Today’s legal job market is competitive. With the number of law school graduates exceeding the number of law firm job openings, many struggle to find a way into a job working in a law firm. On top of this, many experience law firms as looking for a very specific resume and feeling as though they need to fit into a cookie cutter mold and surrender over their lives in order to get hired. Historically, there have been significant gender differences in the practice of law which can be grossly summarized as large firm culture has favored men. Women lawyers often report that their experience as associates in large firms is significantly less satisfying (as in their compensation) than their male counterparts (you can read more here and here).
While there are many reasons why lawyers leave the practice of law (not a good fit, pursuing other passions, raising children, helping family members, etc.), statistically speaking, women are more likely to leave an associate position to raise children or care for family. Many of these women lawyers plan to return to the legal job market in the future but find numerous barriers. This phenomenon was observed numerous times by Caren Ulrich Stacy, an experienced lawyer recruiter. As an innovative way to address this issue, Caren founded the OnRamp Fellowship in January 2014. The fellowship matches experienced women lawyers with law firms interested in experienced and diverse talent. Despite feedback from others in the legal industry that thought law firms were too rigid to break from their molds, Caren has been able to partner with 20 law firms across the country to offer experienced women lawyers a path to returning to the practice of law. Below is a Q&A with Caren Ulrich Stacy about the OnRamp Fellowship:
What is the OnRamp Fellowship?
The Fellowship is a re-entry platform that matches experienced women lawyers returning to the profession with law firms and legal departments for a one-year, paid position. This unique experiential learning program gives returning women lawyers – many of whom have opted out of the legal field for a period of time to raise children – an opportunity to demonstrate their value in the marketplace while also broadening their experience, skills, and legal contacts.
The goal of the Fellowship is to replenish the talent pipeline in law firms and legal departments with experienced women lawyers who have the potential and the desire to advance into leadership roles. Organizations that participate in the Fellowship gain access to an untapped group of experienced, diverse lawyers who want to return to the profession but face unique challenges due to their extended absences.
What motivated you to create the OnRamp Fellowship?
The legal profession has a leaky pipeline. Plenty of high-performing lawyers enter the legal profession. But many of these lawyers – women in particular – leave within a few years. As the head of lawyer recruitment, development, and diversity for more than 20 years at large law firms such as Cooley, Weil, and Arnold & Porter, I witnessed first-hand the tension between work and home demands, 24/7 client needs, and lawyer satisfaction. Because of this struggle, many of the women lawyers I knew left law firm life for a decade – sometimes longer – to exclusively focus on managing home responsibilities. When they tried to return to the profession, they were shut out. The organizations they applied to didn’t know where they fit in the compensation and advancement scheme upon returning and whether or not they could hit the ground running after such a long break. I created the one-year Fellowship as a “try-out” to lessen the risk for the law firms/legal departments and to give the returning women an opportunity to gain valuable skills and updated contacts as they ease back into the profession.
What has the response been from applicants, law firms, and the legal profession as a whole?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. We started with 4 pilot firms in 2014 and now have 20 participating firms with another dozen requesting to join the effort. 170 women initially applied for the pilot program and 9 women lawyers were selected to serve as the inaugural Fellows in 2014. And, in the first half of 2015, the participating firms have already hired 14 additional Fellows. Our hope is to bring 30-40 talented women lawyers back into the profession by year-end.
Clients also have been incredibly supportive of this effort. Several large corporations have requested to have Fellows assigned to their matters and some have even offered secondments to the Fellows. Because of their high level of interest, we are now officially placing Fellows into legal departments starting this Fall.
How did your background prepare you for launching this innovative program?
I have hired and developed thousands of lawyers inside top law firms and also studied high performing lawyers, including rainmakers, using data-based methods such as Moneyball analyses (sabermetrics). As such, I understand the significant role that specific skills, passion and enthusiasm, a high EQ, and an open mindset – in addition to intellectual horsepower – play in a lawyer’s success. I am also now keenly aware of the importance of finding applicants who hold values similar to those held by the lawyers currently in the practice group or office. For instance, if a candidate values “working independently,” but the majority of the lawyers in the group value “working collaboratively,” then there is likely a mismatch.
Can you share a success story or favorite anecdote from the program thus far?
One of the inaugural Fellows returned to practice after a 21-year hiatus. She was only 8 months through the 12-month Fellowship and her firm offered her an associate position. She was elated!
You have a rigorous screening and interview process, both for candidates and firms—can you share a bit about that and how you work to help ensure a mutually beneficial fit?
As part of the screening process, each applicant completes a battery of skills, personality, writing, and values assessments, which are similar to the hiring and development tools used in corporate environments. They also participate in an hour-long structured behavioral screening interview before being recommended to the firm for a formal interview.
To ensure we recommend the candidates who are the best “fit” for the organization, we must first understand the factors that lead to lawyer success there. To that end, we conduct two studies – a Culture Analysis and a Bright Spot Study – with each law firm and legal department. For the Culture Analysis, the organization’s lawyers are asked to take a brief 10-minute online survey to rate their top values. This information allows us to recommend candidates that are the best matches based on cultural fit (i.e., the values of the Fellows match the values of the lawyers in the practice group and the office). Significant research shows a higher level of productivity, engagement, and retention when team members’ values match. For the Bright Spot Study, we conduct interviews with 20-25 of the firm’s high-performing women and men senior associates and partners to gather information on their success. The overarching goal of both studies is to learn what contributes to lawyer success so that those behaviors, skills, and approaches can be replicated in the Fellowship program and beyond at the organization.
How do you help ensure success for the fellows?
In exchange for a one-year stipend of $125,000, plus benefits, the Fellow works full-time (with a reduced billable hour requirement) on complex legal projects and receives ongoing feedback from a designated partner advisor in the firm or legal department. Projects range from independent research to direct client interface throughout the one-year term. Although there are no set guidelines regarding the types of projects to which the Fellow can be assigned, there is a requirement that the projects support skill development in areas – such as business acumen and decision making – that are necessary for advancement in the organization. The Fellows are also provided career development support through: (1) unlimited access to online CLE from PLI; (2) training by specialists in negotiations, business development, and leadership; and (3) one-on-one coaching by the most reputable legal-career experts in the profession.
Where do you see this program a few years from now?
My hope is that this program will shift leaders’ mindsets in the legal profession regarding how we find, develop, and advance talent. The best talent does not always come from traditional sources. And, if we truly want to diversify our workforce, we need to consider new sourcing methods and try innovative ways to support and retain our best lawyers as they attempt to integrate life and work throughout the course of their careers.
So if you are an experienced woman lawyer (or know someone who is) looking to re-enter the legal job market after a hiatus from the practice, check out the OnRamp Fellowship today!
Shawn Healy, PhD and Caren Ulrich Stacy, Founder of the OnRamp Fellowship