Lisa McLish: Trading Contract Law for a Life of Social Work

mcLishWhen Lisa McLish was enrolling in law school at Catholic University more than two decades ago, she vividly remembers pausing briefly to consider the joint law/social work degree on offer. Something about the idea of social work spoke to her, but the extra year — of school and debt — turned her off, and she quickly dismissed the thought. After all, she knew wanted to be a public interest lawyer, and for that, she mainly needed a law degree.

“Looking back, I could have easily gotten a joint degree, but I didn’t take the extra time.”

After law school, McLish realized the type of public interest law she had dreamed of doing was harder to practice than she thought. “No one tells you before law school that those jobs are actually very hard to get.”

So initially McLish took a clerkship and then moved over to the Justice Department where she spent nearly 15 years doing government contract work. McLish was happy, in a way, at Justice. “I was a trial lawyer, and I liked that part. It was actually kind of exciting.”  There were also supplementary perks.  “Being a lawyer gives you an automatic cache; it’s nice but also hard to give up. Everyone kind of understands what you do even if they don’t really understand.”

The problem was that after nearly 15 years, McLish started to find the work slightly boring. “I sort of fell into it. I didn’t even really know what that kind of law was in law school.”

But nevertheless, time, as it always does, flew by. It helped that McLish liked her colleagues, a great group of smart, like-minded people that she enjoyed spending time with inside and outside of work. And despite not being the kind of law she had imagined doing, balancing a demanding full-time job with three kids left her little time to consider other possibilities.

But when McLish went back to work after her third child in 2003, the schedule seemed harder than ever. “My husband was working a ton, and I was going to have to start traveling again. My babysitter was great, but she couldn’t stay overnight, and I realized … I didn’t want her to.” It was the perfect storm of being frustrated with her chaotic lifestyle and a bubbling resentment that she really wasn’t doing what she wanted to do.

During some down time at work, McLish started flipping through a course catalog looking for inspiration.  And there she saw it. The degree in social work she had long ago considered but passed over.  In 2005, she started her Masters in social work, graduating in 2009.

Today, she is the school social worker at St. Francis Xavier Academy in SE Washington DC, a job that fulfills her in a way she never experienced as a lawyer. “I get so much joy from my work. Even if it’s just with one child, you feel like you’re having a little bit of a positive impact. I love it.”

Does she miss anything about her old life? “You know, like I said there’s a level of respect that comes with saying you’re a lawyer that I thought I would miss, but I love my job so, so much, that I don’t really. I do miss my colleagues, and sometimes the travel, but I don’t miss the actual work. Not one bit.”

Today McLish works three days a week, a schedule that also gives her plenty of time at home with her children. And she admits that the timing was perfect even though she delayed a career in public interest work for two decades after she first had the idea: “I don’t think I could have done this job after graduation. I think it takes some maturity, and I certainly could not have done this without the support of my husband.”

Lisa’s Lessons for a Successful Transition:
  • Get an additional degree if possible;
  • Wait until childcare costs are behind you;
  • Don’t rule out ideas you had when you were younger, keep them in the back of your head.

For discussion:

Did you nearly start another career before diving into the one you have now? Do you ever regret that decision? What would you do differently if you could do it all over again?

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