Fellowship helps women with leadership aspirations

Caren Ulrich Stacy saw a gap in the legal market that needed to be filled. Despite a 50/50 gender split among entry-level associates, the number of female partners remained dismal.

“We have a bunch of women who want to come back to work and we have a huge gap in terms of gender in the upper ranks,” Stacy said. “Women have a problem. Law firms have problem. Why can’t we meet in the middle?”

Hence OnRamp Fellowship — a one-year program, established by Stacy in early 2013, to help women with leadership aspirations reenter the legal workforce after taking a hiatus to raise children or attend to other obligations.

Stacy saw a number of women with vast legal backgrounds get turned away from interviews without explanations.

“If you practiced for five years but have been out for 10, firms don’t know where to place you,” she said. “They think it’s too risky. They don’t even make it past the interview phase. ”

Where firms see risk, Stacy sees untapped talent. To eliminate risk, OnRamp conducts rigorous three-hour interviews and tests focusing on candidates’ skills, personality and legal writing. Once screened, OnRamp recommends chosen fellows for an interview with a firm they see fit, giving the firm final hiring-power.

Dora de la Rosa was a litigator for 13 years before leaving to spend more time with her young children. But her time off was still time on. She chaired a school bond campaign, which raised over $67 million and served on the local school board for eight years. Now she is an OnRamp fellow in the Los Angeles office of Sidley Austin LLP.

“A lot of women are comfortable with their decision to leave but in hindsight they didn’t realize how hard it would be to come back,” Stacy said.  “I’m trying to help firms see potential.

OnRamp Fellowship began with four geographically dispersed firms: Baker Botts LLP, Cooley LLP, Hogan Lovells LLP and Sidley Austin LLP. After an influx of requests, Stacy added 11 more firms, capping the program at 15 firms, for now.

Once placed, OnRamp provides fellows with career-development support including one-on-one coaching, unlimited access to online continuing legal education (CLE) and monthly webinars.

To ease the transition back to practice, the program replaces the rigid billable rate structure with a stipend.

“One of the difficulties in practice is there is such a high expectation on billable hours, that there’s been a decline in training and mentoring,” Stacy said. “Part of the infrastructure of the fellowship is to go back to what it look like 20 years ago. By lessening the pressure of the billable hour, it gives fellows to the opportunity to do the work they need to leverage themselves in the future.”

Fellows receive a stipend of $125,000 for their year, which is on par with the national median salary for entry-level associates, as reported by the National Association of Law Placement.

“It is lower than a lateral would be paid,” Stacy said. “But even though she is working full-time, she’s not expected to bill at the traditional rate.”

What happens after the year ends?

“It’s in the firms’ and fellows’ hands,” Stacy said. “The hope is that there is a need at the firm and she has demonstrated her value. At a minimum, she will at least leave with updated training.”

The program is still in the pilot stages, with nine fellows currently in the midst of their fellowship. Though demand is high, Stacy wants to postpone expansion and focus on working out the kinks of the new program.

“My super secret hope is that I’ll run this program and firms will see such value that they won’t need the program,” Stacy said. “I want to show firms that this can be done and they can do it well. If women gain confidence about reentering and firms gain confidence about women having a lot of value, they can run a program themselves.”