By Edward Epstein
Sunday, December 17, 2023
Imagine you're a criminal defendant and your prosecuting attorney is an 18-year-old prodigy who is also an acolyte of Abraham Lincoln.
For the 473,000 residents of California's Tulare County, it's a reality. The precocious Peter Park started studying in law school when he enrolled in high school. Simultaneously, he was enrolled in the Northwestern California University School of Law online. He entered law school after acing California's College Level Examination Program, which meant he could get into law school without getting an undergraduate college degree.
The other kids in his high school thought Park was a nerdy drudge, but he didn't mind. Instead, according to an article in The Washington Post, Park decided to emulate history's most-famous self-taught lawyer, Abraham Lincoln.
"When asked how he got up to speed with classmates who were a decade older than him, the now 18-year-old Park pointed to another famous autodidact who provided inspiration — Abraham Lincoln," the Post article said.
"Lincoln...lacked a formal education but engrossed himself in his studies, and particularly, reading law. So that’s what Park did too.
"He read as much as he could, choosing to prioritize his law school work over his high school work. He spent almost every waking hour reading case law or becoming accustomed to legalese, and sometimes didn’t have enough time to finish his math homework," the Post added.
Flash back to the mid-1830s, and the story was in many ways the same for a young Lincoln, who was then in his mid-20s. Lincoln decided to become a lawyer as he rose in tiny New Salem, Illinois, where he'd been a failed shopkeeper, a surveyor, post master, the town's top story teller and rising politician who was elected to the state legislator in 1834 as a Whig.
Back then, one became a lawyer by studying on one's own, or by getting an established lawyer to take you under his wing. For Lincoln, that exemplar was lawyer John Todd Stuart. According to volume one of historian Michael Burlingame's Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Lincoln began by reading Blackstone's Commentaries, one of the mainstays in those days for a legal education.
Lincoln became a voracious reader of the law, so much so that friends and neighbors were perplexed. "Once Lincoln devoted himself to legal studies, he became a different man, much to the consternation of his friends and neighbors," Burlingame wrote.
But like Park, Lincoln was driven and by 1837 he was admitted to the bar, which in those days was pretty easy to do. A judge would ask a few cursory questions of the would-be lawyer about criminal law, handling estates and other matters likely to occupy a lawyer's practice. The exam might last a half-hour. Lincoln passed.
He went on to a long and successful legal career in Springfield, Illinois, mainly with his partner William Herndon. The site of their law office survives. (See photo above.)
As he rose in the legal and political worlds, Lincoln was asked for advice on becoming a lawyer. "The mode is very simple, though laborious and tedious. It is only to get the books, and read, and study them carefully," Burlingame quotes Lincoln as writing.
Today, of course, the bar exam is infinitely harder -- a two-day ordeal that most fail on the first try. In California, the bar exam pass rate is 34%. According to the website Juris Education, California is considered to have one of the hardest bar exams of all the states.
Park passed on the first try last month. He was then hired by the Tulare County district attorney's office.
Lincoln today would have a hard time becoming a lawyer. California is one of only four states that still allow people to take the bar exam without completing law school first.
Photo of the Lincoln-Herndon law office courtesy of the City of Springfield, Illinois.