Malissa Burnette was proud to see her daughter, Grant, graduate from law school this spring — almost as proud as she was when Grant met Sarah Leverette.
Leverette, a legal pioneer and Columbia community fixture, died Wednesday. She was 98.
“She truly was an inspiration to me personally,” said Burnette, one of three female founders of Columbia law firm Burnette Shutt & McDaniel PA. “I’m so pleased that my daughter, who just graduated from law school this year, got to meet her and speak with her and learn what a great leader she was, a true groundbreaker for not just women but for people in the legal profession.”
Leverette was the third female graduate of the University of South Carolina School of Law in 1943 and became its first female faculty member after a short-lived job at a legal practice where she quickly learned she was expected to do more straightening than strategizing. Leverette worked as a law librarian and taught legal research and writing at the university for 25 years, influencing future community leaders such as I.S. Leevy Johnson, the first black president of the S.C. Bar, and Jean Toal, the first female justice of the S.C. Supreme Court.
“Particularly for the very few women who were in law school at that time, she was a godsend, a wonderful mentor and encourager,” said Toal, who graduated from USC’s law school in 1968 and spent hours in the law library after being selected to the law review in the second semester of her freshman year.
“She taught me so much about legal research and how to use specialized tools — all in books, of course. There were no computers back then,” Toal said. “She was always right there to help me navigate all those complicated research projects.”
Leverette remained interested and invested in her career, Toal said, following and counseling her through the 20 years she practiced law and the 13 years she spent in the S.C. House of Representatives.
“A lot of the revisions we made to modernize state government have got Sarah Leverette’s stamp all over them,” Toal said.
Leverette was especially proud when Toal became the first woman to serve on the S.C. Supreme Court in 1988.
“She often visited me in my chambers,” said Toal, installed as chief justice in March 2000 and twice re-elected before retiring at the end of 2015. “It was wonderful to talk the law and good government with someone as knowledgeable as Sarah Leverette.”
Burnette met Leverette around 20 years ago and quickly came to value her mentorship and her friendship. She and Grant, 27, often attended events where Leverette was speaking, and Leverette was an occasional visitor to Burnette’s office, which opened in the Vista last June.
“Sarah Leverette was a brilliant lawyer and a humorist,” Burnette said. “She really was hilarious. And to the very end, a humanitarian who cared deeply about other people.”
In April, Leverette was named a 2018 Compleat Lawyer, the USC law school’s highest honor.
“Normally when you introduce the recipient, people wait to hear the citation, and then they begin to applaud,” law school dean Robert Wilcox said. “As soon as I began to mention her first name, there was a standing ovation.”
Leverette told the Columbia Regional Business Report that while her male classmates in law school were mostly respectful, the dean at the time would often express surprise that she remained enrolled.
“He did not want women in law school," she said. "He would ask me every semester: ‘Ms. Leverette, are you still with us?’ I’d say, ‘Yes, I am.’ I wanted to say, ‘I plan to stay with you, too,’ but I didn’t.”
Mullen Taylor, owner and lead attorney at Columbia law firm Mullen Taylor LLC, met Leverette in 2000 or 2001 and worked with her on the board of the League of Women Voters, an organization Leverette joined in 1950 and remained dedicated to throughout her life.
“She was just such a pioneer, and she was an inspiration to a lot of women who entered the profession of law,” Taylor said. “She was a mentor to me.”
Leverette also served as commissioner and chair of the S.C. Industrial Commission (now the S.C. Workers Compensation Commission). In 2017, she received the Rev. Sen. Clementa C. Pinckney Award for Justice from the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center.
“She was always a proponent of good governance and home rule,” said Taylor, who said Leverette also championed public education and the importance of an informed electorate. “She just really made you feel good about being a lawyer from all that she did.”
Sheila Willis, an attorney at Columbia law firm Fisher Phillips and president of the S.C. Women Lawyers Association, interacted with Leverette often on that organization’s board.
“She was always there and ready to provide really good insight,” Willis said. “That’s one thing I really admired about Sarah. She always kept going.”
Burnette’s firm is made up of five female lawyers, ranging in age from early 30s “to me. I’m 68,” Burnette said. “She inspired every one of us.”
A Force For Good
Burnette shared a picture on her Facebook page of Leverette laughing with her, fellow partners Nekki Shutt and Kathleen McDaniel and associates Janet Rhodes and Jacqueline “Jax” Pavlicek.
“She always was focused on other people and never talked about her own issues or problems,” Burnette said. “She cared about what was going on in the lives of others and always was focused on that and would just sort of bat you away if you were worried about her.”
Rep. James Smith, the Democratic nominee for governor, said in a statement that Leverette “seemed invincible.”
“We have lost a tremendous force for good in our state,” Smith said.
After officially retiring, Leverette became a real estate agent with Russell and Jeffcoat, now Coldwell Banker, and maintained an active license.
Taylor and Burnette agreed that Leverette would not like the fuss being made over her.
“She would make fun of us,” Burnette said. “She is really — she was really — quite humble.”
Wilcox said Leverette might secretly enjoy the attention, but only because it demonstrates the present-day influence of women in law.
“It’s a good reminder to all of us that we are not that far removed from times when we were excluding very talented people from the profession,” Wilcox said.
Leverette told the Business Report: “I didn’t think I was doing anything special. I just did what I wanted to do. I wanted to go to law school and that’s what I tried to do. I don’t think I’m any trailblazer as far as courage was concerned.”
In this case, hers was a minority opinion.
“She was ahead of her time,” Taylor said. “The greater Columbia area is better because of her work and her efforts. She made this place a better place. She’ll be missed. She’ll leave behind a legacy, and it’s not just for women lawyers. All the positive work she’s done has lifted up a lot of people in the community.”
“We were constantly amazed by her," Burnette said. "I am to this day. I know I’ll miss her a very long time.”