BigLaw  ‘Returnship’  Program  Gears  Up  For Expansion

By  Melissa Maleske

Law360,  New  York  (January  30,  2015,  4:49  PM  ET)  -­-­  A  year  after  its  launch,  law  firms  are lining  up  to  join  BigLaw’s  first  fellowship  program  to  help  women  who  took  breaks  from legal  careers  transition  back  to  law  firms,  the  program’s  founder  said  Thursday.

Since  the  OnRamp  Fellowship’s  four-­firm  launch,  11  more  firms  have  joined  the  effort  and another  15  have  asked  to  participate,  founder  Caren  Ulrich  Stacy  told  fellow  panelists  and audience  members  at  Thursday’s  panel  discussion  “Attorneys  in  Transition:  Returnships”  at Locke  Lord  LLP  in  Chicago.

“We  will  likely  expand,  albeit  slowly,  with  five  more  firms  in  the  next  month  or  so,”  she said.  “We  are  also  likely  adding  legal  departments  to  the  mix  later  this  year.”

The  OnRamp  program  grants  fellowships  within  law  firms  to  women  returning  to  full-­time legal  careers  after  taking  long  hiatuses,  often  to  raise  children  or  care  for  other  relatives. There  were  nine  fellows  in  OnRamp’s  inaugural  2014  class,  and  the  program  placed  five more  in  January.

“Our  hope  is  to  bring  back  40  to  50  women  into  the  profession  by  year-­end,”  Stacy  said.

The  fellowship  is  similar  to  a  law  firm  summer  associate  program,  with  attorneys  working for  discrete  periods  within  law  firms.  It  serves  almost  as  an  extended  interview  for potential  future  permanent  employment.

The  program  aims  to  address  a  leak  in  the  pipeline  that  results  in  far  more  male  partners in  law  firms  than  women,  even  when  firms  hire  both  sexes  in  equal  numbers.

Stacy  said  employers  don’t  have  to  wait  for  OnRamp’s  capacity  to  grow.  She  encouraged law  firms  and  other  employers  to  use  OnRamp  as  a  model,  emphasizing  that  they  need  to put  in  the  work  for  it  to  succeed.

The  OnRamp  fellowships  hinge  not  just  on  placement  in  a  top  law  firm  but  also  on  the support  the  OnRampers  receive  leading  up  to  and  during  their  fellowship,  from  resume  and interview  advice  to  mentorship  and  feedback  throughout  year.

Fellows  are  readied  for  their  return  to  the  workplace  with  advice  and  crash  courses  that range  from  CLE-­eligible  legal  refreshers  to  tips  on  what  to  wear  to  an  interview  in  2015.

Sidley  Austin  LLP  has  four  OnRamp  fellows,  and  Sidley  partner  Liz  McCloy  said  it  was important  to  vet  the  candidates  to  find  the  best  fit  for  each  participating  firm  and  to  mentor the  fellows  throughout  their  year.

The  firms  need  to  educate  their  people,  too.  Interviewers  should  know  the  candidate  is  not a  typical  lateral  hire,  for  instance.

McCloy  also  said  that  since  the  firms  make  no  commitment  to  hire  the  fellow,  they  have little  to  lose.  OnRamp  requires  that  law  firms  pay  the  fellows  $125,000  for  the  year, purposely  pegging  the  pay  packages  to  the  standard  starting  associate  salary  to  take  the pressure  off  the  fellow  and  to  make  hiring  fellows  a  risk-­free  initiative.

Stacy  says  some  firms’  clients  have  even  requested  that  the  firm  assign  fellows  to  their matters.

The  fellows  are  attractive  to  them  because  they  have  low  rates,  she  said,  but  she  suspects the  clients  are  also  interested  in  the  OnRamp  program  and  how  hiring  career-­returners could  work  for  their  company.  Once  employers  start  to  see  that  they  can  benefit  by  helping qualified,  highly  educated  women  return  to  work,  there  won’t  be  a  need  for  programs  like OnRamp,  she  said.

The  panelists  also  gave  advice  to  women  who  are  returning  to  the  workforce  and  employers interested  in  launching  their  own  initiatives  aimed  at  career  re-­entry.  Two  women  spoke  of the  challenges  of  returning  to  the  office,  especially  the  technology  learning  curve  they confronted.

Carol  Fishman  Cohen,  founder  of  iRelaunch,  related  learning  to  do  a  spreadsheet  analysis  in Excel  after  her  return  to  Bain  Capital  from  an  11-­year  hiatus  from  the  business  world  —  she had  learned  on  Lotus  Notes.

“Every  lawyer  didn’t  have  a  computer  20  years  ago,”  said  Pamela  Zdunek,  an  OnRamp fellow  at  Sidley  who  just  returned  to  full-­time  legal  work  after  a  21-­year  hiatus  to  raise children.  “The  administrative  assistants  still  used  typewriters.”

Zdunek  spoke  of  the  way  the  Internet  age  has  changed  the  course  of  doing  business,  such as  the  relatively  recent  ability  for  people  to  work  from  home  and  the  way  client relationships  have  changed.  During  her  fellowship,  she’s  had  many  opportunities  for  client interaction,  but  face-­to-­face  contact  is  rarer  now.

Fishman  Cohen  recommended  that  women  returning  to  the  workplace  set  up  a  LinkedIn profile.  Absence  from  social  media  can  be  a  red  flag  to  potential  employers,  she  said.

At  one  point  Zdunek  was  asked  about  taking  direction  from  associates  younger  than  her, and  she  said  it  wasn’t  a  problem.  “My  kids  are  always  telling  me  me  what  to  do,”  she  said to  laughter .

The  panel  was  sponsored  by  the  Coalition  of  Women’s  Initiatives  in  Law  in  partnership  with Locke  Lord,  the  National  Association  of  Women’s  Lawyers  and  the  Women’s  Bar  Association of  Illinois.

-­-­Editing  by  Brian  Baresch.

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