This Federal Judge (Sherman G. Finesilver)

once looked down the barrel of failure.

By: Sherman G. Finesilver


M Y FATHER knew that something was amiss when he encountered me, late one afternoon, sitting on the stoop of our west Denver house. The dean of the University of Colorado School of Law, I said, decided that I couldn’t return to classes next fall. My grades were too low.

After listening calmly, my father then contacted Edward C. King, the law-school dean. But there was no changing the decision. Sherm is a terrific young man, Dean King said, but he’ll never make a lawyer. He urged me to look for another career. In the meantime, he advised that I stay put in the grocery store where I worked on weekends. I wrote a note to the dean, and requested re-admission. It went away unanswered.

Even today words cannot describe my upset. I’d never really failed at anything significant. In high school I’d been a popular student and a highly regarded football player. I’d coasted through the University of Colorado at Boulder without working up a major sweat and was duly admitted to its prestigious law school.

My dad’s own schooling hadn’t gone past the sixth grade, and he was a railway mail clerk for over 40 years. But he loved learning, and he knew how much I wanted to become a lawyer. He suggested I look at Westminster College of Law (now part of the University of Denver College of Law), where classes were held at night. Dad’s advice was perfectly practical. It also hurt like hell. The University of Colorado at Boulder was a Taj Mahal—the door to judicial clerkships and prestigious law firms. Westminster was Tramway Tech—a poor man’s school with no tenured professors or law review, whose students held down day jobs.

Visualizing myself at Westminster after Boulder was galling. And in truth, my self-confidence was badly shaken; maybe I wasn’t cut out to study law. But in the end I went to see Clifford Mills, Westminster’s dean. Mills read my college transcript, and I’ll never forget him peering at me over the rim of his glasses. “Finesilver,” he said bluntly, “the only thing you did well in at Boulder was athletics, a Spanish course and your fraternity.” He was right. I’d made it through, but lack of academic commitment and good study habits had finally caught up with me.

Dean Mills let me enroll at Westminster, on one condition: that I repeat all my first- year classes, this time paying attention. “I’ll be looking over your shoulder,” he said.  One door had closed. But others opened.

Given a second chance, I worked much harder, becoming fascinated by the law of evidence. In my second year the professor who taught the course passed away. I was asked to take over inconceivable at a law school like Boulder. Evidence became a lifelong specialty, and for many years I taught classes on the subject for judges, law students and practicing lawyers throughout the country.

Meanwhile I worked days in the Denver City Attorney’s office as a clerk. It was anything but glamorous. But it led to a job as an assistant city attorney after graduation. I would become a county judge at age 28, one of Denver’s youngest. Later I was elected as a district judge, and then appointed by the President to the federal judiciary as a U.S. district judge. And, ultimately, I did return to Boulder--to receive the University of Colorado’s George Norlin Award, and an honorary doctorate of law.

SOONER OR LATER everyone will fall short at something important to them— whether it be a job, a dream or a relationship. Flunking out of law school, I believe, made me a better judge; it certainly taught me about the frailties of the human condition, and about the need to give people second chances. But failure also taught me that life is a road with unpredictable forks and unexpected tomorrows. To take advantage of them, you can’t let yourself be destroyed by a defeat, or let others set the limits on your ability to achieve.



Copyright June 1995 - Reader’s Digest Association

Vol. 146, No. 878, (pgs. 26-28)

Pleasantville, N. Y. 10570

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