The University of South Carolina is naming its law school the Joseph F. Rice School of Law, after a $30 million donation from the powerhouse Mount Pleasant attorney who has been at the forefront of some of nation’s most high-profile class action civil cases.
The eight-figure gift is set to fund student scholarships and at least four new endowed professor positions. It will also go toward stipends for students in the law school’s children’s law concentration, staff professional development and training.
Rice, and the Motley Rice plaintiffs’ law firm he co-founded, have championed litigation that secured massive, far-reaching settlements against automaker Volkswagen related to its emissions fraud scandal and against BP for its Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in 2010 that killed 11 workers and spilled millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
His biggest influence, though, was as lead negotiator in the $200 billion-plus landmark settlement with three major “Big Tobacco” firms in the late 1990s involving people who sued for smoking-related deaths and illnesses.
“My alma mater is a huge part of my family’s history and success,” Rice, who goes by Joe, said in a written statement. “It gives me great pride to directly impact the lives of its students. My hope is that this worthy cause will inspire and bring out the best in generations of future lawyers, while laying the foundation they’ll need to achieve great things.”
USC President Michael Amiridis heralded the donation as a “transformative gift” during an announcement event saying it would help the law school “grow in stature and national reputation, exemplifying excellence at our university.”
“An investment of this magnitude is often described as transformative, but this word does not do justice to the far-reaching impact that Joe Rice’s gift promises for the University of South Carolina,” Amiridis said in the earlier press release, adding that it “establishes a stellar trajectory for USC’s future growth and national repute.”
During the announcement event, Rice, who earned his undergraduate degree from the university in 1976, recounted his experience of not getting into law school during the normal admissions window, instead going through a summer school program that year — the “back door,” he called it.
“It gave me a chance, and that’s what I want to do for kids, give them a chance,” he said.
After the landmark tobacco case, Rice and his firm have been involved in number of complex high-profile cases. For instance, he was named a co-lead counsel in 2018 in a nationwide lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors, alleging the companies helped to create an epidemic of overdoses and did little to stem the crisis. His firm also launched an unprecedented legal battle on behalf of 3,965 people who were injured or lost loved ones in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
More recently, Rice has taken on a similar role in the proposed settlement of thousands of water-contamination lawsuits tied to the use of toxic “forever chemicals” in a case that’s being litigated close to home — in federal court in downtown Charleston.
Rice’s donations to the school will include an awards fund for law students who finish a children’s law concentration, named after his wife and daughter, Lisa S. Rice and Ann E. Rice Ervin, both also USC alumns. Ervin also is a graduate of the law school and a member attorney at Motley Rice.
“I hope that (the $30 million donation) allows the university to bring in the best of the best minds to drive, to provide additional diversity and to prepare them for their legal career so that they can strive and go back and do good things,” he said.
The school is the only nonprofit law school in South Carolina, it was founded in 1867 and moved into its current campus in 2017. About 600 students are enrolled in it.
Six students from the its class of 2026 were awarded the inaugural Rice scholarships Nov. 10. The details of the new professorships will be determined by the school’s leadership, Rice said.
“Many students will benefit from (Rice’s) generosity,” William Hubbard, the law school’s dean, said at the announcement. “They’ll be able to pursue their passion, they’ll be able to pursue public service.”
“The student scholarships and the endowed professorships supported by the Rice gift will catapult our law school to the forefront of legal education in America and will propel our mission to graduate highly skilled and deeply committed lawyer-leaders for our state and nation for generations to come,” Hubbard said.
The law school donation is at least the second major USC gift from the Rices, who are known as die-hard supporters of the Gamecocks’ football program. Their name also graces the school’s Rice Athletic Center, which opened in 2012.