Abraham Lincoln and Dispute Resolution
The June 22 CPR Board meeting included a presentation on Abraham Lincoln and dispute resolution through International Institute for Conflict Prevention and Resolutionformer CEO and President of Thomas J. StipanowichWilliam H. Webster Professor of Dispute Resolution and Professor of Law at the Straus Institute at Pepperdine University’s Caruso Law School in Malibu, California.
He was president and CEO of CPR 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 by discussing America’s fascination with Lincoln on the 16the President. Perhaps the nation’s most familiar historical figure with George Washington, Lincoln lived one of the most documented and written about lives of the 19th century. Almost everyone feels some level of familiarity with Lincoln, attaching it to particular principles, life experiences, or lifestyles. Lincoln was also a self-taught attorney who worked on a wide range of cases from hog theft incidents to representing railroads.
Stipanowich said he was drawn to Lincoln’s legacy with a telling quote: “Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. As a peacemaker, the lawyer has a better chance of being a good man. There will still be enough business. The quote is from Lincoln’s lectures to fellow lawyers around 1850, many of whom were litigators.
From this quote, Stipanowich saw a striking similarity between Lincoln’s spirit of peace and CPR’s mission to reduce conflict to enable purpose.
As the title of Stipanowich’s project suggests, Lincoln has always been a problem solver and conflict manager.
Attorney Lincoln encouraged fellow litigants to discourage litigation and always sought ways to resolve disputes outside of the courtroom to avoid the often unsatisfactory outcome of trials. Stipanowich found evidence that Lincoln was an informal mediator and served as an arbiter. He once held a mini-trial with a judge outside of court, with the judge issuing a non-binding decision that settled a dispute without going to trial.
Stipanowich found Lincoln acknowledging that, particularly for reputational disputes – a popular type of lawsuit at the time – going to trial is not the best way, whether representing the plaintiff or the defendant. It was better to reach a privately negotiated settlement.
As a politician, Abraham Lincoln crossed party lines to reach resolutions in a mega-bargain 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 support of the African-American community was essential in restoring the union as an increasingly important constituency and necessary force in the military.
As an individual, Lincoln struggled with an internal conflict over self-image, religion, and relationships. Stipanowich found that Lincoln was hugely influenced by reading Ben Franklin’s autobiography as a teenager, developing an enduring rationalist mind. Lincoln was clear in his mission and ambition: “They say that every man has 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 by my fellows, by making myself worthy of their esteem. In pursuit of such honor and respect, Lincoln struggled with depression, a broken engagement, and a duel avoided.
Through navigating conflicts and times of crisis stemming from his internal and external conflicts, Lincoln built and rebuilt transformational leadership. Lincoln’s rational, problem-solving spirit is equally relevant today for lawyers, businesses and interested parties. In Stipanowich’s 2009 article, “Lincoln’s Lessons for Lawyers”, he summarizes Lincoln’s principles of legal practice:
- Use litigation as a last resort and be upfront with your client about their costs and risks.
- Try to be objective in evaluating your client’s case; avoid “irrational optimism”.
- Start negotiating cooperatively and foster trust in others by behaving in a logical and predictable way. Look for compromises.
- Look for creative ways to bridge the gap with an agreement that achieves a client’s key goals and priorities in a simple and straightforward way.
- Don’t put your financial interests or your ego above the client’s interests.
Thomas, Stipanowich, “Lincoln’s Lessons for Lawyers” Dispute Resolution Magazine 18 (February 1, 2010) (available at https://bit.ly/3INyalO).