Susan Smith Blakely

Making the Case for Recruiting On-Ramp Lawyers

This blog is courtesy of Rebecca McNeill, a founder of McNeill Baur in Cambridge, MA.  She addresses the importance of recruiting on-ramp employees.  I enthusiastically support these initiatives and the work of the OnRamp Fellowship where I have served as a consultant.

Law firms can access wider talent pools by creating on ramps for attorneys and support staff who have left the work force to care for growing families or for other reasons. While many law firms, including ours, offer part-time employment, sometimes an employee, such as a working parent, leaves the work force for a period of time. Whether working parents lean in, balance it all, or take a break from their careers, employers should cast a wide recruiting net. The number of open positions in law firms and corporate legal departments shows that finding and retaining legal talent presents a major challenge.

Our 100% woman-owned, life science patent firm has had tremendous success on-ramping. Our 28-person firm employs three on-rampers who had stayed home with children for from one year to more than a decade. By remembering on-ramp candidates and making some modest changes, law firms like ours can improve on-ramping success. While some of these suggestions apply only to attorneys, other suggestions apply to staff, as well.

  • First, law firms can consider how they advertise positions and recruit candidates, whether for attorneys or staff members. As a first step, each of our job postings indicates that we welcome on-ramp employees. By warmly welcoming parents returning to the workforce, law firms open the door for those applicants. We do not penalize applicants for gaps in their resumes and, when applicable, we talk to them in the interview process about how they can refresh their skills and catch up on legal developments. We also actively target our networks to connect with parents who are home with families and invite them to consider reentering the work force.
  • Second, law firms should carefully revisit part-time employment policies as many on-ramp candidates desire a part-time schedule. Many firms have part-time options, but some offer only a few set options (1200 hours, 1600 hours, for example). Our firm has offered more flexibility to part-time employees in setting their own billable hour goal. Additionally, if part-time employees exceed their billable hour goal, we do not penalize them for initially choosing a lower hour goal. An attorney who selects a 1300-hours target, but actually works 1425 hours makes the same amount as if they had set 1425 as their original goal. We also compensate attorneys for every hour worked over their target, as opposed to only awarding bonuses on 50- or 100-hour increments. This encourages part-time attorneys to choose a billable hour goal that allows for intermittent challenges that many parents face, such as the winter when all the kids get strep throat (sequentially). Valuing each hour a part-time employee works equally to the same hour a full-time employee works helps demonstrate our commitment to part-time employees.
  • Third, law firms should carefully tailor assignments for on-ramp employees to meet their skills, interests, and time commitments. Our firm has both large and small patent prosecution portfolios. Giving a part-time employee a small portfolio, but letting them manage all of the work for a small client can offer more career satisfaction than taking only part of a large portfolio. Firm can also offer flexibility to employees contending with school vacation schedules by offering project work like opinions and application writing that will wrap up before the attorney needs to be out of the office.
  • Finally, law firms must recognize that not every smart, talented, and committed attorney wants a rainmaker role or their own book of business. Firms must reevaluate their up-or-out approach. Our firm has committed to retaining employed attorneys for the long term whether or not they develop their own book of business. Even though we do not set limits on our part-time employees, our firm offers long-term non-partnership roles at the firm for attorneys who prefer to serve in a supportive role.

Reaching on-ramp candidates can improve law firm diversity and allow access to new talent pools. Offering on-ramp candidates a way to reenter the work force on their terms also improves attorney happiness and retention.

Susan Smith Blakely is the Founder of LegalPerspectives LLC and an award-winning, nationally-recognized author, speaker and consultant on issues related to young women lawyers, young women law students and young women interested in careers in the law.  She is author of Best Friends at the Bar:  What Women Need to Know about a Career in the Law (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers 2009), and Best Friends at the Bar:  The New Balance for Today's Woman Lawyer (Wolters Kluwer Law & Business 2012), which addresses the work-life struggle for women lawyers and includes twelve profiles of women who have successfully transitioned from one practice setting to another.  Her third book in the series, Best Friends at the Bar:  Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers, focuses on the responsibilities of law firm leaders and was released by Wolters Kluwer Law & Business in 2015.

Ms. Blakely’s new book for ALL young lawyers, What Millennial Lawyers Want:  A Bridge from the Past to the Future of Law Practice, will be released by Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers in the summer of 2018.

 Ms. Blakely frequently speaks at colleges and universities, law schools, law firms and law organizations, and she has been featured in media including Corporate Counsel Magazine, the ABA Journal, the LA Daily Journal, National Jurist, Washington Examiner Newspaper, Forbes Woman, Women Lawyers Journal (NAWL), DC Spotlight, Lawyerist.com, Daily Muse, Lawyer and Statesman, Law.com, Georgetown Law Magazine, Legal Toolkit Podcast, and Huffington Post Business.  Ms. Blakely also is a frequent guest speaker and panelist at conferences on women's issues in business and the law profession, and she has been a featured speaker at the US Department of Justice, Civil Division.  She is the recipient of the Ms. JD 2015 "Sharing Her Passion Award" and the Lawyer Monthly “Women in Law Award 2016”for her work on behalf of women in the law. 

 Ms. Blakely graduated from the University of Wisconsin with distinction and from Georgetown University Law Center where she was a teaching fellow. She is a member of the CoachSource global network of leadership coaches and is certified as a career coach for the Indiana University Marshall Goldsmith Leadership Development and Executive Coaching Academy.   For more information, please visit www.bestfriendsatthebar.com. 

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