The Magazine of South Carolina

Lawyers & Leaders

Columbia law partners I.S. Leevy Johnson & Luther Battiste

I.S. Leevy Johnson

Luther Battiste

Article by Aida Rogers, Photos by Michael Seeley

I.S. Leevy Johnson and Luther Battiste bought a pontoon boat this spring, supposedly to help them relax. Months later, they still haven’t learned to operate it. They’ve been on it only once.

"I.S. is a workaholic," Battiste says quickly.

"He is, too," Johnson responds just as fast.

Law partners for 26 years, Johnson and Battiste have been working—and trying to play—together since the former hired the latter in 1970. Back then, Johnson was a sole practitioner and one of the first three African-Americans elected to the General Assembly since Reconstruction. Battiste was getting a B.A. in international studies at USC, preparing for law school at Emory University. Johnson needed an intern for the Voter Education Project in the statehouse, and his eye fell on Battiste. "He demonstrated leadership qualities, a charisma and a determination to excel in everything he did," Johnson recalls, and pauses for the punch line. "He mirrored my qualities."

Johnson is a joker. A chuckle is rarely far from his lips. A good sense of humor is necessary for a man who represents people who are mentally impaired and physically abused. It also helps in his other business: running the family funeral home. "That is one of the disadvantages of the professions I’m in. I see people when they’re experiencing misfortunes. But the challenge is to help relieve the burden from the client’s shoulders to my shoulders. It’s very satisfying."

The trick is to keep your humor up. "B.S. With I.S.," a recent talk Johnson made for the South Carolina Trial Lawyers Association, addressed such issues, along with teaching younger lawyers how to be civil to one another, respect the court and "vigorously" defend their clients. "In order to be an effective lawyer, you have to have a dual personality," Johnson maintains. "You have to have a good temperament with your clients but, as a trial attorney, you have to be a fighter. The Lord has blessed me with that flexibility."

Besides workaholism and a pontoon boat, Johnson and Battiste share a need to serve. Battiste, 52, recently stepped down from a 15-year stint on the Columbia City Council. He was 33 when first elected to represent the people of District One. Although he had opposition from seven people, he won—and wasn’t challenged again. Constituents say his unassuming manner and ability to get things done made him a shoo-in at election time.

"He was always the most approachable, friendly and helpful person you could ask for in a city councilman," says Lois Fries, who worked with Battiste when she was president of the Seminary Ridge neighborhood group. "He’s just delightful to know, and so humble. He so very clearly cared about the people he represented. We never felt of him as a ‘politician.’"

Thanks to Battiste, Columbia’s Eau Claire neighborhood is transforming itself back into the safe, proud area it was before crime and decay took over. He found grants and encouraged the city to buy old buildings and get them restored. "That kind of thing is evident to everyone," Fries says, "but some of the other things, like encouraging neighborhoods to bring specific problems to him, whether it was the condition of the streets or a need for policing—he was always so responsive to that."

Perhaps the most noticeable improvement is the Lutheran Survey Building, a brick landmark that juts between Monticello Road and North Main Street. Gratified by its restoration—and the neighborhood in general—the people of Eau Claire raised money for a monument honoring Battiste. The Luther Battiste III Plaza was dedicated last February.

"The day of that event, he was kind of overwhelmed with the recognition," Fries recalls. "Those are qualities about him we all really came to love."

Though disappointed to lose him as their representative, Fries and comrades understand his reasoning for not running again: He wants time with his family—wife Judy and children Justin and Jade—and to concentrate on his law practice. He’s known since childhood that he wanted to be a lawyer, especially in his hometown of Orangeburg. Today, Johnson, Toal and Battiste, P.A., has offices in Columbia and Orangeburg. Battiste, who does civil and personal injury work, works in the Orangeburg office once a week. "That gives me a chance to eat lunch with my mom," he says.

"It was always my intention to come back to South Carolina," he explains. "South Carolina is my home. It was my intention to do what I could to make South Carolina a better place. Maybe that sounds idealistic, but that’s what I intended to do. People in my class at Emory dreamed about going to work with big law firms and making big salaries, but I always wanted to go back and try to make a difference in my state." Helping his friends, neighbors and former classmates is a "blessing" and "dream come true," he says.

Johnson concurs. "It’s an interesting thing, and people don’t believe it, but our goal has always been simply to make just enough money to send our kids to college. Not to become millionaires and have a big house, have a big car. We just want enough money to send our kids to school."

That Johnson did. His older son George practices with him in the law firm. Younger son Chris runs Leevy’s Funeral Home and is getting a Ph.D. in history from USC. Battiste’s son Justin attends UNC-Chapel Hill.

Johnson and Battiste have been associates since Battiste graduated from law school in 1974. They brought in Johnson’s USC law school classmate Bill Toal the following year. Last year, Johnson, Toal and Battiste, P.A., celebrated its 25th year, a milestone as most legal arrangements go.

"What we have here goes beyond just a business relationship and trying to do a good job for our clients," Battiste says. "We care about each other as people. We enjoy our successes together and handle our losses together, whether it be a loss of a family member or what have you. We’re very close about that."

Today, the firm has eight lawyers, two office managers and a support staff of 17. It’s a full-service practice that handles accident cases, criminal defense, domestic disputes, corporate law, medical malpractice and several other kinds of law. "We produce; no apologies, no excuses" is its motto.

It’s a long way from the second floor on the corner of Washington and Assembly streets, where Johnson opened his law practice in 1968. That site is a parking lot now, but then it was home to Johnson as well as to a beautician and a dentist. "If they came down holding their jaw, they’d been to the dentist’s office," Johnson relays. "If they came out holding their hair, they’d been to the beautician’s parlor. If they came out holding their wallets, they’d been to my office."

But it was humble, despite Johnson’s quips. "Three rooms, and that included a bath," he says.

Still, Battiste was given an office once inhabited by Matthew Perry, his role model. "I was ecstatic," he remembers.

As for Johnson, his role model was his maternal grandfather, I.S. (Isaac Samuel) Leevy. Born poor in Kershaw County, Leevy graduated from Hampton Institute in Virginia before returning to the South Carolina midlands. He started several retail and service businesses, providing employment for hundreds of African-Americans. In 1932, he opened Leevy’s Funeral Home in Columbia. By the time his namesake grandson was born in 1942, he was completely blind. Young I.S., who grew up next door with his mother and four siblings, was sent to live with his grandparents and help with chores. He lived with his grandparents from about age 10 until he graduated from high school.

"He was a born leader," Johnson says of his grandfather. "It was inspirational to see a person with what was thought of as a handicap transform that into an advantage. People admired him because he had this limitation, but he functioned in a way that was not an impediment to his success."

Johnson learned a lot watching his grandfather and working in the funeral business. "It afforded me the opportunity to be exposed to people in all walks of life. My grandfather had a theme that no deserving poor is ever refused. One day I might have contact with a person in poverty, and the same day I might have contact with doctors and lawyers, because I’d have to go to a doctor’s office to get a death certificate or a lawyer’s office to get a funeral bill for a case." A happy byproduct of the work, he says now, is his ability to get along with all kinds of people in all kinds of situations.

Johnson planned to run the funeral home, and earned an associate degree in mortuary science from the University of Minnesota. More degrees followed—a business degree from Benedict College in 1965 and the law degree from USC in 1968—both to enhance his skills in the funeral business. But his grandfather, who died when Johnson graduated from law school, left the business to his children. Johnson decided to open a law practice.

"As I reflect on it now, I think he must have had some design," Johnson says. "He was such a brilliant man and by denying me the opportunity back then, he knew I would somehow end up owning it and perpetuating his legend." Johnson bought Leevy’s Funeral Home six years ago.

How can one man run a funeral home and a law firm? "If somebody’s going to be successful doing two things, he’s the one who can," Battiste says. "He just has those skills and that kind of drive. I.S. is very creative and has great managerial skills."

But helping people is at his core. And that extends to those in his profession.

"He found out that I was struggling with a very difficult case and I had not reached out for help to anybody. It was agonizing," says Steve Morrison, a lawyer at Nelson Mullins Riley and Scarborough in Columbia. "He called me and left a message and called back; he stopped by and gave me a book that was inspiring to him. He was right there for me. If you have a need, he sees it and serves it before you recognize it yourself sometimes."

Johnson’s service record is indeed impressive—two pages long, single-spaced. He’s won USC’s "Compleat Lawyer Award" and was NBC’s expert commentator during the Susan Smith trial. He was chairman of the board of trustees at South Carolina State University from 1980 to 1990. In 1985, he was the first African-American elected president of the South Carolina Bar.

"He made a difference in politics," Morrison asserts. "He was in the Alex Sanders/Dick Riley/Isadore Lourie/Heyward McDonald group of statesmen who were not just looking out for Richland County, but paying attention to the entire state of South Carolina. He was a leader and a pioneer, a pathfinder with the whole issue of African-American representation. He was able to function in an all-white policy-making group, and he could represent his constituents as well as the state."

Johnson, 59, left the statehouse in 1980, but remains active with the Democratic Party. He doesn’t get too excited about his awards. "Those are just achievements," he says. "I’ve been blessed with a lot of achievements on the highway to being successful. Every day is another challenge."

These days, the challenge facing Battiste and Johnson is maintaining balance. Dividing time between work, family, church and civic responsibilities is tough, and both try to insert some pleasure into their lives. For Battiste, it’s music and professional sports. For Johnson, it’s mystery novels. "They help me with my analysis of cases."

Though both left politics, neither is avoiding duty. Battiste is a member of the Richland-Lexington Airport Commission and vice president-elect of the South Carolina Trial Lawyers Association. Johnson works with the South Carolina Bar, National Bar Association and American Bar Association.

Battiste credits his parents and wife for any success he’s earned; Johnson says the best thing he ever did was marry Doris Wright 33 years ago. While Battiste thinks it’d be neat to own a professional sports team, Johnson is happy right where he is.

Now, if they could only figure out that pontoon boat.


* Columbia Metropolitan Airport
* Nelson, Mullins, Riley & Scarborough, LLP, Columbia
* Rogers, Townsend & Thomas, PC, Columbia

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