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Joseph F. Rice School of Law

Q&A with Sylvia Matthews '86

Were any family or friends surprised when you chose to pursue law? 

I don't know that they ever said this out loud, but I'm sure I was a little argumentative as a young person, so they probably were not fully surprised. My mother was a Ph.D. and she told me from a very young age that after college I was going to need to get some post-grad degree. After taking the LSATs, I decided that should probably be the path I take.   

You graduated in 1986; were there many women in law school at that time? 

There were other women on Law Review, other women competing in Moot Court, and I had a female mentor. Where I saw a little bit of difference was in the workplace. I think that when it came to summer associate jobs or internships, the workplace was not as ready for women law students to become women attorneys, and the representation of women among the partner ranks within local law firms was not as plentiful.   

Did that make it more challenging to build a community while in school? 

No, my recollection was we were all supportive of each other. The first year is hard, the first semester first year is hard. Everybody is trying to find their place in not only the classes, but in law school, and you have a totally new social network that you're thrown into. But I certainly felt like the people that I was working with, men and women, all supported each other. 

What did you most enjoy about attending South Carolina Law?  

I really liked the people. Law school often attracts really bright people. I think it's also true that many lawyers have a passion for service. Some people go to law school with that passion already, some develop that later, and I'm sure there are many people who aren’t motivated in that way. That probably changes between generations. I suspect that the current generation of young people in law school probably has a stronger sense of that than back in the eighties when I was there. 

Is there a specific professor or mentor that had a significant influence on you?  

When I was a 1L, there was a 3L who mentored me, and she was very kind to me and generous with her time and gave me the lay of the land. And she explained what the organizations were, how Law Review worked, how Moot Court worked, the nuts and bolts of things. As a 2L she encouraged me to interview with several Texas firms. 

Was there any area of law you were most interested in learning about as a law student? 

I think all of it was intriguing at a certain level because it was all new. I didn't really go in with any preconceived notions. I anticipated, or maybe I figured out early on, that civil or criminal law would be the avenue I took. I had a strong sense that I wanted to be in the courtroom. 

With your extensive experience in law, do you feel like you’ve seen it all or do you still find that you are learning new things?  

Before I went on the bench, I was a 20-plus year lawyer. I really felt like I had done a lot, seen a lot, and had many experiences. Becoming a judge, I realized there was so much more to the law that I knew nothing about. With law, you have the opportunity to learn new things as laws change. That part is very rewarding for me, at least, because I'm an innately curious person. 

Are there any moments in your career so far that you look back on and are proud of? 

Making the transition from practicing law to becoming a judge required a lot of soul searching. After a lot of thinking and prayer, making the decision to leave a partnership at a big law firm – at least big for Houston, Texas standards – to become a public servant was a leap of faith that I am very thankful I made.   

Do you have any advice for current or prospective students? 

A lot of times when I visit with students or young lawyers, they are faced with a choice and sometimes struggle with knowing what to choose. The advice I usually give them is that very few decisions you will ever make in your life are permanent, so you make your decision with the best information you have at the time. If the information changes or your view of the information changes, make a change. By the way, this is true for older people, too. 

What are you enjoying learning about right now, personally or professionally? 

I really enjoy learning about architecture and how urban development works. I enjoy all the buildings and craftsmanship, particularly of the art deco era. And I find it fascinating seeing how an older area of a town may be designed one way but then adapts as the city develops and the needs of the community change. 

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.