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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Lawyer’s “Twelve Good Rules”

By William Wirt (1772–1834)

[Letter to Francis W, Gilmer, 1815.—Kennedy’s “Memoirs of the Life of William Wirt.” Revised Edition. 1849.]

I PERCEIVE that you are going to work, pell-mell, nec mora, nec requies:—that’s your sort—give it to them thicker and faster!
  • Nunc dextra ingeminans citus, nunc ille sinistra.
  • It is this glow and enthusiasm of enterprise that is to carry you to the stars. But then bear in mind, that it is a long journey to the stars, and that they are not to be reached per saltum. “Perseverando vinces” ought to be your motto—and you should write it in the first page of every book in your library. Ours is not a profession, in which a man gets along by a hop, step, and a jump. It is the steady march of a heavy armed legionary soldier. This armor you have yet, in a great measure, to gain; to learn how to put it on; to wear it without fatigue; to fight in it with ease, and use every piece of it to the best advantage. I am against your extending your practice, therefore, to too many courts, in the beginning. I would not wish you to plunge into an extensive practice at once. It will break up your reading, and prevent you from preparing properly for that higher theatre which you ought always to keep intently in your mind’s eye.

    For two or three years, you must read, sir—read—read—delve—meditate—study—and make the whole mine of the law your own. For two or three years, I had much rather that your appearances should be rare and splendid, than frequent, light and vapid, like those of the young country practitioners about you.

    Let me use the privilege of my age and experience to give you a few hints, which, now that you are beginning the practice, you may find not useless.

    1. Adopt a system of life, as to business and exercise; and never deviate from it, except so far as you may be occasionally forced by imperious and uncontrollable circumstances.

    2. Live in your office; i.e., be always seen in it except at the hours of eating or exercise.

    3. Answer all letters as soon as they are received; you know not how many heartaches it may save you. Then fold neatly, endorse neatly, and file away neatly, alphabetically, and by the year, all the letters so received. Let your letters on business be short, and keep copies of them.

    4. Put every law paper in its place, as soon as received; and let no scrap of paper be seen lying for a moment, on your writing chair or tables. This will strike the eye of every man of business who enters.

    5. Keep regular accounts of every cent of income and expenditure, and file your receipts neatly, alphabetically, and by the month, or at least by the year.

    6. Be patient with your foolish clients, and hear all their tedious circumlocution and repetitions with calm and kind attention; cross-examine and sift them, till you know all the strength and weakness of their cause, and take notes of it at once whenever you can do so.

    7. File your bills in Chancery at the moment of ordering the suit, and while your client is yet with you to correct your statement of his case; also prepare every declaration the moment the suit is ordered, and have it ready to file.

    8. Cultivate a simple style of speaking, so as to be able to inject the strongest thought into the weakest capacity. You will never be a good jury lawyer without this faculty.

    9. Never attempt to be grand and magnificent before common tribunals;—and the most you will address are common. The neglect of this principle of common-sense has ruined —— with all men of sense.

    10. Keep your Latin and Greek, and science, to yourself, and to that very small circle which they may suit. The mean and envious world will never forgive you your knowledge, if you make it too public. It will require the most unceasing urbanity and habitual gentleness of manners, almost to humility, to make your superior attainments tolerable to your associates.

    11. Enter with warmth and kindness into the interesting concerns of others—whether you care much for them or not;—not with the condescension of a superior, but with the tenderness and simplicity of an equal. It is this benevolent trait which makes —— and —— such universal favorites—and, more than anything else, has smoothed my own path of life, and strewed it with flowers.

    12. Be never flurried in speaking, but learn to assume the exterior of composure and self-collectedness, whatever riot and confusion may be within; speak slowly, firmly, distinctly, and mark your periods by proper pauses, and a steady, significant look:—“Trick!” True,—but a good trick, and a sensible trick.

    You talk of complimenting your adversaries. Take care of your manner of doing this. Let it be humble and sincere, and not as if you thought it was in your power to give them importance by your fiat. You see how natural it is for old men to preach, and how much easier to preach than to practise. Yet you must not slight my sermons, for I wish you to be much greater than I ever was or can hope to be. Our friend Carr will tell you that my maxims are all sound. Practise them, and I will warrant your success.