Posted in: Lawyers › None, Diversity Committee Spotlight
Involved in several ground-breaking cases on civil and constitutional rights, M. Malissa Burnette has served as a pioneer for equal rights in the Palmetto State.
Burnette — a partner at Burnette, Shutt & McDaniel in Columbia — has been a specialist in Employment and Labor Law since 1993, as certified by the South Carolina Supreme Court. She practices in state and federal courts on employment cases involving discrimination, civil and constitutional rights, breach of contract, restrictive covenants, employment-related torts, wage payment claims, and academic tenure and promotion matters. She also practices family law and represents small businesses and non-profit organizations.
A 1977 graduate of the University of South Carolina School of Law, she was admitted to the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in 1978. In 1998, she was admitted to the United States Supreme Court.
Hailing from a small town in North Carolina, Burnette learned about equality from her grandfather while growing up.
In 1977, just after graduating law school, Burnette voiced her concerns on equality as a delegate to the International Women’s Year Conference in Houston, supporting women’s rights and the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. At the time, she served as president of the Columbia chapter of the National Organization for Women and coordinated ERA ratification efforts in S.C.’s 2nd Congressional District.
“After I graduated from college and really got out into the working world, I realized that I was a very powerless person and that part of it was due to my sex,” she said in an interview during the conference. “And I just felt helpless, and I wondered what I could do about it. And the first thing I did was to go to law school, but even having graduated from law school now, I see that is not enough, that we’re going to have to work through the legislatures to ensure that women have equality.”
One year later, in 1978, Lt. Gov. Nancy Stevenson — the first woman elected to hold statewide office in South Carolina — selected Burnette to serve as her chief of staff. She served in this role until 1982, then managed Travis Medlock’s campaign for Attorney General in the general election during the same year. After the campaign, she established her first private law practice and has continued in private practice ever since.
She’s litigated multiple landmark civil rights cases, including a U.S. District Court case that paved the way for women to attend state-supported military schools, and a case that allows girls to play contact sports in public schools. Burnette, along with firm co-founder Nekki Shutt, led the fight that brought marriage equality to the Palmetto State.
In addition to her hard work on the front lines of equality and justice, Burnette stays active in the South Carolina Bar Senior Lawyers Division and the SC Bar Pro Bono Program. She is past chair of SLD and currently serves as chair of the SLD’s Lawyers Assistance Program. Burnette has presented CLE seminars for the Bar, penned dozens of articles, taught employment law for the SC Bar Law School for Non-Lawyers and is the co-author and editor of all five editions of Labor and Employment Law for South Carolina Lawyers.
With great impact comes great recognition. She was honored with SC ETV’s Women Vision SC award in 2020 for her work in advancing equality. In 2019, the University of South Carolina School of Law presented Burnette with its Compleat Lawyer Platinum Award to highlight her outstanding civic and professional accomplishments. She was honored in 2018 during WREN’s celebration of International Women’s Day as one of South Carolina’s trailblazers for women’s rights, and in December 2017, she was presented with the Columbia Urban League’s Stephen G. Morrison Social Justice Award for her work in advancing legal equality . In 2016, she received the SC Women Lawyers Association’s top honor, the Jean Galloway Bissell award.
She is married to Michael G. LeFever, who recently retired as Executive Director of the SC Commission on Higher Education. Their daughter, Grant Burnette LeFever, is a 2018 graduate of the University of South Carolina School of Law and an associate attorney at Burnette Shutt & McDaniel in Columbia.
“We have to constantly defend and be vigilant about all rights because they can be taken away,” Burnette said during an interview for ETV’s Women Vision SC program.