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Joseph F. Rice School of Law

Q&A with Donna Tillis '14

When did you first become interested in law?

Growing up, I heard stories from my grandparents about disparities, including issues with access to justice. No lawyers in my family, but I knew that I wanted to, at that time, be a voice for people and I saw being a lawyer as a way to do that.   

What motivated you to attend South Carolina Law?

My family is originally from South Carolina. We moved to New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina and after relocated back to South Carolina. So, I knew I wanted to be near them, and I knew I wanted to go to South Carolina’s flagship school. Talking to folks, I better understood the importance of a strong network and how many success stories we have coming out of the law school. It's truly the place to be. 

What do you consider one of the most important qualities of a good law student or lawyer?

Everybody in that law school is smart, but intelligence does not replace hard work. I’ve learned the best lawyers are the prepared ones. Also, the ones who continue learning in their craft. I'll give a shout out to my husband – there's not a Supreme Court order that has to do with criminal law that he has not read. That dedication makes you indispensable. 

Who are some of your influential mentors?

In law school, my mentor was Amy Milligan. She took over the Property Journal the same year I was Editor-in-Chief. She taught me about navigating the profession and feeling comfortable in my decisions and knowing I am in charge of my career. She also taught me to bake! Judge Clifton Newman is another. At Nelson Mullins, I would say Alana Williams ‘02, a former partner and the reason why I'm here, and Carmen Thomas ‘07. 

Are you still in touch with anyone from your law school days?

I was part of BLSA and bonded with a core group of Black lawyers who graduated together around the same time. We're now pushing almost ten years graduation, but we text once a week, and that group of people gas me up – don't let me have an accolade! They are my true cheerleaders and I do the same for them. 

In March, you gave a keynote address to the Black Law Students Association on intentional acts and building legacy. Can you talk a little about that?

The focal point of the speech was my grandfather, Donald Williams. He was born in Hampton County and, when his father died early, as the oldest boy in the house he was responsible for taking care of the family. So, he quit high school to work in Florida for an orange farm. Later, he got a break to move to New York and he told his family, ‘I'm going to look out for you when I'm there, and I'm going to send for my siblings so they can have more opportunities.’ And he does. The important thing for students is that you don't have to be flashy to have a legacy. You don’t have to be LeBron or even Judge Newman. It's what you do and how you give back to others.  

How do you give back?

One example is our Diverse Pipeline Outreach program where we partner with four Historically Black colleges and universities and offer six workshops for students through the fall and spring. We try to keep in touch with them as most of them go to law school. Right now, we’re preparing for our biannual BLSA Practical Skills and Writing Workshop, which I started, I think, in 2017. We invite BLSA students to come for practical sessions on evidence, discovery, transactional law in a safe space where they’re encouraged to ask questions and network with Black practitioners. Allies are involved, too, which is important, but for the most part it's all Black practitioners and judges.  

You've received a number of accolades, including being recognized as a rising star and a super lawyer. How do these awards impact you?

It's a good challenge to figure out ways for me to continue sharpening my skills. Awards and all that are great, but it fades. My constant is my family, and particularly my grandparents, understanding they did not have the opportunities that I have. It's more than making them proud, it's showing them that their sacrifices paid off. 

You made partner early last year, what’s next for you?

I want to reach as high as I can at Nelson Mullins and be a part of changing whatever barriers exist for people like me rising through the ranks. I'd love to teach one day, but not full time. I told [Professor Susan] Kuo that unless she's got a time turner, that's impossible. 

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.