The learner’s permit

Back in the 1960’s a newly-admitted attorney showed up for his first day of work as a lawyer, an associate at a trial law firm.

As he sat down at the desk in his new office that day, he thought of his just-issued law license as a sort of driver’s license. He’d stood in that ceremony, taken an oath and been given an impressive certificate granting him the right to practice law. Now he could take on his clients’ legal matters and manage them down an orderly road to the best conclusion he could manage. Yep, this was special, this was big, after those years of hard work and study, he was IN, he was da man.

But at the end of that first work day he realized that what he’d really been handed was just a learner’s permit. Far from knowing it all – despite his hard work getting through law school and passing the bar exam – he’d only scratched the surface. He got another newly admitted lawyer to form a study group; every Wednesday night for two hours they reviewed, researched, and discussed the rules of civil procedure and evidence, starting at No. 1 and going through to the end. It took two years. He missed few opportunities to meet with other lawyers over coffee or lunch to discuss whatever legal issues were on their minds, or his.

Forty years later he was visited in his hospital room by a lawyer who was one of his long-time friends, from those early days to the present. They reminisced for a couple of hours. The friend asked, “Do you think you ever moved past that learner’s permit and got a real license?”

He thought about it. “No. I just got a series of learner’s permits with fewer and fewer restrictions.”

He had, by then, been a federal judge for more than fifteen years. No wonder such a varied bunch of judges, lawyers, and other folks thronged the church at his funeral, where his friend told this story.

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