Attorney Joe Rice knows a thing or two about the legal profession. One of the most respected plaintiff’s attorneys in the country (and if you’re on the other side of the negotiating table, one of the most feared), the cofounder of the Charleston-based Motley Rice law firm has secured hundreds of billions of dollars for clients, taking on Goliath-sized opponents like Big Tobacco and the financiers of 9/11.
But the 1976 business administration graduate, 1979 law graduate also knows a thing or two about giving back, particularly to his alma mater. USC’s Rice Athletic Center? That was him. The Children’s Law Center? Also him. And now, Rice has made his largest gift to date — and in the process become one of the largest donors in university history — to the law school that gave him his start.
Rice’s $30 million gift to the law school that now bears his name will primarily support future generations of deserving law students. In fact, two-thirds of the gift is earmarked for the Joseph F. Rice and Family Endowed Scholarship, which he hopes will attract talented, ambitious students while elevating the Joseph F. Rice School of Law’s national reputation.
“It’s very competitive,” he explains. “In order to have the best professors, you want the best students, and the best students want the best professors. So when Dean Hubbard approached me — and his focus was on giving kids that may not be able to go to law school that opportunity at South Carolina by giving them some financial help — that got my interest.”
The remaining $10 million of Rice’s gift will be spread across a range of endeavors. Among other things, it will be used to endow professorships, support professional development, encourage innovation at the law school and establish the Lisa Rice and Ann E. Rice Child Advocacy Award Endowment.
That last piece — $750,000 to support stipends benefiting students who complete the children’s law concentration at the Joseph F. Rice School of Law — reflects a personal mission that began with Rice’s wife, Lisa, ’77. The endowment’s other namesake, Ann E. Rice Ervin, ’06, ’09 law, is Joe and Lisa Rice’s daughter and herself a member attorney at Motley Rice.
“One of our family’s commitments has been to abused children. The Dee Norton Child
Advocacy Center is one of the organizations that my wife has been heavily involved
in,” he says. “Through Lisa’s work with the Norton Center, she knew the need, she
knew the problem: Professionals need to be able to recognize,
in a living environment, when abuse is taking place. And that’s what the training center does.”
Bigger picture, Rice’s latest gift underscores his commitment to the legal profession itself. He wants to make sure the next wave of USC law students has the financial support to be successful. He also wants to be sure they are prepared for the rigors of law school — though he is the first to admit he needed a boost starting out himself.
“I had a good time in college,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. “I was a little iffy, and I did not get admitted to law school originally.”
But the university saw his potential and invited him to participate in a summer pre-admission program whereby a small group of borderline applicants took three classes over the summer. Based on their performance during that intensive six-week session, each candidate was deemed either fit or unfit for admission.
“I was fortunate enough to get through that, and I was able to go to law school. I started in August of that year,” says Rice. “I tell people I came through the back door.”
Back door or not, things turned out exceedingly well — in law school, where Rice made personal and professional contacts he maintains to this day, and over the course of a long and successful career that shows no signs of slowing down.
Since cofounding Motley Rice with fellow USC alumnus Ron Motley, ’66, ’71 law, in the late 1970s, Rice has negotiated or co-negotiated a series of hard-fought, high-profile settlements. In addition to Big Tobacco, his firm has successfully taken on companies that have covered up the dangers of asbestos, held BP to account for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and gone after Volkswagen for vehicle emissions fraud.
Most recently, Rice’s firm has taken on opioid manufacturers and distributors, winning a bellwether $260 million settlement in 2019.
Naturally, Rice has also done well for himself along the way. As he told The New York Times in 1998, after Motley Rice secured a landmark $246 billion tobacco settlement on behalf of 26 attorneys general nationwide, “Why should the lawyers who carried the burden and led the fight not be paid like a chief executive officer of a corporation?”
It’s about more than big settlements, though. Rice says he only chooses cases he believes in and that he believes can have a positive effect on society. It’s a philosophy born of his experiences growing up around textile mills in North and South Carolina and encouraged by his late law partner, whose decision to take on the tobacco industry limited the ways cigarettes can be marketed and greatly reduced smoking in the U.S., particularly among children.
“I was not the one that was pushing back on tobacco — that was Ron Motley, and I trusted Ron,” says Rice. “I watched him develop a theme of how to use the law to correct social injustices. Then, when we were successful in tobacco, that gave me the energy and the commitment to try to do more of those things.”
Supporting future generations of law students is just another way to move the same needle. And giving back is just another a way to show his appreciation for how the university supported him.
“It goes back to my experience in college and how much the professors cared about the students,” he explains. “You became a family at the university.”