New Fellowship Program Targets Returning Women Lawyers

By Andrew Strickler

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Law360, New York (January 14, 2014, 7:28 PM ET) — Four BigLaw firms have signed on as the first backers of a new fellowship program designed to help women lawyers who took time away from their careers to transition back to the profession, the firms and the fellowship organizer announced Monday.

The four firms participating in the OnRamp Fellowship — Baker Botts LLP<>, Cooley LLP<>, Hogan Lovells<>, and Sidley Austin LLP — will consider applications for a wide range of practice areas in 15 cities starting this spring.

Applying lawyers are required to have three years professional experience and have been on hiatus for at least two years. Firms will pay their fellows a $125,000 stipend, with benefits, for a one-year, full-time contract. About 35 career development and other experts are also volunteering support for fellows.

“This really is for women who have been out of the profession long enough that they don’t know quite where they fit, and maybe the firms don’t know quite where they fit either,” said OnRamp founder Caren Ulrich Stacy, a longtime legal industry recruiter and career development expert.

The program, modeled after so-called returnship programs offered at companies such as Goldman Sachs & Co<>. and Sara Lee Corp<>., is intended to provide a legal career re-entry, as well as help firms stop the “leaky pipeline” for women associates who have seen their ranks dip in recent years.

“There is going to be some rust, and we want to shake that some that rust off and get fellows with experts and all the supplemental training they haven’t gotten in two, three or four years out,” Stacy said. “We want to give them every tool possible so they can to succeed and advance into leadership positions.”

Last year, many women leaders in the profession reacted with dismay to industry data showing that the pipeline of women entering BigLaw continued to shrink in 2013 despite strong recruitment and retention efforts.

A report from the National Association for Legal Career Professionals showed that, for the fourth year in a row, women made up a <> smaller percentage<> of firm associate ranks. The percentage of female summer associates similarly declined in both of the last two years, dropping below 2009 levels.

OnRamp’s first-year pilot program is expected to include between five and 20 fellows, depending on the applicant pool and firms’ hiring needs.

Van Beckwith, Baker Botts partner in charge of recruiting, said it has committed to bringing on two or three OnRamp fellows this year.

“For a lot of women lawyers who leave, often to raise families … their commitment and time they spent getting educated hasn’t gone away, and they want to get back in and practice full-time again and be really committed,” said Baker Botts partner Samantha Hale Crispin, firmwide chair of the firm’s women’s initiative.

Though successful OnRamp fellows aren’t guaranteed a job, they can apply for standard firm positions, and will have references and other support for their next stage, Stacy said.

The application and interview process must be completed by February 28, with fellows starting work in April or May.

–Editing by Stephen Berg.

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