One-third of OnRamp Fellowship participants belong to minority groups.
Dora de la Rosa was on the path to a career in the upper reaches of the legal profession. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, she was the first in her family to go to college and upon graduation from the University of California, Berkeley School of Law in 1986 quickly found a job in the Los Angeles office of a large national law firm.
Two years later, she gave birth to her first child. Given the demands of her profession, “I quickly realized that it was going to be difficult to parent the way I wanted to,” she said. De la Rosa would spend the next 12 years balancing family life with jobs at smaller firms or part-time before leaving the law in 2000 to focus on her two children and community activism.
Flash forward 14 years — de la Rosa’s children are in college and she has reclaimed her legal career as an associate in Sidley Austin’s real estate transactions practice. She is one of nine women re-entering the legal workforce through the OnRamp Fellowship, which places women who have been out of the profession for at least three years into one-year positions paying $125,000 at large firms.
The program represents a small step toward changing the perception that major law firms are not places where women or minorities thrive, founder Caren Ulrich Stacy said. Women made up nearly 45 percent of law firm associates in 2013, according to the National Association for Law Placement, but slightly more than 20 percent of partners.
The attrition rate for minority women was even higher — they comprised 11 percent of associates in 2013 but 2 percent of partners. Family demands are a leading reason why women leave large firms, while minorities often report feeling socially isolated and lacking mentors.
The OnRamp Fellowship, launched earlier this year, enables women lawyers to update their skills and professional networks and prepares them for leadership roles within the profession. It is loosely based on reentry programs in the corporate and financial worlds.
“I really didn’t see a pathway back into Big Law,” de la Rosa said. “But this program has just been fabulous. It’s great to be able to commit to the work without feeling guilty.”
Four law firms hosted the first nine fellows: Baker Botts; Cooley; Hogan Lovells; and Sidley. But interest has been so high — more than 30 large firms expressed interest — that Stacy announced on Sept. 22 that 11 additional large firms would offer fellowships, for a total of 75 positions around the country. Those firms are Akerman; Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz; Blank Rome; Crowell & Moring; Fenwick & West; Fish & Richardson; Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson; Jenner & Block; K&L Gates; Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe; and White & Case.
“I had a little trepidation initially, wondering, ‘Are women going to want to come back?’ To my surprise and delight, 170 applied for the first nine spots,” Stacy said. “Many of these women are still balancing work and home, just as they were five or 10 years ago when they left, but this gives them the chance to see if they can balance things better.”
One-third of the fellowship applicants thus far have been racially diverse attorneys, Stacy said. The same proportion won fellowships.
There was a single African-American partner at the large New York firm where Dana Glenn worked as an associate in 2000 after graduating from Fordham University School of Law. She quit after two years to be closer to family in Michigan and ultimately left the profession for 10 years. She decided to reenter the practice in 2010 and landed at Hogan Lovells on an OnRamp fellowship.
“I didn’t really think it would be that hard to get back into it, but it was quite difficult,” she said. “You are behind in the law and you are competing with people right out of law school, which is a big challenge. Then you have to deal with people who don’t believe that you’re serious about coming back.”
Her recent experience has been positive thus far, in part because of the support the OnRamp program offers fellows in the form of mentors, webinars and support from other fellows, Glenn said. She found the firm and the profession had grown more serious about diversity in her absence.
“They thought the biggest challenges would be getting updated on the law, but it’s the technology or firm systems that are more challenging than they expected,” Stacy said. “You no longer go to a file room. You go into a document management system.”