is from Tianjin, China, and a rising 2L at Columbia Law School. She is the 2022-2023 President of the Columbia International Arbitration Association (CIAA). Before joining CPR, Judy interned at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and the… MORE

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