About the OnRamp Fellowship

The Problem

The legal profession has a leaky pipeline. Plenty of high performers enter the profession, but many of these lawyers—women in particular—leave within a few years. In large U.S. firms, for instance, there is typically a 50/50 gender split at the entry level, but only 21% of partners are women. Though legal departments have generally achieved a better gender balance, the data still shows a deficit of women in the leadership ranks.

Why? Many leave to raise children or manage other family obligations. Others just aren’t a good fit for the type of work they chose early in their careers.

Once these lawyers exit the workforce, it’s not easy to get back in. Since organizations usually hire and advance experienced professionals based on seniority and tenure, it’s difficult for a returning lawyer and their potential employer to know where the returner fits into the traditional structure upon re-entry. And, in most law firms, it is virtually impossible for experienced lawyers to re-engineer their practices because of the rigid billable-rate structure that is typically tied to years of experience. This structure forces skilled lawyers who are not a fit for their current practice area to change jobs or exit the profession for other opportunities.

Because of the re-entry and retooling challenges, there is an untapped pool of experienced high performers who have a strong desire to return to and advance in the legal and financial services industries. A 2010 study by the Center for Work-Life Policy found that 73 percent of women trying to return to the workforce after a voluntary timeout for childcare or other reasons have difficulty finding a career-track position.

In a market that remains tremendously competitive for top talent, leading organizations cannot afford to overlook this unique collection of highly talented, diverse professionals. So, how do organizations identify and recapture this incredibly valuable asset?

The Solution

One solution is the OnRamp Fellowship, powered by Diversity Lab.

The Fellowship is a re-entry platform that matches experienced lawyers returning to the workforce with top organizations for one-year paid positions. This unique experiential learning program gives returning lawyers—many of whom left the workforce for a period of time to raise children—an opportunity to demonstrate their value in the marketplace while also increasing their experience, skills, and contacts.

The Fellowship initially launched with four law firms in January 2014. Due to the success of the pilot program, the Fellowship has expanded to include more than 30 of the world’s top law firms and legal departments.

In 2021, Diversity Lab introduced OnRamp 200—the newest iteration of the Fellowship. Through this collective legal industry movement, Diversity Lab will work with legal organizations to bring 200 women lawyers back into the legal profession by 2025. (See the November 1, 2021 press release here.)

The goal of the Fellowship is to replenish the talent pipeline in leading organizations with experienced women and other lawyers who have the potential and the desire to advance into leadership roles. Law firms and legal departments that participate in the Fellowship gain access to an untapped group of experienced, diverse high performers who want to return to the profession but face unique challenges due to the gaps in their résumés.

To facilitate successful Fellowship placements, applicants are rigorously screened and matched with organizations based on cultural fit and the success traits that are essential for advancement. If selected for the Fellowship, Fellows are also provided career-development support through training by specialists in negotiations, project management, business development, and leadership. In addition, they are matched with the most reputable career experts in the legal profession for one-on-one coaching. Monthly cohort meetings also provide Fellows with support and peer mentoring from other current Fellows.

A Fellow who does excellent work will conclude the Fellowship with a current professional reference that can be leveraged to pursue their next endeavors. And, if a relevant position is available, the Fellow can interview with the organization for a longer-term role in a particular group.

The Outcomes

The end result is a high performer who returns to the workforce with upgraded skills and experience, additional contacts, an excellent reference, and a renewed ambition to serve clients. In turn, the legal profession and individual organizations benefit by engaging with a previously untapped pool of high-performing talent and, hopefully, increased gender diversity in the mid-to-senior level ranks.

To date, OnRamp has matched 95+ returning lawyers—1/3 of whom are attorneys of color—to leading law firms and legal organizations for one year, paid Fellowships. 87% of Fellows who completed their year-long internships have received offers to join legal organizations after the Fellowship. Many Fellows have gone on to make partner at top law firms or take on senior roles within legal departments.

Founding Law Firms

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A Note from the Fellowship Founder

A lot of smart people in the legal profession are focusing on how to retain women in the workforce. And for good reason — the number of female lawyers in law firms is declining and there continues to be a deficit of women and diverse lawyers in the leadership ranks within law firms and legal departments. But what about the highly qualified women and other lawyers who took a hiatus from our profession and want to come back? Why are we not also focusing our attention on that untapped pool of talented professionals?

As a 30-year talent management veteran in law, I understand the challenges faced by women in these fast-paced, demanding environments. When a third-year female associate in a law firm, for example, takes a job hiatus for several years to raise children, there is invariably a question about where she will fit in the law firm’s compensation and advancement structure upon her return. Many practice group leaders have asked me that precise question when I have presented them with similar lateral candidates. The even tougher questions that typically follow include: “How can we be certain that she has the skills to step right back in? And do we know for sure that she really wants to come back?"

None of these questions can be answered easily and confidently at the outset. That is why Goldman Sachs, Sara Lee, Credit Suisse, and others have been facilitating “Returnships” (trademarked by Goldman Sachs) for years. These re-entry platforms allow the returning professionals and the organizations to engage in a "try-out" to determine fit, while also giving the professionals a chance to strengthen their skills.

With the help of more than 20 talent experts and many innovative organizations, we have built our own unique version of the "Returnship" model — with a robust selection process and a comprehensive training and coaching component — in the legal profession. The goal is to provide returning women and other lawyers with additional experience and skills while helping law firms and legal departments replenish their talent pipeline with diverse, high-performers who have a desire to return to and advance in these organizations.

More than 3 million women left the workforce in the last few years, with the pandemic exacerbating the exodus further. We want to make sure the lawyers who left have a structured path back into law.

Click on applicants or organizations to learn about the benefits, the program infrastructure, and how to apply or join the effort.

Thanks to the wonderful support of everyone involved since OnRamp's inception in 2014, including the four founding firms mentioned above, we've already matched more than 90 returning women — one-third of whom are lawyers of color — with leading law firms, legal departments, and financial services firms.