In this series, we highlight and interview Graduate School of Social Service students and alumni who pursued their social work degrees and entered the social work profession after previously sustaining careers in different sectors.
Before pursuing her MSW from GSS, Melissa Lippiello graduated with her JD from St. John’s University, and worked as an attorney for the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). However, after realizing she yearned for a career centered around meaningful collaboration and more personal connections, she decided social work was a more fitting profession for her needs. Currently, she serves as GSS’s Associate Director of Student Services.
What made you want to pursue social work? When did you realize it was time for a career change?
The realization started once I began reflecting on what had been missing for me as a law student. I had been disappointed as a 1L when I realized how little of my law school’s pedagogical mission would be devoted to understanding the social policy underpinnings and implications of case law and legal practice, and what makes good law. You focus on policy very briefly. You’re there to become an effective practitioner and trial advocate, and to learn what the law is, but with so little time and so much to learn, there didn’t seem to be the chance to dive into historical and current societal implications of what you’re studying in each particular area of law.
My first job out of law school was as a trial attorney for ACS, which was tough and important work. I was overloaded with cases and crushing deadlines, and while I stayed on top things, I struggled with not having the time or luxury to fully consider the impact of the work I was doing. I was always being told that I “social worked” my cases – meaning I was spending too much time considering the personal stories and systemic issues reflected in each case, instead of just on trial outcomes or “winning.” Soon I transferred to a quality assurance position within the ACS Commissioner’s office, and was happier to be problem-solving and interacting with other NYC agency stakeholders on child welfare matters. That work was much more satisfying, as it felt motivating to be collaborative, as opposed to adversarial. That’s what drove me to say to myself, “I need to go into the field of social work, because clearly I’m looking for something more in my work and interactions, personally and professionally.”
When you first made the decision to pursue your MSW, how did you feel making that career leap? Were you scared? Excited? A combination of the two?
I think it was all of the above, because I had already made sacrifices and worked hard to get through law school, pass the bar exam and start practicing, and there’s this sense of final accomplishment – and relief – that goes with those things and gets ingrained in a person’s identity. That created some nervousness on my part, where I thought, ‘How will I bring my abilities and training effectively to social work school? How will I be perceived?’ Stepping aside to make a career leap, while so many lawyers do it, really required an authentic willingness to shift gears, and an openness. I don’t think one ever sheds the lawyer aspect of their identity, but it was helpful for me to realize that while I survived the meat grinder of law school and navigated learning the ropes of being a new attorney, there was still so much out there to learn. I had to shift into a mindset where I felt confident that my hard-earned knowledge base and abilities wouldn’t go to waste, and be open to the prospect of learning new things that could lead to a more satisfying career overall.
What are some skills from your previous career that you use as a social worker? What are some new skills you’ve learned from social work?
Having enthusiasm for problem-solving, and analytical skills, and also knowing the right questions to ask so that you can understand all angles of a situation, are all useful for social work practice. Also having a developed intuition about outcomes, reactions, consequences —that’s something I think you’re doing if you’re approaching a matter as an attorney, and also to some extent during the social work assessment process.
I think what social work has brought to me also, though, is a new way to practice every day patience that I didn’t have to employ so much in the field of law, where I was expected to provide an answer as quickly as possible, instead of working with clients at their pace to guide them in identifying solutions for themselves. I have had to work using active listening while also mindfully slowing down my personal pace, to ensure I’m in a place where I can be authentically empathetic and meet a client where they are at.
Would you say getting to use more of that personal touch in your work is one of your favorite things about switching to the social work profession?
Absolutely. I like engaging with others and making personal connections, and doing it from a collaborative, helping perspective, as opposed to encounters that are designed to be adversarial. Many forms of social work practice can involve challenging attitudes and perspectives, and discussion of uncomfortable topics, so I don’t want to say all social work is easier or softer engagement. I’ve found that work within the social work profession is dynamic, and doesn’t tend to include an option of hiding behind an impersonal law or ruling; you have to engage with a client, and hold space for them during evolving personal situations and complications where they could use support. I really like engaging on that level.
Did any other factors drive you toward Fordham?
Reputation. To me, social work as a profession and Jesuit ideals—they’re sort of intertwined. This school has a history of educating students toward the mission of being men and women for others. I’m a product of Fordham undergrad, so I knew coming back for graduate social work studies, that I was going to again have the support of unrivaled faculty and administrators who are completely devoted to student needs and to that mission.
Also: location. Fordham is my school, New York is my campus. The potential to interact with an entire spectrum of client base — that is something pretty unique to New York. The prospect of a good field placement in a global city was very alluring. I didn’t have the sense that I’d just be warehoused anywhere to complete field hours. Fordham’s field placement staff identified generalist and specialist clinical placements for me that were the perfect combination of comfort zone (foster care agency) and aspiration (college counseling center). Between these field experiences and the phenomenal classroom instruction I received from Fordham faculty, I knew early on Fordham was right choice.
If someone came to you for advice when changing their career path to social work, what would you tell them?
I would want to know if they’re a “front office” or people person. In so many areas of social work practice, when you wake up, you know you’re going to have real conversations with real people. You’re going to be engaging with people at the point where they want and need to engage. I’ve found that a social work career isn’t about checking boxes or getting through a pile of work on the desk in front of you, just to get paid and go home at the end of the day. It’s dynamic and live, and while I’ve had my share of “paperwork days,” they’ve been overwhelmingly outnumbered by interesting and amazing days. I’ve never been bored in my social work career.
Anything we missed that you want people to know?
I have no regrets! As a social worker, I’ve engaged with people and populations where I don’t know if I would have had that kind of access had I stayed on the legal track, and it’s given me a unique perspective on the ways the world and communities work and interact. I feel able to navigate life with more confidence because social work education and practice guided me toward a deeper understanding of and respect for concepts like universal human rights, service and social responsibility, and cultural humility. So I’m very happy with my career change, since it has given me the opportunities for lifetime learning and career satisfaction that I had been chasing.