There are numerous pathways within the field of law, which can be daunting for many. Read below to learn how one alumna followed an unconventional. Not everything is linear.
When Stephanie Gendell ’98 arrived at law school, she knew she didn’t want to follow a conventional path. She wanted to help children and she had no desire to do litigation. “At the time,” she said, “both of those things were very unusual.” Since then, with the help of strong, positive mentors, she has pursued a highly successful career in and out of government. She has benefited from seeing government systems from the inside and learned that litigation and law change are not the only ways to have an impact. While in law school, Gendell pursued her interest in the child welfare system by working at an organization called Massachusetts Families for Kids. Her supervisor there was an “invaluable” resource, showing her what a law degree could do in the field of child advocacy and urging her to consider a position in government.
Though it was stressful to watch her fellow students secure their jobs months in advance while she continued her search, Gendell stuck with her mentor’s advice and applied for several positions at the Administration for Children Services (ACS) in New York City. Though she was initially committed to working in the policy department, she found herself accepting a position working under the Deputy General Counsel (and then General Counsel), Joseph Cardieri, in the legal unit. “I was almost surprised myself that I was doing anything involving the legal unit,” Gendell said, “but I felt like I had really connected with him in the interview. He was the person that I really wanted to work with.”
At ACS, where she eventually became chief of staff to the Executive Deputy Commissioner, Gendell put her law degree to work in nontraditional ways. She trained attorneys and caseworkers on the implementation of the Adoption and Safe Families Act, conducted court observation to see how resources and training could be improved, reviewed cases that w needed “fixing,” helped families where housing was the last barrier to reunification, and developed policies related to safety, permanency and well-being. As she saw “how very difficult it was to change the behavior of thousands of people working at ACS,” she learned that simply passing or amending a law does not automatically create change.
After 8 years, when a colleague from the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York (CCC) contacted her about an open position, Gendell took it. Gendell currently serves as the Associate Executive Director for Policy and Government Relations at CCC, and manages the policy work related to child welfare and juvenile justice. Speaking of the transition from the public sector to non-profit work, Gendell noted that “the skills are very similar.” She works with many of the same people and attends many of the same meetings, “just with a different hat.” Gendell also found her extensive experience in government to be an asset in the non-profit world. “Having worked in the agency gives you credibility,” she said, as well as a deeper understanding of the experiences and challenges of the people who work there.
In line with her unconventional legal career, Gendell’s current work consists largely of policy advocacy and community outreach. Months after securing positions for twenty-five additional family court judges, Gendell was still triumphant about the win. And while a recent bid to raise the age of criminal responsibility in New York was unsuccessful, she intends to try again. Gendell also spends a great deal of time speaking with the press, testifying at city council hearings, attending coalition meetings, and organizing classes to educate the public on children’s issues.
While she does not go to court or write new laws, Gendell said that she has found other highly effective means of changing the system and that her legal background is very useful in her day-to-day work. “There are definitely times when the answer is to change the law or sue somebody,” Gendell said, “but there are a lot of other ways to make change.” Her legal training allows her to better understand complex statutes related to her work, as well as the flaws in the court system around which the CCC advocates. She would not have always described her law degree as valuable for advocacy, she said, “but over time I feel like I can appreciate it more.”