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South Carolina Honors College

  • Headshot of Judge Linda Stephens.

The Pursuit of Excellence

There’s a reason Judge Linda Stephens has been recognized time and time again for her service to the South.

Stephens began her higher education journey as a Gamecock and first generation college student from a small town in South Carolina. She has since become an award-winning judge, all while encouraging other women to push for their own intellectual achievements.

Being a woman in the legal field has “absolutely” influenced the way she went about her career, Stephens said.

“When I joined my first law firm, I was the only female associate,” Stephens said.

Stephens went on to become the only female partner at the firm. She mentored many young women who came to the firm after becoming partner.

Throughout her life, Judge Stephens has worked to be a strong representation of women in her field — from a Woman of the Year award during her undergraduate years at the University of South Carolina, to her recent award from the North Carolina Association of Women Attorneys in October 2022.

Stephens said she’s been a “cheerleader” for other women, offering mentorship to young women as they consider law school or navigate a career in law. To Stephens, women bring something unique to the field that can’t be replaced.

“Just like any other minority, we bring a different perspective to the equation, absolutely different,” Stephens said. “It is essential to resolving disputes, and almost every situation, to have that perspective that we have.”

Stephens’ upbringing also had an impact on her career.

“I came from very poor growing up circumstances,” Stephens said. “[I was] raised by my grandparents. My grandmother was illiterate. My grandfather dropped out of school in the third grade.”

Her grandparents, who worked at a cotton mill, couldn’t help Stephens with her homework. Despite this, they offered something that drove Stephens to continue working for her goals.

“They could encourage me to keep going, and if I had given up, I would have let them down so much,” Stephens said.

Initially, Stephens didn’t begin her career in law. Her foundation began at USC as an English and journalism double major, where she said she learned many of the skills required to be a lawyer.

“I have often said that the reason journalism is such excellent preparation for not only studying law, but becoming a lawyer, is that you have to learn the same skills,” she said.

Stephens said among those skills are listening carefully, learning to ask the right questions, researching and being prepared.

“And,” she said, “You have to be an excellent writer.”

After working as a stringer for the Associated Press post-graduation, she chose to pursue her law degree in Chapel Hill.

Today, Stephens volunteers as chair of the legal committee with the ACLU of North Carolina, which works in support of civil rights and intersectional justice. She also serves in several professional law organizations and committees.

Still, Stephens said, she battles the effects of “imposter syndrome” on a regular basis.

“Even people like me who outwardly seem to have had it all and to have achieved their successes seamlessly and with ease, it’s not necessarily the case,” she said.

Some of the challenges she faced were maintaining responsibility in the face of adversity and feeling deserving of her accomplishments.

“You carry those self doubts around, in your head and in your heart,” Stephens said. “You don’t show them to anybody. You try to show only the confidence you have in yourself and in the work that you’re doing.”

Her accomplishments didn’t come easily, but Stephens continued to find motivation in service to others.

“I think you have to think about people other than yourself,” she said. “I would have let my teachers down. I would have let my professors down.”

Stephens said young women should remember that “being driven and having obligations to others” can help one stay driven even in the face of imposter syndrome.

“You may lose sleep at night, thinking, ‘I’m not ready for this, I’m not good enough for this,’” she said. “But, you have to get up and keep going anyway.”

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.