A Dollar & Change: The Life of Ed Bell

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One dollar.

Four quarters. Ten dimes. One hundred, otherwise unusable, copper-colored pennies.

One dollar. That is Ed Bell’s annual salary.

Only, not precisely. Because only two months into his new position as president of the once-faltering Charleston School of Law, Bell got a raise.

“A 20 percent raise,” he adds, with a chuckle stifled deep inside his throat. Still, a smile escapes. “We couldn’t figure out how to divide a dollar into twelve months, so now I make $1.20.”

“And,” he says, lifting a finger to make another point, “I’m donating that to the scholarship fund.”

We are sitting in his current office, in front of an enormous circular window that displays Charleston’s busy King Street down below. Soon, Bell will not have that daily view anymore—the offices of the School of Law will be moving elsewhere in the city as part of a larger restructuring project.

That restructuring—one of many changes that will take place in the final two months of 2015—epitomizes Bell’s fit to the job: to not just save the Charleston School of Law, but to transform it into one of the best and most innovative schools in the nation…and one that serves a greater purpose than simply to create successful lawyers.

It’s a hard job, but one that Ed Bell has been preparing for his whole life.

Born in Sumter as the son of an obstetrician, Ed Bell grew up around children and the world of medicine. He spent Sundays at the hospital, eating lunch there after church while his father made his rounds. With what he calls a “typical” childhood, the young Bell spent his time in sports, taking his “mandatory” piano lessons, or visiting his grandmother in Charleston. He also worked, running a paper route or mowing lawns.

For college, Bell headed toward Spartanburg to enroll at Wofford College, where he struggled as a pre-med major during his freshman year. But then he took a course at Carolina Night School—a business law course. It was there that Bell fell head over the heels for the subject of law, but his father refused to pay for any further college for him due to his poor prior performance, and loans were unavailable because of his family’s income level.

So, Bell got creative.

Taking on three jobs—as a night clerk at a local law firm, as a night auditor at a Holiday Inn hotel, and selling mobile homes on the weekends—he went back to the school and set up a payment plan.
“It was the only way I could do it,” Bell says of the agreement. “It wasn’t a hard thing for them to say yes to; I would take them part of my paycheck every week.”

By the time he graduated more than six years later (“It took me a little longer because I couldn’t afford to pay the full-time tuition,” he says), Bell’s grades had vastly improved, and he was accepted to the University of South Carolina’s School of Law, where he once again paid his own way.

“While I didn’t enjoy my undergrad school as much, I loved law school,” Bell remembers. “I just loved the reading of the law and the different factual situations that you encounter in every case. In those encounters you learn so much about people and business and ingenuity and calculations and dreaming and things like that. Anyone that has learned to read case law has learned a little bit about themselves and others at the same time.”

While in law school, Bell had the opportunity of a lifetime—to serve as an aid to Senator Strom Thurmond in the late 1970s. For four years, Bell lived alongside the South Carolinian legend, all the while being shaped by his insight and advice.

“He was an extraordinary man; he really loved young law students and young lawyers,” Bell says of Thurmond. “He would give you advice every day—all of which was great—and he’d never give you the same advice twice.”

That advice—and Thurmond’s constant presence—shaped Bell’s outlook on working with others.

“You know, your parents can teach you principles of life, but sometimes it takes the experience of life to understand what they mean,” he says. “With Senator Thurmond, people always wanted to know: what was his secret? Why was he elected at such a high percent of the vote almost every time? And it really had to do that he cared for each person individually. You could see that working for him. It wasn’t his politics—it wasn’t that that got him re-elected. It was his personal involvement in people’s lives that when asked, he got involved. And I think that part shaped my life the most.”

After leaving Thurmond’s side, Bell moved to the Weinberg Law Firm in Sumter, working there for a few years before opening his own practice in 1983. In 1996, he expanded the practice to Georgetown, moving closer to the ocean that called to him.

“I promised myself as a kid that I would eventually move to the coast,” he says of the move. “I grew up in the summers going to the beach, and I fell in love with the salt water—the fishing, the hunting and the outdoors. While we had that in Sumter, we had lakes and freshwater. My father loved the fresh water,” he adds. “I fell in love with the ocean.”

Along the way, Bell—an entrepreneur at heart and a problem fixer by nature—became involved with other projects and businesses across South Carolina. In 2010, he became a partner in Garden & Gun magazine, now one of the fastest growing magazines in the nation. Not long after, he acquired a real estate business on the coast called The Litchfield Company. He has becoming a leading attorney in various fields, and even founded a Vehicle Safety Research Center—a facility that can investigate auto-related instances like automotive defects or accident re-enactments.

Even after all this time, with more than 300 major cases under his belt, it’s not difficult to notice the one case that marked him the most. And you have to look no further than his very first one to find it.

In 1979, Bell had recently graduated, but had not yet passed the bar, when he received a call from a panicked mother. Her son had been charged with murder, and she wanted Bell to represent him. And while Bell eventually won the case—and many other murder cases to follow—the memories of that first time in court have played heavily into his life ever since.

“I tried that case three months after I was sworn in,” he remembers. “The court was concerned that I was handling this big case and I had never tried a case, nor did I have the experience…but I knew I had to do it. The concern and the fear that I had of not doing well—of not making sure I did the very best—drove me to do a better job. Drove me to do the best I could, and even more.”

The fear of failure—and not just failure, but failing someone—is a theme that marks our entire conversation.

“I always worried about representing somebody and not disappointing them,” Bell says. “Not failing them. Not just doing what I said I’d do but doing it the best way. I’ve always had this underlying fear of failure. I think that’s what drives me to maybe do things at a different level than some.”

till, the realization of how unprepared he felt in that first case, and how common that is for law students moving into their own profession in law, was something that stuck with Bell. In law school, he had attended only one court hearing. He had never cross-examined a witness, and didn’t know how a witness was supposed to be sworn in. And while he had hours of training under his belt through law school, the practicality of practice was never truly attained until it was necessary in court.

“I didn’t know what all this training I had gotten really meant,” he says. “You know, I can’t think of a scarier situation for a kid to be in than to be given the responsibility of representing a person whom you know is innocent, and yet you’ve never tried a case. I’ve always thought that those people who get out of school and become great trial lawyers…great practitioners of our trade…have to have had some mentoring of some sort to get the things they didn’t get in law school, because they don’t get it, at least when I was coming along, in law school.”

In fact, it’s the focus on this need—for mentorship and for practical exercise—that years ago led Bell to focus on the Charleston School of Law, who had intended to start a clinics program that would provide just that. Bell was fascinated by the goal of educating law students in the practical aspects of law, but as the years passed and the program never materialized, Bell maintained an interest in the school—one that would prove vital to the next major career move of his life.

“When I heard the school was in trouble several years ago, it really grieved me and I followed it closely,” says Bell. “It bothered me. There wasn’t much I could do about it; it was something that was happening afar.”

It was a call from someone close to him—the husband of his goddaughter, in fact—that prompted Bell to take more of an active role in the transformation of the Charleston School of Law. Bell agreed, initially, to be part of a group that would help the school—which was, at that time, suffering from three pending lawsuits from past faculty (and the countersuits filed by the school), an exodus of students from the school and a staggering $6 million loan debt.

That “group” never materialized.

“When I called back later I found out that the group was one,” Bell adds with a wry smile. “Apparently, there were a lot of people smarter than I was.”
And with that, Bell agreed to become the next president of the Charleston School of Law. Not only that; he would assume responsibility of the $6 million loan debt, and would come on for the salary of one dollar a year.

Make that $1.20.

But Bell wasn’t without his own concerns. He was inaugurated as president on October 29, but even then, his ever-present fear of failure was driving him.

“I’m not sure that I could take this job unless I felt like my background warranted it; I think I’ve been earning this job for a long time,” he says. “While I’ve had a little bit of a storied career when it comes to the kind of work I’ve done and the kind of cases I’ve handled, I don’t think I could have honestly take this job on had I not been successful in the other parts of my life.”

Still, like many other entrepreneurs, the drive of perfection follows him. While he acknowledges he has been successful by many standards, he is still quick to second-guess himself.

“See, I don’t feel that success every day,” he notes. “I don’t feel I’ve been as successful as maybe others think I’ve been. I still get stage fright when I stand up before a jury—that first five minutes of a case. I still have trepidation when I’m asked to stand up and speak before a group.” In fact, he adds, “I’ve got my first graduation in a week, and I’m scared to death.” But Bill does not let the self-doubt debilitate him. He has learned, over the years, to surround himself with others whose strengths counter his own. In fact, it’s why he immediately, upon taking the seat behind the president’s desk, began establishing a board of advisors that would help him identify problems and possible solutions.

“The more I looked into the school, the more I realized that the school didn’t need fixing. This school just needed leadership,” Bell says. He brags of a faculty that Princeton recently named one of the Top 10 in the country, and a dean that serves the school well. He points out that the school was recently awarded the title of the best value law education in the country.

“I can’t claim credit for that, but what I can claim credit for is changing the attitude around here. I’m coming in without having to fix a lot of problems—there are a lot of issues that I’m working on, but I don’t call them problems…they aren’t that big a deal, and they’re getting taken care of every day.”

One of those issues was dropping the countersuits the school held against the former faculty. That, simply, Bell says, was “the right thing to do.

“We should have never filed them,” he adds. “We teach these kids how to practice law honorably, we’ve got to lead it.”

Today, his main projects are stabilizing the school—its expenditures, revenues, students, faculty and more—and working toward shifting the school into a non-profit model shared by most other law schools in the country. This change, according to Bell, is vital to the school, and is a practical move that needs to be taken immediately.
“You can’t raise money for scholarships being a for-profit; you can’t raise money for your endowment; you can’t raise money to build a campus. That’s the business side of it,” Bell says. “The other side is that I don’t want to have the temptation of profit versus what’s good for the students. It’s an inherent, irreconcilable conflict to have money sitting in the bank and decide whether to take a distribution or whether to reduce the kids’ debt burden.” For Bell, the move to being a non-profit is “an easy decision.”

This conversion is one that will take a while, but Bell and his team plan to apply in January 2016 for the change in status. Still, there are obstacles—the Department of Education’s review of non-profit status validity for the school, for one—that he knows will have to be navigated.

And yet, Bell talks through all of these changes with the cadence of someone who has thought through them in a million different ways. He knows what has to be done, because he’s likely thought it through in every possible scenario, minimizing risks and addressing obstacles before they even appear. He talks briefly about the need for a permanent campus in downtown Charleston—something that is “in the works” but still until wraps. As the conversation turns to his students, however, Bell is energized. He has a vision for this school far beyond a new building and more students.

He has a vision for a new Court.

In Bell’s vision of the Court of General Jurisdiction, law students—with special rules to protect the litigants—would have the opportunity to try real cases in real court with real results, but the ripple effect would be felt far beyond the school. It would be felt around the entire community.

“Let’s say you have a landlord and tenant issue where someone is fussing with the landlord and they can’t get their deposit back. It happens every day,” Bell says. “Most people don’t take those cases…and so they turn up as pro-bono.” He then notes that South Carolina’s pro bono system, the only group privately funded by grants and donations, wants to establish a justice center through the school, organizing all pro bono programs in the city into one. In that scenario, someone in that landlord versus tenant situation could come to the pro bono court and could try that case, using students as representation.

“What you’re fussing over might be only $200 or $500 and so if you make a mistake—and they will—it’s not so bad. Of course, litigants would know that up front, but they could get more of a representation than doing it on their own. And those who refuse to give deposits back because they know that they can’t be taken to court because it’s too expensive may start changing the way they treat people.”
After all, for Bell, it’s not just about teaching the practice of law. It’s about what that practice of law can mean for the community on a larger scale.

“Isn’t that our job, to learn how to treat people right?” he asks. “That’s why having that access to court—poor or not—is so important. It’s a great equalizer…you are teaching people to get out in their community and to give of themselves and to help others. And that helping spirit is what changes people’s lives.”

Bell hopes that this program could come together in 12 to 18 months—an ambitious desire for a program that could potentially change how law schools all over the country teach their students. Still, legislation is scheduled to hit the State House in Columbia in January when session opens, as the creation of this court would require a legislative act. It’s the first step of many, but one that, in only a few short weeks, Bell has identified and worked toward
a solution.

The next 12 months will prove essential to the momentum needed to turn the Charleston School of Law around. In that year, Bell simply hopes for small successes that can build into larger ones.

“Success in a year is different than success in five years,” he says. “I think the trend, of course, is that we save the school and make it better, and that we continually strive for that excellence
in education.”

That education is built of more than classes and even the practical court program that he hopes for. Education, to Bell, is about promoting a culture that can help people far beyond their time in court.

“You see, lawyers—other than maybe doctors—lawyers are probably the sole profession in our society that has the greatest ability to effectuate change in all aspects of what we do. So it’s not just about going out and making a living, it’s about what you can do to change society to improve it; to make it better. So, if we train these lawyers right and give them that sense of purpose, than that is success.”

It’s a challenge on a sizeable scale, and one that still evokes a fear of failure within Bell.

“I’m worried that a year from now people will look back and say, ‘what happened?’” he says. “So that will not happen. This school will not fail. This school will thrive. Because I will not be able to stand having something go wrong.”

After all, even with all its challenges and opportunities, the choice to embrace the Charleston School of Law as his own was simple for Bell.

“Someone had to save this school,” he says, “and someone did.”

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Jordana Megonigal
Jordana Megonigal is a journalism professional with 18 years of experience in the field. She is Publisher of ShowCase Publishing and Business Black Box magazine. In the Upstate community, Jordana is a member of the Small Business Council (Greenville Chamber of Commerce), a board member for Compass of Carolina, co-chair of Greenville Women at Work, communications chair of Mission 1:27 (Taylors First Baptist Church), and serves as a Guardian ad Litem. She is also Executive Director of The Bootstrap Engine.

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