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Burnette to get S.C. Women Lawyers group’s highest honor

By: Jeff Jeffrey//October 19, 2016

Burnette to get S.C. Women Lawyers group’s highest honor

By: Jeff Jeffrey//October 19, 2016

Callison Tighe partner M. Malissa Burnette has never been one to hold her tongue when she sees people being treated unfairly. In fact, she said her death will likely be caused by “being sarcastic at the wrong moment.”

But Burnette’s willingness to take on tough battles on behalf of her clients was exactly what the South Carolina Women Lawyers Association wanted to celebrate when it selected her to receive its highest honor.

The SCWLA will present the 2016 Jean Galloway Bissell Award to Burnette Thursday during a reception at the Historic Rice Mill in Charleston. The award is presented each year to an attorney who has demonstrated distinguished service to the public and to the legal profession, professional excellence and participation in activities that pave the way for female lawyers to become successful.


Past winners include former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and former South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Hoefer Toal, the first women to serve in those positions.

“It’s overwhelming to be included among the list of prior winners, not that I’d compare what I do with their work,” Burnette said.

Burnette decided to become a lawyer 39 years ago after witnessing widespread racism in small-town North Carolina. She drew the ire of the Ku Klux Klan when she served an African-American truck driver who stopped into the restaurant where she was working.

After college, Burnette worked as a prison guard for a while to “get some real-life experience and to annoy my parents.”

Burnette earned her J.D. from the University of South Carolina School of Law and soon set about finding cases that involved clients who were treated unfairly.

Since then, Burnette has advocated on behalf of clients in a number of landmark cases. She was involved in the litigation that opened the doors of the state-supported Citadel to female students, as well as the lawsuit which allowed girls in South Carolina public schools to play contact sports.

She also played a role in the litigation that ultimately secured the right for same-sex couples to legally wed in South Carolina.

A Certified Specialist in South Carolina employment law since 1993, Burnette literally wrote the book on that topic. She served as a co-author and editor of all four editions of “Labor and Employment Law for South Carolina Lawyers,” a publication of the South Carolina Bar.

“I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t a lawyer. I love what I do,” Burnette says. “The cases I handle aren’t always income producing. But they’re important to society and the individuals at the heart of the case. If they help to make things better for everyone, then they’re worth it.”

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