Law firms offer trial for women returning to work

To boost the number one women at big law firms, some are creating programs geared towards those returning to the workplace.

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Finance isn’t the only industry trying to bring women back. Law firms are taking a step in this direction, too.

The OnRamp Fellowship, a program for lawyers who want to return to the workforce, started taking applications in January for fellowships to begin this summer at four major national law firms. Three of them—Baker Botts, Cooley and Sidley Austin—have openings for fellows in New York.

The program was started by Caren Ulrich Stacy, a legal-human-resources executive, to boost the number of women at big law firms. Though the drop has been slight, the representation of women among associates has been declining for the past four years, according to the Association for Legal Career Professionals. In 2013, 44.79% of associates at law firms were women, down from 45.05% the year before and 45.66% in 2009.

“I got tired of seeing women with really good résumés who we recruited out of school, but when they took a break to raise children, they couldn’t get back in,” Ms. Stacy said. “If they were so good after school, they should still be highly recruited.”

More than 170 women have applied for roughly 10 spots for the one-year fellowships. Applicants have to pay $250 to cover the cost of an initial assessment, but those who are chosen will receive a $125,000 salary, plus benefits, for the year.

Sheila Beail Bridges worked for several top New York firms, including Weil Gotshall and Manges, before she had her daughter nearly six years ago. But the long hours and guilt over leaving her baby pushed her to quit her job. Now that her daughter is a little older, she feels ready to jump back in. She is applying for a fellowship and believes it is the only way women can get back into the big law firms.

“I was a complete type-A overachiever who was on this career path, and then I started a family, and I was emotional and guilt-ridden,” Ms. Bridges said. “But your perspective changes as your child gets older, and now I really want back in, and there should be space for that. It’s not that we cease to exist just because we took a few years off.”