Betsy Gray’s determination fuels her career
Published in 2008 South Carolina Super Lawyers magazine
on May 28, 2008
Updated on June 20, 2019
In 2004, Elizabeth “Betsy” Van Doren Gray’s daughter was finishing her senior year of high school in Columbia. During most of that year, her mother was an hour and a half away at a school-funding fairness trial in Manning. Although the litigator made time for her daughter’s National Honor Society induction, prom, graduation and senior trip, it wasn’t easy. “It killed me,” says Gray. “My daughter didn’t like it one bit.”
And the case isn’t even finished: Abbeville County School District v. The State of South Carolina is currently on appeal with the South Carolina Supreme Court. Initially filed in 1993 by Carl Epps of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough on behalf of 40 school districts in South Carolina, the case has become legendary in the Palmetto State.
“It was an action to determine whether or not the education system in the plaintiffs’ districts was constitutional,” explains Gray, a partner at Sowell Gray Stepp & Laffitte who began working on the case in 1999. “The constitution says that the state was obligated to provide a system of free public schools. The South Carolina Supreme Court in 1999 said, ‘Well, just having it isn’t enough. You need to give students the opportunity to acquire a minimally adequate education.’ What we were saying was that the state was achieving minimum standards.”
The two sides litigated for a year and half about what “minimally adequate” meant. After 101 trial days, endless catered meals—which, mysteriously, always featured some form of squash—and plenty of nights at the Holiday Inn Express on Raccoon Road, Gray and her team went back to Columbia. A year later, Judge Thomas W. Cooper Jr. sided with Gray’s team and the state, with the exception that South Carolina could do more for children in pre-kindergarten through third grade.
“Betsy is more than a worthy opponent, she’s formidable,” says Epps. “She terrified a number of my witnesses [during the trial] and was just very adept, nimble and worked extremely hard. One witness was on the stand for about three days. I think the greatest relief in his life was not being subjected to Betsy’s cross anymore.”
Bobby Stepp, who co-counseled the case with Gray and worked with her since he graduated from law school in 1977, describes Abbeville as a marathon. “You really had to have the right mindset for that case,” he says. “If you went to court on any day and you had a good day, you couldn’t get too high about that, and if you had a bad day, you couldn’t get too low about that either. Betsy always was just very centered about all of that, and she would bring incredible focus to the parts of the case where she had the lead responsibility.”
Responsibility has never scared Gray. While most of her friends were busy planning weddings after college, Gray was planning her career. An international studies major at the University of South Carolina, the Columbia native had dreams of working for the State Department or going into foreign service. Whatever she was going to do, she was going to take the world by storm.
The one thing she didn’t count on was the world fighting back.
“When I was a senior in college and started interviewing at the State Department, basically what they said was, ‘We don’t hire women except in secretarial positions,’” recalls the 59-year-old. “That’s not what I had in mind. … So I said, ‘Well, I think I’ll just pick a town that would be fun to live in.’”
She and a friend moved to Boston for the summer and took a six-week course for college graduates at Katharine Gibbs School, where she learned typing, shorthand and business-letter writing. “The concept behind the course was, if you’ve got enough skills to get in the door, you could use your intelligence to move on,” recalls Gray. Sure enough, she got a job at Fidelity as a secretary for a research analyst who shared a wall with the legendary Wall Street stock investor Peter Lynch. After a year and half, Fidelity offered her a promotion, but Boston winters were too harsh for the southerner. She headed home.
Again, she found herself working as a secretary. When she asked her boss at Citizens & Southern National Bank of South Carolina for more responsibility, he told her, “You’re a woman. We don’t put women in positions of responsibility in our bank.”
The daughter of a woman who managed to earn a master’s degree at Juilliard during the Depression, and knowing that she needed more education to be on the same playing field as men, she enrolled in law school at USC.
“Why I chose law school I do not know. My father wasn’t a lawyer. My uncle was a lawyer, and he told me not to go. He said I should go to paralegal school,” says Gray.
But Gray had an exceptional first year, going on to become comments editor of the South Carolina Law Review and a member of the Society of Wig and Robe. After graduating cum laude in 1976, she was ready to take on the world again.
Gray began clerking with the McNair Law Firm in 1975. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but they were basically interviewing for a lawyer,” she says. “I thought I was just going to get a law clerk job.”
The late Robert E. McNair, the former South Carolina governor, explained to Gray how his firm interviewed a woman named Elaine Fowler the year before but just wasn’t ready to hire a woman. Fowler instead took a job at Turner Padget Graham & Laney with E.W. Laney III as her mentor—where she still practices. When McNair spoke with Laney and found out that Elaine “had worked out just fine,” his firm decided to take the leap and hire Gray as an associate.
“At that time when we graduated, there were very few women practicing law,” explains Fowler. “The guys at that time felt that a woman just couldn’t do that kind of work and would destroy the camaraderie.”
Although the interview process was grueling—Gray was asked at one point how she would deal with jealous wives—she says the McNair firm fully embraced her once she was hired. “I worked with fabulous lawyers there, made partner right at the time I should have made partner. They were very good to me,” says Gray, who served as the second female president of the South Carolina Bar. Fowler was the first.
After 10 years at McNair, Gray left to form the litigation boutique Glenn Irvin Murphy Gray & Stepp with a handful of other attorneys. In 2000, it joined with another firm to become Sowell Gray Stepp & Laffitte. Focusing her practice on commercial and probate litigation, Gray has been involved in some of the state’s trickiest cases throughout the years.
In Hanahan v. Simpson, Gray represented the grandchildren, Claire Russo and Katharine Sullivan, of the late William Henry Belk Simpson, a prominent Greenville resident, in a messy estate dispute. The two women were sided with their grandfather’s will and against their mother, Bessie Hanahan. “I was on the defending side of the case, and we prevailed,” says Betsy, adding that the case is frequently cited as an evidentiary case on the Dead Man’s Statute. “It was a substantial estate.”
Gray currently works with Bill Coates, a partner with Roe Cassidy Coates & Price in Greenville, on a case defending a Simpsonville man against charges of conspiring to violate the Clean Air Act and defrauding the federal government through the operation of a vermiculite mine in Libby, Mont.
Coates has worked with Gray on various cases throughout the years and describes her as an attorney who’s not afraid of the courtroom. “She’s the kind of lawyer that any lawyer would be proud to have on their team,” he says. “If she’s the adversary, she’s going to be a worthy adversary and you’re going to have a spirited contest, but you’re going to have a fair contest.”
As a well-respected litigator, mother of two, and wife to Jim Gray, who practices with Epps at Nelson Mullins, Gray credits her success to plain old tenacity. “I was just determined that I had to do the best job I could with everything that I did,” she says. “I think part of that was because I was so determined in the early years to prove to [the McNair Firm] that they hadn’t made a mistake by hiring a woman.”
Looking back on her career, Gray says the ultimate vindication came from her two grown children. “I’ve had long talks with them about the guilt that I felt. Was I there enough for them? Did they feel like they were shortchanged by a mother who wasn’t always at every lacrosse game?” she says. “I got wonderful feedback from my two wonderful kids who said, ‘We’re so proud of what you do and what you did, don’t worry about it.’”