Baker Botts and Sidley Lead Texas Effort in New Women’s Fellowship Program

© 2014 The Texas Lawbook.

By Natalie Posgate
Staff Writer for The Texas Lawbook

(January 13) – For nearly two decades, law firms across Texas have struggled to improve the number of experienced women lawyers among their ranks. They increased their recruiting efforts at law schools, which led to significant jumps in the number of women in associate ranks.

But somewhere in between the third and eighth year of employment, many women associates left the firms never to return.

Now there’s a new, innovative effort underway to turn that around.

Baker Botts and Sidley Austin are two of the four law firms sponsoring the OnRamp Fellowship program, a new initiative created to help women re-enter their career tracks in the practice of law.

OnRamp will match experienced women lawyers returning to the profession with law firms for a one-year training contract that includes a $125,000 salary. The hope is that after one year, the fellows will either start full-time at the participating firms or have the training and contacts needed to land their next job. The women targeted for the fellowship have often left the field to raise a family.

Along with Baker Botts and Sidley, two other sponsor firms – Washington, D.C.-based Hogan Lovells and Palo Alto-based Cooley – are piloting the OnRamp Fellowship in 2014.

The new fellowship comes at a time when the pipeline remains leaky at law firms. Recent NALP statistics show the number of midlevel and senior female associates has dropped for four straight years. Though the breakdown of entry level associates is generally even between men and women at most AmLaw 200 firms, women only represent 16 percent of partners.

“The first goal is to bring more women lawyers back into the fold,” said OnRamp founder Caren Ulrich Stacy. “To achieve our second goal – advancing more women lawyers into leadership roles – we will rigorously screen applicants to find high-performing women lawyers who will have the skills and the desire to advance as well as provide intensive leadership training, career counseling, and CLE opportunities to further boost their success.”

The pilot firms are considering applicants in 15 major U.S. cities, and the number of fellows selected by the firms will vary from one to five. Baker Botts has six participating offices this year, including Austin, Dallas and Houston. Chicago-based Sidley, which named its first woman partner in 1956, has four offices considering fellow applications, including Dallas.

In Dallas, Sidley’s global finance practice group is considering fellowship applications.

Baker Botts’ Texas offices will consider fellows in the corporate, intellectual property, tax, finance and energy transactions practice areas.

Dallas-based antitrust partner Van Beckwith and corporate partner Samantha Hale Crispin are leading the fellowship program for Baker Botts. Beckwith is the firm’s partner in charge of recruiting. Crispin is the firmwide chair for the Global Women’s Forum, an initiative to foster networking, mentoring and professional development among women at the firm.

Through his national networking duties as partner in charge of recruiting, Beckwith met Ulrich Stacy, who is a legal consultant in Colorado who has worked with major law firms on lawyer recruitment, development and diversity.

So when Ulrich Stacy contacted Beckwith a few months ago about OnRamp, it was a no-brainer for both sides.

“Texas is home to some of the best legal talent and law firms in the U.S.,” Ulrich Stacy said. “Baker Botts has proven itself to be an innovative firm that places a high priority on finding and developing the best talent. And, they care deeply about diversity. It was the first firm I approached and they accepted without hesitation.”

Crispin said joining the effort was easy because OnRamp fits nicely with Baker Botts’ own women’s initiatives.

“We’re really excited about this,” Crispin said. “There aren’t many avenues for [women] to get back into the practice of law and practice at a high level at a big firm, picking back up where they left off.”

After getting on board, Beckwith said the firm immediately went to work with Ulrich Stacy to develop a strong structure for the fellowship program.

“This is good for Baker Botts, good for returning career track women and good for the profession,” Beckwith said.

Applicants must have at least three years of experience in the law and be at least two years removed from their practice. Applications open Monday, and Ulrich Stacy will work over the next month to seek candidates and make recommendations to the firms.

Selected fellows will begin working at their pilot firms between late April and early May.

Fellows will work as if they were associates at the firms. In addition, the fellowship provides the women with career-development support through unlimited access to online CLE programs; training by specialists in negotiations, business development and leadership; and one-on-one coaching by legal experts in the profession.

The training programs will help the fellows get up-to-date with their skills and the current trends in their practice areas – something that often serves as an obstacle for women trying to return to the legal profession.

“Employers are going to want to understand how current you are on your skills,” Crispin said. “Can you come in and hit the ground running, and be at the level you want to be at and we want you to be at?”

© 2014 The Texas Lawbook.