Dead Set

I.S. Leevy Johnson’s legendary legal career began in a funeral home

Published in 2008 South Carolina Super Lawyers Magazine — April 2008

It’s hard to see how working in a funeral home could mold someone into a great lawyer, but if you talk to I.S. Leevy Johnson, it starts to make sense. Beginning when he was a small child, the trial lawyer worked at his grandparents’ Columbia business, Leevy’s Funeral Home. Although Johnson had every intention of going into the same field—even earning an associate degree in mortuary science from the University of Minnesota—fate had other plans for him. 

“My ambition at that time was to be a mortician and to work at our family business for the rest of my life,” recalls Johnson, who graduated from Benedict College in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. “I decided to go to law school to enhance my skills as a businessman with no intent to become a lawyer.” 

When his grandfather and namesake, I.S. Leevy, passed away in 1968, the ownership of the funeral home was splintered throughout the family and Johnson decided to open his own legal practice. For almost 40 years, he has been using the lessons he learned working at Leevy’s Funeral Home to grow Johnson Toal & Battiste, based in Columbia, into a well-respected trial law firm.

“There are three things that I think my experience at the funeral home taught me,” he says. “No. 1, it taught me to be caring. No. 2, it motivated me to be an advocate, and No.3, it prepared me to work hard. Those are three characteristics that I think are essential to the successful practice of law. When people experience death in their families, it is a time that they heavily rely on their funeral director for comfort and for guidance, so I developed that in the funeral business, and I’ve transferred it into my law practice.”

Johnson’s advocacy can be traced directly to his grandfather, who, though blind, worked tirelessly in the civil rights movement. “My grandfather was a major force in the community in the political arena here in Columbia, South Carolina,” says Johnson. “He didn’t have eyesight, but he had such vision and such knowledge.” 

In 1970, Johnson himself became a major force in South Carolina politics when he became one of the first three African Americans elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives since the turn of the last century. He went on to serve four terms. In 1985, Johnson became the first African American to serve as president of the South Carolina Bar. 

Johnson credits his success to a strong work ethic. “People use the word funeral home. That’s derived from the fact that in the old days, the families who owned the funeral business lived in the building. Our living quarters were upstairs, and back in those days we also provided ambulance service because there was no public ambulance service. We were on call 24/7, and my granddaddy made me work 24/7,” remembers Johnson. “I had to hustle. I used to wash cars. I used to dig graves. I used to go on ambulance calls and go to funerals and put up the tent.”

The Columbia native still hustles, averaging a 60-plus-hour workweek—that’s not counting the time he spends at the funeral home, which he purchased in 1995. Although his youngest son, Christopher, handles the day-to-day operations, Johnson stops in at 8:30 every morning to make sure everything is running smoothly. His other son, George, is in the other family business, as a partner in the firm.  “It’s been an integral part of my life,” says Johnson. “I credit whatever success I’ve had in the legal profession to the training and experiences that I gained from being actively involved in the funeral business.”

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