As the legal profession continues to grapple with how to retain women in the profession, a program aimed at helping them return after a prolonged time away is now launching in Canada.
Last week, the Association of Corporate Counsel announced its partnership with OnRamp Fellowship, a project of U.S.-based Diversity Lab, to create OnRamp In-House, a re-entry program for women lawyers returning to the workforce after an extended hiatus.
The joint project between the ACC Foundation Women in the House initiative and the OnRamp Fellowship, OnRamp In-House will facilitate one-year, paid fellowships in corporate law departments for women lawyers — many who been away to raise children. Amazon, Bank of Montreal, and Microsoft are among the first corporate law departments to sign on.
Women with at least three years of legal experience who have taken a hiatus of two or more years are eligible to apply. Once hired, the women will receive individualized career counselling and training in negotiations, project management, and other skills.
The goal of the program is to replenish the talent pipeline in law departments and law firms with experienced women lawyers who have the potential and the desire to advance into leadership roles.
According to the founder of the program, most women never plan to leave their legal careers for long, but inevitably life happens and when events involving family happen they tend to become the default, such as if a relative falls ill.
“I think women don’t realize they’re going to have a hard time when they come back, and I don’t think they realize they’re going to be out as long as they’re going to be out,” says Caren Ulrich Stacy, founder and chief executive officer of the Diversity Lab and OnRamp Fellowship. “Almost every single one will say ‘I wasn’t planning to be out that long.’”
The average length of time women who have applied to OnRamp thus far have been out of the profession is nine years. Often, they may have tried to get back into law but have found they can’t get the attention of employers.
Ulrich Stacy, who is now also an adjunct professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, was head of talent inside law firms for almost two decades and watched as women lawyers would apply for jobs and get passed over because of the time gap on their resumé.
“There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t get a resumé from someone with a gap — usually a woman — and when I would go to a practice group leader and show that resumé against a traditional lateral, almost everyone said it was too risky. They would say they had been out a long time, ‘how do we know they can hit the ground running?’”
She says she never won the battle to give those women a chance, so she decided to try and find a way to minimize the risk for firms hesitant to take on someone who had been out of the job for some years.
The OnRamp fellowship is a one-year fixed contract. If in a year it doesn’t work, there is no obligation on a firm or corporate department to hire the person.
“We’ve set it up to be as foolproof as possible because we do so much on the front end to match the organization with the woman. On the back end for that year, we support the person through coaching and cohort meetings and training,” she says.
Simon Fish, executive vice president and general counsel at BMO, is also a director of the ACC. BMO has committed to taking one OnRamp candidate — possibly in Toronto, but candidates could also come from the Chicago or London offices. He says it’s a program that will resonate with many in-house departments and their GCs.
“Many of us have been doing this kind of thing informally for many years. The in-house bar has been seen as a refuge for many highly qualified, talented women lawyers looking to re-enter the profession and have struggled to do so in getting back to the private bar and found a more open audience with corporate law departments,” he says.
He points out it is similar to the Return to Bay Street program led by Women in Capital Markets.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to acquire talented lawyers looking to come back to the profession after a couple of years away,” he says. “We will get the benefit of an experienced lawyer at competitive rates to take on work where we have a need.”
In terms of the kind of experience BMO would be looking for from candidates, Fish says lawyers with financial services, regulatory, commercial litigation, and transaction lawyers generally would be of broad interest to BMO.
So far, the program has had an 86-per-cent conversion rate to full-time work with participating organizations having hired 42 fellows.
“We’re saying to legal departments and law firms, ‘If it works, you have untapped talent sitting right here who would be thrilled to have this opportunity,’”says Ulrich Stacy.
In 2014, OnRamp ran a pilot project with four law firms in the U.S. There are now 30 law firms in the program and it has moved into corporate legal departments including Barclays’ Bank.
Ulrich Stacy says the approach of “innovation combined with diversity” is a double win for everyone involved.
In terms of compensation, the individuals in the program are being paid on average between $110,000 and $125,000 a year (plus benefits) depending on the size of the market.
“We set it at that because we don’t want women negotiating when they go in because we know from research they will undersell themselves just to get a job,” she says. “We also spend the year preparing them to negotiate post-fellowship so there is little or no chance they will undersell themselves. We’re trying to solve the pay gap long-term.”
Two hurdles some participants of the program have encountered include technology and the social dynamic — in many instances they are taking assignments from people who are younger than they are.
The ACC Foundation, in collaboration with Diversity Lab, will formally launch OnRamp In-House at its Global Women in Law event on June 21 at the United Nations in New York. Also at the event, ACC will honour three women leaders.
“The ACC Foundation supports legal departments’ efforts to increase diversity, and we are thrilled to partner with the OnRamp Fellowship to expand this innovative program,” said Veta T. Richardson, president of the ACC Foundation and president and CEO of ACC. “OnRamp In-House presents the opportunity for corporate law departments to become directly involved in repairing the ‘leaky pipeline’ caused when high-performing women lawyers exit the legal profession.”
Corporate law departments interested in partnering with OnRamp In-House should contact Jennifer Chen, director, ACC Foundation, at [email protected].