Abraham Lincoln: “A Lawyer’s Word is His Bond”

Today, February 13, 2012, New Jersey’s state courts are closed in observance of the birthday of Abraham Lincoln exactly 203 years ago yesterday.  Leaving aside a Supreme Court of New Jersey dissent and a few trial court opinions, New Jersey courts have not frequently had occasion to quote the 16th President.  One of the only appellate decisions to do so, according to a Westlaw search, was Ladenheim v. Klein, 330 N.J. Super. 219 (App. Div. 2000).

There, a lawyer, Stephen Klein, was representing a client, Albert Cassanello, in a personal injury case.  A surgeon named Jules Ladenheim performed surgery on Cassanello, for which Cassanello owed Ladenheim $3,800.  Klein wrote to Ladenheim and stated “[a]t the conclusion of your medical treatment, I would appreciate your forwarding to my attention a medical report and bill.  Please indicate to me the cost for this service and I will forward a check to your attention.”  About a month later, Klein wrote again to Ladenheim enclosing a check for $250 for a preliminary report regarding medical treatment rendered to Cassanello as of that date, and “confirm[ing] that your outstanding bill for $3,750.00 is protected from any settlement of this claim.”

Cassanello’s case later settled, but Klein did not pay Ladenheim.  Klein later explained that he had found it necessary to cut his own fee in order to achieve the settlement for Cassanello, and Klein did not want to suffer a further reduction by having to pay Ladenheim.  Klein also claimed to have forgotten his letters to Ladenheim.

Ladenheim sued Klein.  The Law Division found that Klein’s letters did not obligate him to pay Ladenheim.  The Appellate Division reversed in an opinion by Judge Lefelt.  The panel determined that Klein’s second letter to Ladenheim had created an equitable lien against the settlement proceeds received by Cassanello.

Judge Lefelt concluded:  “Early in his legal career, Abraham Lincoln reportedly said ‘a lawyer’s word is his bond.’  We now live in different times and practice law under much different circumstances.  Nonetheless, effective litigation remains dependent on the good-will and co-operation between lawyers and various professionals who are necessary, as witnesses and consultants, to assist the public in pursuing their legal rights.  To properly represent their clients, lawyers need cooperation from doctors, accountants and psychologists, to name just a few of the critical professionals.  Unless every professional necessary for the court system is confident that lawyers are trustworthy, clients and the system itself will suffer.  We believe strongly that lawyers, judges and all others connected with the judicial system must constantly impress upon the public that a lawyer’s word can still be trusted.”

Judge Lefelt’s words ring even more true today, twelve years on, as the public’s confidence in many lawyers is often lacking.  Abraham Lincoln would have approved.