The “Other” Side of Law

Attorney Shaun Stallworth found his calling advocating for underrepresented law students and plaintiffs
Shaun Stallworth sits on a bench outside the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City

Shaun Stallworth’s (J.D. ’08) passion for advocacy developed partially out of the discomfort he sometimes felt as one of only four people of color in his first-year class of nearly 200 students at the UMKC School of Law.

“I don't know if some folks realize that's a big deal until you walk in those shoes as a first year, with all the other stress you're dealing with,” Stallworth said. “And then add on that you're the only person of color — that's tough.”

Although he said he has many fond memories of law school and wouldn’t trade his experience for anything, Stallworth recognizes that his experience may have been atypical.

“I'm used to being in places where I may be the only person of color — maybe one of two or three,” he explained. “I've been blessed to have a ton of Black friends, white friends, friends of different colors. But at the same time, it always is still something that is unique to you, when you're one of only a few or the only one. I didn't have a bad experience, but it's different when you're the ‘other than’ in the room.”

That feeling of being “other than” can be especially prevalent among students like Stallworth, who are the first in their family to attend law school.  Many of these first-generation law students belong to racial minority groups, which often adds an additional layer of challenge to their educational journey. Those challenges they face don’t simply disappear the moment they arrive on campus.

Stallworth remembers feeling a unique pressure in the classroom environment at times, for example, when discussing historic segregation cases.

“When there's a question that kind of touches on the race thing, your friends and classmates look to you to be the monolith for all things Black,” Stallworth said. “Even though I don't mind expressing my opinion, that's some additional stress that maybe some others don't have.”

Stallworth’s experience led him to begin his enduring work of breaking down the barriers that cause people to feel excluded, marginalized or “other than.”

During his third year of law school, Stallworth served as president of the Black Law Students Association. Frustrated by the lack of diversity he had noticed within the law school, Stallworth decided to take action. He contacted leaders of the Hispanic Law Students Association and Asian American Law Students Association to discuss solutions to attract and support students of color. Stallworth led the small group of student leaders in planning a banquet at the Kansas City Marriott Country Club Plaza, raising an impressive $30,000 and establishing the first Pipeline Scholarship at the UMKC School of Law.

Stallworth said he takes pride in having initiated the annual student-run scholarship that helped create opportunities specifically for individuals of color.

“Being the leader of that effort definitely meant and means a lot to me,” he said. “To be able to give scholarship money back to other students who look like you and get more people in that position to see more (similar) faces in the classroom — that was something special to me.”

The complex issues of inclusion and representation persist within higher education, but Stallworth said he applauds the law school for making concerted efforts to increase diversity over the years. Those efforts include the formation of a new alumni diversity committee and the Ellen Y. Suni Opening Doors Scholarship Endowment to support a first-generation law student each year.

“I think efforts in the school have been so committed to this,” said Stallworth. “I'm currently on the UMKC Law School Alumni Board, so I can certainly attest to the efforts that (former) Dean Suni and Dean Glesner Fines have made. They’re doing some great things with the students.”

Shaun Stallworth sits inside an office
A native of Slidell, Louisiana, Stallworth grew up surrounded by the rich sights, smells, tastes and sounds of a region that is world-renowned for its cross-cultural and multilingual heritage.

“I always tell people I’m extremely blessed that I got the best of both worlds,” Stallworth said. “On one hand, I grew up in the suburbs of New Orleans, so I was able to go to some of the better schools in one of the better parishes in a state not known for its education. At the same time, I was close enough to be able to partake of everything that was part of that Southeast Louisiana culture.”

Stallworth and his parents, a teacher and a computer programmer, lived only about 30 minutes away from Bourbon Street. But they were far enough away from the urban core to allow Stallworth to have plenty of what he calls “Tom Sawyer moments” — jumping off train trestles into the Mississippi River and swinging on tires suspended by ropes while alligators lurked below.

Stallworth remained in Louisiana while earning his undergraduate degree in communications with minors in French and business administration at LSU.

A few years before Stallworth applied to law school, his mother suffered a medical malpractice ordeal that would shape her son’s future career path.

She injured her back in an accidental fall and needed surgery to repair the damaged disc. Unfortunately, the surgeons left pieces of sponge in her back, where they remained for nearly two months causing infections and other complications throughout her entire body.

Watching his mother suffer so much through no fault of her own was a “big jolt” to Stallworth that sparked his initial interest into becoming an attorney.

“I always thought that was kind of messed up what happened to a regular person like my mother, who works hard and does what she needs to do,” he said.

That experience led Stallworth to pursue a law degree and become the first lawyer in his family.

Years later, Stallworth, currently working as of counsel with Holman Schiavone, LLC, has built a successful law practice seeking justice for individuals who, like his mother, have been wronged in some way and need assistance.

Shaun Stallworth stands in front of a mural at 18th and Vine in Kansas City
It took some time for Stallworth to settle into his niche within the legal profession.

Throughout law school at UMKC, Stallworth clerked with the large international firm Sonnenschein Nath Rosenthal, LLP (now Dentons US LLP) and briefly with the Missouri Court of Appeals. At that time, Stallworth considered becoming a prosecutor. Then, as Stallworth’s studies were winding down, Sonnenschein presented him with a profitable opportunity he couldn’t refuse.

“They certainly were offering more money than I had ever made before, or my parents had ever made, so I took the opportunity to go to do big law,” Stallworth said.

Over the course of the next five years — from 2008 to 2013 — he represented large companies like Walmart, Lowe's, Sam’s Club and Harris Bank. While lucrative, the dense nature of large commercial litigation didn’t hold Stallworth’s interest for long. He became captivated by the stories fellow UMKC School of Law alumnus Tom Ralston (J.D. ’08) shared with him during their workout sessions at the gym.

“He'd always have these great stories about doing employment law,” Stallworth said. “And he told me this really interesting story about what happened in this case and that case. And I thought, ‘Man, that seemed like so much fun.’ ”

When Stallworth eventually met Ralston’s colleague Kirk Holman (J.D. ’99) at an Inns of Court event in 2012, the two struck up a spirited conversation about plaintiff work and bonded over similarities in their upbringings. Holman, known as one of the most well-respected plaintiff attorneys in the region, inspired Stallworth to seriously consider making a career change.

“(Holman) had a lot of passion for what he was doing, and that mattered to me,” Stallworth said.

Months later, Stallworth met with Anne Schiavone (J.D. ’99), Holman’s partner at the firm. Schiavone convinced him that he could do more enjoyable, less stressful work without sacrificing the kind of income he earned at the large defense firm.

That leap of faith to the opposite end of the legal spectrum paid off for Stallworth. The supportive, collaborative environment at Holman Schiavone, a firm made up almost exclusively of UMKC School of Law graduates, has allowed Stallworth to thrive while finding greater purpose in his work.

“On the plaintiff side, it's a lot of emotion, a lot of times, because this is someone that feels like they've been wronged — they've been treated differently — on the basis of their race, their sex, their age, their gender, whatever,” Stallworth said. “Sometimes you get a really good result of potentially, if used correctly, life-changing money for some people. You're able to take something that was a really bad event that happened in their life that they’d probably rather forget about, and then get them some type of compensation — something that will help them push past that particular point in their life.”

His positive energy and willingness to take on cases other attorneys reject sets Stallworth apart in the eyes of his clients. He once represented a Black man alleging race discrimination and retaliation in a lengthy case against a casino. Overcome with gratitude, Stallworth’s client broke down crying when the resolution finally came down in his favor.

“He said, ‘This has just been so stressful for me and my family. I feel like I lost my I lost my livelihood for a company I've been with for 15 years. You got me here. You stuck with me, and I appreciate that. God bless.’”
Shaun Stallworth stands in front of a mural at 18th and Vine
His client’s emotional reaction touched Stallworth deeply.

“That was something right there,” Stallworth said. “That was coming from his soul, so that meant a lot. I've had a number of those reactions over the years, and it's something that I'm always appreciative of. I don't take that lightly for someone to put their emotions and their feelings on their sleeve like that.”

Nearly two decades later, Stallworth remains dedicated to the objective he established as a student at the UMKC School of Law — increasing diversity within the legal profession.

Past president of Jackson County Bar Association, one of the oldest African American bar associations in the country, Stallworth remains actively involved in community enrichment efforts by mentoring potential law students, fundraising for scholarships and conducting legal writing workshops. Knowing he may have contributed to somebody's professional success brings Stallworth immeasurable joy.

“I've been able to stay in touch with potential law students that have gone on to become law students, and then gone on to become lawyers,” Stallworth said. “And that's been really cool to see.”

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Published: Jun 30, 2022

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