Finney follows trail blazed by her famous grandfather
The legal profession is not just a family tradition for Clemson University senior Felicia Finney.
It’s something sacred.
Her father, Jerry Leo Finney, is a Columbia attorney, specializing in criminal and civil defense.
Her late grandfather, Ernest A. Finney Jr., was South Carolina’s first black circuit judge in modern times and later the first African-American chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
Felicia Finney, a student in the Clemson Philosophy and Religion Department’s Law, Liberty and Justice program, is following in their footsteps with her sights set on law school.
“It has been my dream since high school to be able to practice law,” she said.
This past summer, Finney spent eight weeks walking the same halls in Columbia where her grandfather presided for 15 years as a Supreme Court justice. An internship through the Philosophy and Religion Department allowed Finney to closely study the state’s judicial system.
“I knew this was going to be a great experience for me, and it was,” Finney said.
From May 14 to July 6, Finney observed sessions in family court, juvenile court, mental health court, homeless court, circuit court, probate court and divorce court.
She heard oral arguments before the state Supreme Court.
Drug court was particularly interesting, she said.
“Not many people know about it,” she said. “It’s kind of like a rehabilitation program where you get tested every week, you go to classes, and you can graduate. To see some of these people turn their lives around was really fascinating to me.”
For Finney, the most poignant sessions during her internship were those of the Supreme Court Institute, a judicial-education program for middle and high school teachers from across South Carolina.
“The teachers are passionate about incorporating civics into the classroom,” Finney said. “It’s so important for students my age to know they have so much power when it comes to politics because we’re big in numbers. We’ve got to know what’s going on – it’s very important for us to be educated – and we’ve got to get to the polls.”
The Supreme Court internship is one of several pre-law internships offered through the Department of Philosophy and Religion. Students in the Law, Liberty and Justice program can also intern with the 13th Judicial Circuit Court and the Public Defender’s office. Graduates from the Philosophy and Religion Department have distinguished themselves at Ivy League law schools such as Yale, Harvard and Columbia; won prestigious national honors; and gone on to positions in government and top law firms.
“The Supreme Court internship is our most prestigious and competitive legal internship, and Felica was an outstanding intern,” said Richard Amesbury, chair of the Philosophy and Religion Department. “As a Clemson philosophy major, she is well-equipped to embark on a path to the legal profession.”
Finney, who is leaning toward pursuing sports and entertainment law, worked closely in Columbia with Betsy Goodale, former chief staff attorney with the state Supreme Court.
Goodale, who recently retired from the court’s staff, oversaw the internship since 2010. Goodale graduated with a nursing degree from Clemson in 1985 but later turned toward law, earning her law degree from The University of South Carolina in 1991. Goodale was honored by the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities as the Philosophy and Religion Department’s 2018 selection for the CAAH Hall of Fame.
Inspired by a trailblazer
The example of Finney’s trailblazing grandfather, who passed away last year, inspired her to seek the competitive internship.
Ernest Finney, who graduated from the South Carolina State University School of Law in 1954, struggled against adversity as a young black lawyer in the Jim Crow era. He taught in the public schools for five years before his law career took wing.
He gained fame as a civil rights attorney and a member of the state House before winning election to the state Supreme Court in 1985.
“It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized that the opportunities I have now were forged by people like him who had to fight through a lot of adversity,” Felicia Finney said. “He broke so many barriers for me that I feel if I didn’t take advantage of every opportunity presented to me, it would be selfish.”
But in her application for the internship, she felt it inappropriate to give herself an advantage by capitalizing on her grandfather’s name. She chose not to mention him.
A warmhearted man
Finney remembers her famous grandfather as a warmhearted man who never urged her to pursue law but was a constant cheerleader for his five grandchildren.
“He was so involved when we were growing up,” she said. “He’d want to know about us, what we were doing, what we liked at school, what we enjoyed reading. Every elementary or middle school or award ceremony, he’d be there.
“He was the kind of person who was behind you, no matter what you wanted to do,” she added. “He knew that when you loved something, it showed in your work and your life. I know he’s smiling over me.”
He also had a mischievous streak, his granddaughter said.
“He would take us to any fast food restaurant that our parents would never take us to,” she said with a laugh. “Or he’d take us to the golf course.”
He once made a hole-in-one, and he would tease Felicia and her two siblings on the course.
“‘Whoa! That was close,’ he’d say, ‘but it wasn’t a hole in one,’” she said, laughing. “He’d remind us of that all the time.”
Felicia Finney’s mother and father also encouraged her to aim high, though not necessarily in the direction of law.
“They said, ‘Whatever you want to do, you have to put in 110 percent, you have to work twice as hard as everybody else. You need to make sure it’s your passion. If it’s not your passion, it’s going to bring you down every day. So, you need to find your passion and work hard at it.”
From pastries to law
Finney’s earliest passion, however, was pastries. In her elementary school years, she yearned to be a pastry chef in the White House.
“My mom and grandmother are very good chefs, so I grew up around a lot of great home cooking, and I used to watch the Food Network religiously,” she said.
Sports also was a passion. In high school, Finney ran track and played golf. Her younger siblings share that interest: Her brother plays football, soccer and basketball; her sister is bound for Clemson in a few years on a volleyball scholarship.
By high school, Finney knew she wanted to pursue law. She participated in mock trials at school and served as vice president of the student body.
But she wasn’t sure she wanted to attend Clemson – until she visited the University.
She met with several advisors, including philosophy professor Todd May.
“He’s just brilliant,” Finney said. “He sold me on philosophy, saying I’d love it, and I haven’t regretted it. It has been great.”
A university ‘like home’
Finney’s mother attended Clemson, majoring in industrial engineering, but she had never pressured her daughter to follow suit. Still, when Finney received an acceptance letter from Clemson, both of her parents were so happy that they burst into tears, she said.
“They were completely overjoyed,” Finney said. “I’d never seen them react like that. I knew at that moment, Clemson was it. I wanted to go to a school that felt like home, that was going to treat me like family. At that moment, I thought this is where I need to be.”
Some pre-law students major in political science, history or English. The Philosophy and Religion department’s Law, Liberty and Justice program provides a unique foundational experience, with ancient and contemporary readings in ethics, logic and the philosophy of law.
“Philosophy offers a solid background in critical thinking, analysis of arguments and debate, and philosophy majors outperform all other humanities majors on the LSAT — the law school entrance exam,” Amesbury said. “Clemson philosophy graduates are among the very best in the nation, going on to top-tier law schools and careers in the U.S. Justice Department and private practice.”
“To study philosophers whose theories influenced today’s ideas is really fascinating to me,” Finney said. “It has taught me to question everything we read. In our essays, we submit arguments and also counter ourselves, which makes our argument even stronger.”
At Clemson, Finney is not only a full-time student but a University tour guide and student assistant to Brad Scott, director of football player development.
Her experience in the Tiger football office has inspired her to consider sports and entertainment law as a career.
“I think it would be a great field to go into, to help athletes to help protect themselves, their assets and equity, the things they’ve worked so hard for,” Finney said.
“I’m open to other possibilities,” she added. “But sports and entertainment is a growing field. It seems very exciting.”
She’s considering other possibilities after graduation – seeking a fellowship, for instance, or working for a campaign or political action committee in Washington, D.C.
Or she may apply for Teach for America.
“Being a teacher would offer another perspective,” she said. “Teach for America often puts you in areas that don’t have the funding and resources of larger school districts. It’s really a way to grow and expand.”
Meanwhile, juggling her studies with her part-time job and tour-guide duties doesn’t faze Finney.
She thrives on the pressure.
“I think it’s good when you’re on a tight schedule and you’re constantly moving,” she said. “For me, when I have a vast amount of down time, I don’t seem to get as much done. I like the fast-paced intensity and high expectations. The bar has been set extremely high, but that causes me to reach higher. I want to exceed what people expect me to do.”
Renee Dooley and Richard Amesbury contributed reporting to this story.