Malissa Burnette said she had been contemplating retirement when a team of attorneys with whom she worked at a Columbia law firm began thinking about out on their own.
The process began March 13, and by June 1 the firm of Burnette Shutt & McDaniel P.A. opened for business on the second floor of a historic warehouse building at 912 Lady St. in the Congaree Vista neighborhood.
Burnette and partners Nekki Shutt and Kathleen McDaniel had practiced together for nearly seven years at Callison Tighe & Robinson LLC before forming the new firm.
They’ve since been joined by associates Janet Rhodes and Jacqueline “Jax” Pavlicek, who also were at Callison Tighe. The firm has 10 staff members.
“The opportunity to build a unique law practice with people who are both colleagues and friends doesn’t arise too often in life,” Burnette said of her decision to postpone a retirement party. Another bonus is that her daughter, Grant Burnette LeFever, plans to join the firm in June after graduating from the University of South Carolina School of Law.
“It’s just too exciting to give it up,” said the 67-year-old Burnette, who’s now working in her fifth firm. “There are too many things that need to be done.”
The firm’s location is appropriate considering the attorneys’ track records, McDaniel said. “Our offices blend the best of the modern era with a respect for tradition. The same could be said of our firm.”
The three-story brick building that’s home to the firm was built in 1916 by the B.B. Kirkland Seed and Distributing Co. and later housed Hinson Feed and Seed.
Burnette Shutt & McDaniel moved into the former offices of Cohn Construction, which relocated to the former McCrory’s building at Main and Taylor streets.
The firm’s attorneys will focus on employment law, environmental law, privacy issues and litigation — areas of common interest and passion, Shutt said.
“Our attorneys have long track records of challenging social injustices in sweeping cases,” Shutt said. “We’ve also fought for microlevel changes, assisting small businesses and helping with neighborhood disputes.”
Shutt and Burnette successfully represented the plaintiffs in the landmark Condon v. Wilson case that led to the legalization of same-sex marriage in South Carolina. The two lawyers racked up more than 250 hours working on the case and Pavlicek added an additional 7 1/2 hours — all pro bono. Had they received their hourly rate, the attorneys would have earned about $85,000, according to court documents.
The plaintiffs, however, asked the court to award legal fees, which totaled about $155,000, according to the documents. Burnette and Shutt’s share went to the S.C. Equality Coalition.
Burnette’s other landmark legal battles have led to The Citadel’s being forced to admit women as cadets and allowing girls in the state’s public schools to play contact sports. Before entering private practice, Burnette served as the chief of staff for former Lt. Gov. Nancy Stevenson, who in 1978 was the first woman elected to statewide office.
“We love the adventure of what we do,” Pavlicek said. “There’s no one else that I’d rather be in the trenches with than these fantastic attorneys. They’ve got your back, they’ve got your clients’ backs. If there’s anything you need, they’re there or they know where to go.”
Her 50th birthday prompted Shutt to take stock of her legal career and eventually decide to leave the established firm.
Lawyers generally don’t retire, Shutt said, and she figured she’d practice another 25 years. With that in mind, she said she also realized she wanted to be with a firm that did work consistent with her values.
Serving in the trenches
These folks that I practice here with at Burnette Shutt & McDaniel, we’ve all been friends, we’ve all been colleagues, and we’ve all been in the trenches together,” Shutt said. “I know practicing law is personal to them.”
Having their own firm and working with a group of attorneys with similar beliefs and values also means Shutt doesn’t have to worry about whether it’s bad for business being “out front on issues.” She explained that sometimes taking on a controversial case or talking about legal issues at political forums might conflict with a firm’s position of being impartial.
“We don’t want to ask permission to do anything,” Shutt said. “We want to do what’s right.”
Shutt, Burnette and Rhodes will focus on employment law, including employee benefits under laws such as the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. Shutt and Burnette are certified S.C. specialists in employment law.
McDaniel’s practice will focus on environmental law, including land use, permitting and zoning. She’ll also represent clients on other government issues such as utility rates and condemnation and eminent domain.
Pavlicek, who is a certified information privacy professional for the U.S. private sector, designated by the International Association of Privacy Professionals, will assist clients with privacy issues, including information security and assistance in the event of a data breach.
Forming an all-woman firm wasn’t the original intention, Burnette said. And since word has gotten out about the firm, Burnette said she has been contacted by a half-dozen male attorneys about possibly joining; she said the members are open to adding men.
Still, there are unique challenges for women in the legal world, Rhodes said, reiterating that “We didn’t set out to make this a female firm; it was about the ideology we share.”
While law remains a male-dominated business, 2016 marked the first time women made up a majority of law students, holding more than 50% of the seats at accredited U.S. law schools, according to American Bar Association data.
“None of us inherited a book of business,” Shutt said. “We don’t have dads or grandfathers who were judges. … We’ve worked really hard and have done it basically ourselves to make our reputation and our names.”