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President Photo Recently, I have been constantly reminded how integral our ladder principle is. For those unfamiliar, it’s the idea that as you ascend to higher and greater success, you leave the ladder down so that others might be able to come up after you. As SCWLA celebrates its 25th Anniversary this year, I think about the beautiful symmetry that I, perhaps SCWLA’s youngest president, am leading this great organization during such a significant milestone. I, of course, would not be here without those who have come before me, leaving that ladder down—a fulfillment of their promise of sorts. We truly stand on the shoulders of giants.

This year, too, marks a significant milestone for women lawyers in our state. 2018 marks the 100 year anniversary of women first being admitted to the South Carolina Bar. That year, two women, were admitted, a lawyer educated out of state, James M. Perry, and Claudia James Sullivan, the first woman admitted to the University of South Carolina School of Law. Sullivan’s admission to USC Law, and the accompanying legislation, ensured that women would be admitted to USC’s School of Law. At that time, graduation from law school meant automatic admission to the Bar (go, figure) so, her action ensured that women could not only attend law school, but also practice law in this state. Sullivan was officially admitted to the South Carolina Bar on June 12, 1918. We all owe her a great debt. This ladder was left down for us.

However, when reading up on Ms. Sullivan, in Ruth Cupp’s book, Portia Steps Up to the Bar, The First Women Lawyers in South Carolina, I was struck with the realization that my debt to her is only partial. When asked by a Professor what gave her the idea that she could request to attend law school, Sullivan replied, “I am white, of good character, and have the proper credits.” Implicit in this response is that her race was a qualifying reason that she should get to attend law school and become a lawyer. Under her reasoning, someone that looks like me—and many of our members—might not meet the prerequisites to attend and be a lawyer.

Days after recognizing Sullivan’s accomplishments, I paused to reflect on Juneteenth. Juneteenth, which takes place every June 19th, commemorates the day the last slaves found out they had been freed. This milestone is significant when you look at it in the context of history. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed September 22, 1862 with an effective date of January 1, 1863. However, it was not until June 19, 1865, that the last captive slaves in this country learned of their freedom. Since that time, African-Americans—and other minorities—have endured delays such as these. Segregation, unequal rights as well as disparities in income, opportunity, and access have been a hallmark of the black experience in this country. These delays have tangible and intangible impacts that are still felt today. Recall my April President’s note regarding Equal Pay Day—it’s estimated that minority women have yet to reach their Equal Pay day even at this point in the year. Indeed, the first black woman to be admitted to the South Carolina Bar was Cassandra E. Maxwell, on December 11, 1941—some 23 years following Sullivan’s admission. These, too, are shoulders on which I, a woman of color, stand. This ladder was left down for me and so many of my other colleagues.

Closing these gaps, attempts to right these inequities, and representing those who did not have equal access has largely been led by lawyers. We are zealous advocates. We are oath-bound to “assist the defenseless or oppressed by ensuring that justice is available to all...” SC Lawyers Oath. Lawyers have been upholding the rule of law and defending the defenseless the entirety of our profession. It is in our DNA—regardless of our practice areas. The current (and let’s be honest, constant) political turmoil is testing the foundations of those things we hold dear and have pledged to defend—the Constitution, the Rule of Law, and yes, our own personal convictions.

The trying times locally and nationally will not abate. Our profession is needed now more than ever to be what we have pledged to be. News from the border, from the White House, from Puerto Rico, from Hawaii, from Flint, from our own Capital should be a call to arms for us. So, SCWLA Members, I challenge you, how are using your ladders? What shoulders are you building for others to stand upon? At SCWLA’s 50th Anniversary, to what milestones will you have contributed? Whatever that contribution looks like—whether it’s the landmark court case you won, the Firm policy you changed, the significant opinion you wrote, or the daughter you went part-time to raise who is doing something kick-ass to save the world—contribute nonetheless. And, as always, leave the ladder down.


Sheila Willis
SCWLA President, 2018


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