For female lawyers who left the workforce, ‘returnship’ can be a huge boost
BY JAMIE LOO, LAW BULLETIN STAFF WRITER
A few years ago, when Pamela L. Zdunek began considering a return to the legal profession after a 21-year absence, the economy had just tanked.
A career counselor told her even recent Harvard Law School graduates couldn’t get jobs as paralegals, much less lawyers with 20 years of experience.
“Needless to say, that was a bleak time for me,” she said. “I just didn’t see how I would ever get back into the legal profession to practice — and certainly not at a firm.”
About a year ago, Zdunek met a woman at a networking event who suggested she apply for an OnRamp Fellowship, a new program designed to help women re- enter the legal profession.
After landing a spot in the inaugural class and spending her fellowship at Sidley, Austin LLP, she’s now been hired as a full- time associate at the firm.
Zdunek was part of a panel on law firm “returnship” programs Thursday, sponsored by the Coalition of Women’s Initiatives and held at Locke, Lord, Edwards LLP.
Law firm attorney-development professionals and corporate career re-entry experts spoke about the benefits of such programs to law firms, including maintaining a leadership pipeline and giving a talented attorney an opportunity to return to the workforce.
In her more than 20 years of experience in lawyer recruitment and development at big law firms, Caren Ulrich Stacey said she often had to make an extra effort to convince practice group leaders to consider a female applicant with a gap on her resume.
With that in mind, Stacey founded the Boulder, Colo.-based OnRamp program last year to help female attorneys looking to re-enter the workforce — women she refers to as “returners.”
An important part of preparing law firms for placing such women was interviewing managing partners and other lawyers to find out what makes attorneys successful in an organization for the long term.
“The things that have made these attorneys most successful are not their technical skills, it’s not their lawyering skills,” she said. “It’s their mindset, it’s their attitude, it’s how they’ve figured out how to manage home and work.”
Those conversations, Stacey said, helped staff at the firms recognize the value of returners’ skills, which fosters a more welcoming workplace environment that makes it easier for program participants to transition back in.
A returnship program is a low-risk investment for law firms, Stacey said, because it gives them a chance to see a participant’s work product and doesn’t require them to hire the person at the end.
OnRamp rigorously screens its participants and works with firms to find a fellow that is the right fit for them.
The program requires firms to provide an opportunity to the