Making a Change
Published in 2022 Missouri & Kansas Super Lawyers magazine on November 8, 2022
From a young age, Abby McClellan Paradise knew she was destined for a career in education.
“I never gave it a second thought,” she says. “I always just loved being around kids and loved teaching. I grew up with three brothers, and as the only girl I kind of found solace in my room, teaching my fake class of stuffed animals and Barbies.”
She turned that imaginary play into reality, following in the footsteps of her mom, who taught elementary school for 39 years before leaving to help her husband’s pediatrician practice, by enrolling in Drury University for an undergraduate degree in the mid-2000s. It was during undergrad—in particular, in a class titled “Educating the Exceptional Child”—that she realized just how much the law and education intertwined.
The conversation was centered around the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Rehabilitation Act, laws that give students with special needs rights to learn alongside their peers. “Growing up with a teacher, I already knew so much about education,” McClellan Paradise says. “That [moment] was the first time I can remember, in an education class, thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I had no idea.’”
It was pivotal. After that course, she went to see her advisor, added pre-law to her courses, and took the LSAT in her senior year. Her degree in hand, McClellan Paradise decided to teach special education in small-town Iowa. “I loved it, and it was very challenging. There was, really, never a dull moment. It was very, very rewarding,” she says.
“I thought, ‘Maybe as a lawyer, I’ll feel more in control and have the ability to make change.’”Abby McClellan Paradise
For McClellan Paradise, whose younger brother is autistic, daily interactions with children with special needs were second nature. “He has a whole host of other disabilities, both physical and mental. I had never questioned the fact that he was able to go to public school—learning Spanish, doing culinary arts, things like that,” she says. “I didn’t realize that, but for [IDEA and the ADA], he would have been in his own special school, and it would have been more like an institution.”
As she approached the end of year two in education, the thought of law school was still in McClellan Paradise’s mind. “In the classroom, there were times I would get frustrated with the inability to make a difference or make a change,” she says. “I had a couple of students who were having some pretty severe abuse at home, and there wasn’t a lot you could do under the law. Things were reported, checked on, but not a lot changed. I just felt powerless. I thought, ‘Maybe as a lawyer, I’ll feel more in control and have the ability to make change.’”
With her LSAT score set to expire, she made the decision to enroll at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, knowing a return to teaching was always possible. There, she pursued education and policy law while building experience working for the school’s Institute for Human Development, where she helped craft legislation under guardianship and conservatorship law and helped implement grants to support people with developmental disabilities in the workplace.
Now at Stueve Siegel Hanson, McClellan Paradise represents clients who have been harmed by dangerous products, particularly prescription drugs and medical devices. She misses working with children on a daily basis, so she helps run the volunteer lawyer program at Operation Breakthrough to fill that void. Still, her legal clientele is the perfect pastiche of law and education: Beyond representing them, she’s able to explain complex topics in relatable ways, a skill honed during her days in the classroom.
“We are representing people that are in a vulnerable state, which is very similar to working with students,” she says. “They’re navigating something for the first time. It’s helpful to have an advocate that can also teach to a level they understand.”