March 26, 2014 Practice Points

A Solution for Women Lawyers Re-Entering the Workforce

By Stefanie Wayco, Esq.

While at the entry level there is, on average, a 50/50 gender split at many large law firms, this equilibrium does not last long. This is because women tend to leave the profession after a few years to raise children and/or deal with other family obligations, or simply because their chosen firm was not the right fit. The result is a dearth of women attorneys at the partnership level. This is true even though many female lawyers eventually attempt to re-enter the legal profession. The problem is that these women face an uphill battle to “fit in” upon re-entry, both with regard to law firm compensation and advancement structure. Thus, partnership and other leadership positions are left to be filled by men.

One solution to this problem facing many of these highly qualified women attorneys is theOnRamp Fellowship Program (the Fellowship). As stated on its website, the Fellowship program is “a re-entry platform that matches experienced women lawyers returning to the profession with law firms for a one-year, paid training contract.” By facilitating the re-entry of talented women lawyers into the legal profession, the Fellowship hopes to reduce the gender disparity in leadership positions at law firms. At the same time, law firms benefit by gaining access to an untapped resource of highly-talented and motivated lawyers.

Fellowship founder Caren Ulrich Stacy notes that other companies from a variety of sectors, including Goldman Sachs, Sara Lee, and JP Morgan, have been supporting this type of “Returnship” program for years. At the Fellowship, with the help of legal talent experts and a number of law firms, Stacy asserts that they are “building their own version of the ‘Returnship model’ in the legal profession.” To help ensure successful placements, the Fellowship applicants are thoroughly screened and then matched with firms that share their values and consider their attributes/traits as essential for advancement. If selected for the Fellowship, lawyers are paid a one-year $125,000 stipend by the firm and are also provided career-development support through: (1) unlimited access to online CLE; (2) expert training in negotiations, business development, and leadership; and (3) individual coaching by top-notch legal-career experts.

Upon completion of the one-year contract, the fellows may interview at the assigned firm if there is an available position, or use the firm as a reference for other employment opportunities. Stacy contends that “this type of re-entry platform allows the professionals and the organizations to engage in a ‘try-out’ to determine fit, while also giving the professionals a chance to strengthen skills.”

As the Fellowship is now in its pilot stage, only four large firms are currently accepting applications, and only within select offices and practice groups—ranging from intellectual property, corporate, tax, healthcare, to litigation and global finance. That being said, once the pilot program is underway, it is likely other employers will be invited to participate (the website directs interested law firms or legal organizations to contact Stacy directly at the Fellowship). For a lawyer to be eligible for the Fellowship, she must have three or more years of law firm experience and be admitted. The application process includes submitting an application that involves the completion of a series of online skills, personality, and values assessments, taking a writing assessment, writing a personal essay, and participating in an interview. There is also a $250 assessment fee. Once the program is fully underway with more law firms participating, it is the hope that the initiative will not only lead to the re-entry of women lawyers into the workplace, but will create a group of professionals with upgraded skills and experience who are motivated to fill the now male-dominated leadership positions at law firms and ultimately improve the legal profession as a whole.

Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, Onramp, fellowship, workplace re-entry, women professionals, returnship, fellowship, pilot program, gender diversity, partnership

Stefanie Wayco, Esq. works at Bressler, Amery & Ross, P.C. in New York, New York

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