The University of South Carolina dominated legal education in the state. In 1886 its graduates were granted admission to the bar without taking an examination, a practice known as the “diploma privilege.”

South Carolina has had a practicing bar since the 1690s. While the identities of the first lawyers are somewhat obscure, it is presumed that they were educated in England.

Although never adopted, the Fundamental Constitutions prohibited anyone from representing another person in court for a fee, but lawyers were certainly practicing by 1699 and the profession soon grew.

Until 1868 the legal profession in South Carolina was divided between lawyers who practiced in the law courts and solicitors who practiced in the court of chancery. In the simplest terms, law courts heard those cases deriving from the common law (criminal cases, jury trials, actions for recovery of money or personal property), while the chancery courts were presided over by chancellors (judges) who heard matters for which equitable relief could be granted (such as foreclosure of a mortgage) or for an injunction to prevent some threatened action. This law and equity division was similar to the British system, except that South Carolina’s legal profession was not divided into barristers and solicitors. In the English system, solicitors prepared the cases (briefed them) and barristers argued or tried the cases in both the law and the equity courts. In South Carolina, the attorneys-at-law prepared and argued their cases in the law courts and the solicitors prepared and argued their cases in the equity courts. Many attorneys were also licensed as solicitors, but since there were separate education requirements, not all attorneys and solicitors practiced in both courts.

A high percentage of members of the colonial bar of South Carolina were educated at the Inns of Court in London and consequently were barristers. While the Charleston Bar was dominated by those educated at the Inns, clearly some legal practitioners were reading law and were admitted by examination of the courts under a court rule adopted in 1712. Even on the eve of the Revolution, twenty-four of thirty-four lawyers in Charleston had been educated at the Inns. The pressure for a highly educated bar started early. In 1721 the Commons House of Assembly decried the poor quality of solicitors and lawyers. In 1722 the chancery court ruled that for admission as a solicitor one had to have been a member of one of the four law colleges in London for five years and attended eight sessions of commons. It is clear, however, that these rules were not strictly applied. For example, the court of chancery admitted individuals who had read law and apparently not studied at the Inns or colleges in England.

After the Revolution, in 1785 the South Carolina General Assembly passed legislation allowing anyone who had resided in the state for four years to be admitted as an attorney-at-law upon examination by the judges of the court of common pleas. This made reading of the law the primary means of education for lawyers since the ties to England and its formal system for education of lawyers had been severed. In 1796 legislation strengthened the standards by requiring three years of reading the law by college graduates or four years for nongraduates for admission. In 1801 those who had read law out of state could be admitted. Reading law would remain the only means for admission as a lawyer or a solicitor until after the Civil War.

Reading law meant just that. The student was required to apprentice under a licensed member of the profession and was expected to read law under the tutelage of the lawyer or solicitor. The chief reading was Blackstone’s Commentaries, which was one of the most cited sources by the South Carolina courts. However, by 1842 the Law Court of Appeals recommended the reading of ten treatises and twenty-seven statutes and required that students be tested on these materials by the court upon application for admission. Leading members of the bar, such as U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Johnson and U.S. Senator John C. Calhoun, read law. Unlike most lawyers, however, Calhoun also studied law at one of the few law schools in the country, Gould and Reeves in Litchfield, Connecticut.

Formal legal education was slow in coming. An attempt in 1823 to establish a professorship in law at South Carolina College failed in the General Assembly, and a private venture by some members of the Charleston bar, the Forensic Club, ceased after only two lectures in 1826. Formal legal education became available for the first time in 1866. The University of South Carolina (USC) established a law school, appointing Alexander Cheves Haskell as professor. The law school had a turbulent first decade, but it graduated thirty-nine students, including the first eleven black graduates of a public law school in the United States. The university and the law school were closed after the overthrow of the Reconstruction state government in 1877 and then reopened on an all-white basis in 1884. African Americans responded by opening law schools at Claflin College and Allen University. Claflin’s law school operated only a short time, but Allen kept its law school open until 1905. The University of South Carolina School of Law has operated continuously since 1884 but was not desegregated again until 1964. While the USC law school admitted its first woman in 1898, it did not have its first female graduate until after 1918, when the South Carolina Bar admitted its first woman, Miss James Perry, a law graduate of the University of California.

The University of South Carolina dominated legal education in the state. In 1886 its graduates were granted admission to the bar without taking an examination, a practice known as the “diploma privilege.” In 1910 the faculty expanded from one to three, and the curriculum for the first time included statutory law in addition to common law. In 1922 the school increased its faculty size again, strengthened its entrance requirements, and expanded its curriculum from two years to three years. The school was finally accredited by the American Association of Law Schools in 1924.

Accreditation pressures doomed the only competition USC faced in the 1920s. Furman University operated a law school for eleven years before closing it in 1932 for financial reasons. It had forty-two graduates. South Carolina State University (then the Colored Normal, Industrial, Agricultural, and Mechanical College of South Carolina) opened a law school in 1947 in response to a lawsuit that tried to force the desegregation of the USC School of Law. It operated until 1966 and had fifty-one graduates, including two of the most accomplished lawyers in the state’s history, Chief Justice Ernest Finney and U.S. District Court Judge Matthew J. Perry.

Following national trends, on March 1, 1958, the S.C. Supreme Court prohibited reading law and required that all candidates for admission to the bar must be law school graduates. The University of South Carolina law school graduates lost their diploma privilege in 1951, a year after South Carolina State had produced its first graduates. Law school graduation and passage of the state bar examination have been the norm for admission since the 1950s.

Law school education has continued to evolve. The three-year curriculum still covers common law, constitutional law, legal history, and code courses and also includes new and innovative courses such as technology law, health law, environmental law, and a wide range of skills and clinical courses. As of 2004 USC was again not alone in providing legal education in the state. That year a new law school, the Charleston School of Law, opened in Charleston as a private, proprietary law school.

Hollis, Daniel Walker. University of South Carolina. 2 vols. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1951–1956.

Rogers, George C. Generations of Lawyers: A History of the South Carolina Bar. Columbia: South Carolina Bar Foundation, 1992.

Underwood, James Lowell, and W. Lewis Burke, Jr., eds. At Freedom’s Door: African American Founding Fathers and Lawyers in Reconstruction South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Legal education
  • Author W. Lewis Burke
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • URL http://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/legal-education/
  • Access Date January 23, 2020
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • Original Published Date June 8, 2016
  • Date of Last Update March 14, 2017