SAN FRANCISCO — As participants in a new legal workforce reentry program, Cooley and Sidley Austin have hired three experienced women lawyers for fellowships in their California offices.

Sheila Bridges, who will join Cooley’s litigation department in San Francisco in June, and Lori Trujillo and Dora de la Rosa, who joined Sidley’s Los Angeles office in the technology and intellectual property transactions and real estate groups, respectively, on Monday, are members of the inaugural class of the OnRamp Fellowship, which matches experienced women lawyers returning to the profession with law firms for a one-year, paid training contract.

In all, nine lawyers were hired as part of the pilot program. The six other fellows will join Cooley, Sidley and the other participating firms—Baker Botts and Hogan Lovells—in Chicago, Houston, New York and Washington, D.C.

Both Carrie Wagner, director of the attorney recruiting and diversity program at Cooley, and Jennifer Hagle, cochairwoman of Sidley’s recruiting committee and the committee on retention and promotion of women, said participating in OnRamp’s pilot program was a “no-brainer.”

“We’re very interested in hiring from this pool of attorneys,” said Wagner of the women who have taken leave from Big Law for one reason or another. But, because the candidates’ profiles vary by legal experience relative to the duration of their hiatus, “it’s hard to find them. If they were just to write in and apply for an open position, we would have a hard time identifying where they would fit in.”

Wagner said OnRamp’s rigorous screening process and one-year commitment gives the firms some time to evaluate the candidates’ required ramp-up time, experience level, expertise and billing rate at the time of hire. If a relevant position is available after the yearlong training contract, fellows have the opportunity to interview with the law firm for a longer-term role in a particular practice group or office.

Wagner is “very optimistic” about the program. She called Bridges, who during her six-year hiatus from private practice served as a pro bono attorney for the Women’s Bar Foundation Family Law Project in Boston and earned two master’s degrees, a “phenomenal candidate.”

“Her desire and interest to really get back into the practice and her commitment are just second to none,” Wagner said. Bridges relocated from Boston to San Francisco for the OnRamp Fellowship opportunity.

Hagle sang a similar song about Sidley’s fellows. “They’re coming back in with experience and the desire to achieve,” she said. Her hope is that “within two weeks, everyone is going to forget that they are fellows,” she said. “They’ll come onboard as associates, and within a few weeks they’ll be working on high-level, complicated assignments, just like one of the team.”

Like Wagner, Hagle sees long-term potential in the OnRamp Fellowship. “It’s really going to help enhance our pipeline to women that will make it to partnership and make it to positions of leadership,” she said.

Since Caren Ulrich Stacy, a longtime consultant on professional development and diversity initiatives at law firms, launched the fellowship in January, she’s received hundreds of applications from women lawyers and more than 25 inquiries from law firms interested in participating. As a result, a second phase of the pilot is in the planning stages. Stacy said she expects details to be announced by midsummer.

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