Pass or Fail?

Sheldon Gilman and the most nerve-wracking test ever

Published in 2008 Kentucky Super Lawyers Magazine — August 2008

Don’t complain to Sheldon Gilman about the pressure of taking the bar exam. No story of bar exam anxiety can beat his. 

Gilman, a partner at Lynch, Cox, Gilman & Mahan in Louisville, joined the Army ROTC when he enrolled at Ohio University in 1961, inspired by John F. Kennedy’s rallying cry to “ask what you can do for your country.” After earning his law degree at Case Western Reserve University in June 1967, he faced entering the military at the height of the Vietnam conflict. 

“I had made an application for the Army JAG Corps,” Gilman says, “and was told they were receiving 15 applications for every one slot available. So I considered it an honor, a privilege, when I was selected. I had received a series of letters from the Army about my impending assignment that said if I passed the Ohio bar exam, I would report to Fort Lee, Va., for two weeks of military training and then to JAG school at the University of Virginia Law School. Then I would be assigned to the United States Army Missile Command at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama. If I didn’t succeed on the exam, there was a high likelihood that I’d be going directly to Vietnam as a platoon leader.”

Gilman, who by then was married, got the news he wanted: “I did very well on the Ohio bar exam.”

Gilman entered active duty in March 1968. Assigned to Redstone Arsenal after JAG training, Gilman became a father for the first time in June 1969, but his son Stephen was born prematurely with serious health problems. Doctors predicted that even if Stephen survived, his mental capacity would be severely diminished.

The very next month, Gilman received a letter ordering him to report to the American Division in Chu Lai, Vietnam. Given the health crisis the family was facing, Gilman sought and received what the Army calls a “compassionate assignment” in order to stay in Alabama during the ordeal. 

In August 1970, Gilman was called to serve at the Office of the Judge Advocate General at the Pentagon. Stephen’s health had stabilized and so the family moved to Washington, D.C. Gilman completed his Army duty there, working in the Office of the Secretary of Defense on the U.S. Armed Forces Voting Assistance Task Force and serving as the resident JAG officer on the Conscientious Objector Review Board until December 1971. He completed active duty in March 1972.

By then, Gilman yearned to start a private law practice, which had been his career plan all along. He moved to Louisville with his family, including Stephen, who had made a stunning recovery, and his new little brother, Scott. (Stephen, despite his dire early prognosis, went on to earn his Ph.D. from Harvard and now speaks three languages.)  

Gilman hasn’t maintained much contact with old Army buddies because the opportunity hasn’t presented itself. Only recently was he able to visit the Vietnam Memorial in Washington; he knows too many names inscribed on it. “I went to too many funerals,” he says. 

Of the Vietnam conflict in general, he says, “I volunteered to serve. Right or wrong, it was my country. I’ve always had a high admiration for the members of our armed forces and I was proud to serve.” 

To wit, he still lives by a nugget of Army wisdom. “There’s a concept in the military that you learn very quickly,” he says. “Loyalty down breeds loyalty up. If you take care of your troops, your troops will take care of you. It’s one of the things I still practice in my law office today. If I take care of my lawyers, my paralegals, my assistants, they’ll help me take care of my clients.” 

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