Some lawyers begin their careers right away, but Mary Kay O’Malley was a social worker for 13 years before she got her law degree — an experience that continues to inform her approach to the law. She now heads the Child and Family Services Clinic at UMKC.
What are some of your proudest career accomplishments? Sometimes I still can’t believe I quit a job to go to law school at the age of 36. It was scary and exhilarating at the same time. The fact that I have been privileged to serve as a prosecutor, defense counsel, guardian ad litem and social worker in juvenile court cases has given me the chance to see the families from a 360-degree perspective. I think that I understand as well as anyone that advocating for children means to advocate for those who care for them.
What inspired you to get involved in the justice system? I knew I wanted to continue working as a child advocate with my law degree. I hoped to consult on legislation and use the legal parameters to achieve the best outcomes for children and families. I had an older brother serving as a circuit judge in Jackson County who recognized my passion for child protection. He told me that Family Court needed people like me and I listened to him, much to my parents’ delight (and surprise!).
What has been your favorite part of the job? I love being part of a profession whose purpose is to help people avoid or solve problems. It plays to my strong suit, but more importantly, I encounter lawyers, young and old, who inspire me with their sense of social justice and service every single day. Now I am so gratified to watch the lightbulb go off in students when they grasp a concept I’ve helped them learn. My father once told me his gift to the world was seven educated people. I guess mine is encouraging young lawyers to use their law degree to the best of their abilities and to do the most good that they can. The worst part of my job is that the students leave, the best is that there are new students every semester.
What is something that would surprise people about you? I can indulge in some really trashy pop culture.
What is the best advice you’ve ever given or received? No doubt, “there, but for the grace of God.” It keeps me real. I know I won the lottery being born to two great parents who gave me every opportunity to succeed and live a purposeful, principled life. They helped me learn early on that not everybody is as fortunate, and it’s more important to try to help than judge people too harshly.
When you were growing up, what did you want to be? A star of stage and screen. My dreams were often me starring in some Technicolor Broadway musical. If only I could have ever recreated those elaborate songs and dance routines when I awoke I might have given Busby Berkeley a run for his money!