Finding a job as a lateral associate in The Am Law 100 can be a difficult task no matter the circumstances. For female attorneys who have left the practice of law for several years, the challenge of landing a new job can be especially hard.

With that in mind, Colorado-based legal consultant Caren Ulrich Stacy is launching a fellowship program that will put women lawyers who have taken a break from the profession for one reason or another in year-long jobs at Am Law firms. So far, Baker Botts, Cooley, Hogan Lovells, and Sidley Austin have agreed to participate in the program, and Ulrich Stacy says she hopes to expand the effort if the first year goes well.

Ulrich Stacy would like to see the participating firms give their respective fellows full-time positions when the 12-month program—which comes with a $125,000 salary—ends. Alternatively, she hopes the experience gives the lawyers who take part enough of a resume boost to land their next job.

“These women were highly sought after when they graduated from law school and they should be again,” she says.

Ulrich Stacy has spent her career working in law school career services, at firms such as Arnold & Porter; Cooley; McGuireWoods; and Weil, Gotshal & Manges, and as an outside consultant to firms and legal departments. The idea for the new program, which she has given the name OnRamp Fellowship, came to her four months ago while she was working with two Colorado law schools that were placing recent graduates in short-term jobs.

Representatives of the law firms that have signed on to the fellowship program believe it could have real value in increasing the legal industry’s gender diversity.

Cooley CEO Joe Conroy, for instance, says he was immediately excited about the idea when Ulrich Stacy approached him a few months ago. Conroy says he sees what she is trying to do adding to a critically important conversation: “Young women lawyers, you can tell them as much as you’d like that there’s a path for them, but you have to show them role models or they’re not going to believe it.”

At Baker Botts, Van Beckwith, the firm’s partner in charge of recruiting, says it was an “easy decision” to get involved. Samantha Crispin, a Baker Botts partner who chairs the firm’s global women’s forum, echoes that sentiment. “It hits squarely within the goals of our women’s initiative—recruiting, retention, development and promotion of women lawyers,” Crispin says.

The application process for prospective fellows officially kicks off Monday. Ulrich Stacy says she plans to rigorously vet all of the candidates herself and make recommendations to the firms by the end of February. The up to 20 fellows she expects to join the program this year will start working with their new employers in late April or early May.

All told, the four firms involved have told Ulrich Stacy that as of now they expect to have openings in at least 15 U.S. markets, including Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Palo Alto, New York, and Washington, D.C.

Though applicants must have at least three years of legal industry experience to be considered, Ulrich Stacy says she deliberately set the salary lower than the $160,00 that a typical first-year receives. She did so, she says, to give firms the flexibility to build in training and integration time and adjust billing rates.

“One thing that’s interesting is that other corporations have been doing this for awhile, they get it,” says Jennifer Hagle, a cochair of the national recruiting committee at Sidley. “We really see this as a win-win venture with very little downside.”

The participating firms will pay Ulrich Stacy for screening and recommending applicants via a process that she says will involve skills tests, a written assessment, and behavioral interviews. Once selected, fellows will also have access to trainers and counselors whom Ulrich Stacy has recruited, as well as to free continuing legal education courses.

Conroy expects the cost of the program to pay off quickly for Cooley. “If you get one success, the costs are nominal,” he says. “If you broaden the conversation within the firm and awareness by 35 percent, the costs are nominal.”

Ulrich Stacy’s program is not the first initiative aimed at helping women reenter the legal profession, though it’s format does appear to be unique. Some firms use alumni networks, maintained either formally or informally, to extend job offers to associates who have taken time off. Cravath, Swaine & Moore, for instance, has a formalized associate re-entry program that allows former associates to keep in contact with—and their bar association dues paid by—the firm, while also providing them with access to CLE programs. Those who take part in the program have the option of returning to Cravath if they choose to practice law again.

A few other broader initiatives have started over the years but failed to gain traction.

In 2006—before the economic downturn flooded the market with out-of-work associates—two Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom partners created a program for New York–area women who had taken a break from practice but wanted to maintain their professional networks and keep current on legal trends. Sponsored by the Business Law section of the American Bar Association, the organizers held monthly lunch sessions at Am Law firms featuring leading industry figures.

Despite a burst of publicity from The New York Times and legal trade publications, the ABA shut down the program, known as Back to Business Law, after three years. Linda Hayman, one of Back to Business Law’s creators, says it succeeded as a pilot program but failed to establish itself in a permanent way.

On the West Coast, a similar California-based initiative that launched to much fanfare in 2006 petered out two years later. The program, run by UC Hastings College of the Law’s Center for WorkLife Law, ran eight-week sessions geared toward preparing women to reenter the legal market. Joan Williams, a UC Hastings professor and director of the center, says the initiative died because organizers could not find a sustainable business model.

Ulrich Stacy hopes her OnRamp Fellowship succeeds in the long term, not only as a viable business, but as a way of ensuring that women keep making gains in the legal profession (As The Am Law Daily reported Friday, women still lag far behind in the partnership ranks of Am Law 200 firms, recently exemplified by five firms that failed to promote a single woman to partner this year). She hopes the program not only helps firms increase the number of women they employ, but also increases the number of female leaders.

“The first goal is just to bring more women back into the fold,” Ulrich Stacy says. “The second goal is to find women who have the potential to advance.”