The OnRamp Fellowship—A Pipeline Back Into Practice

According to a 2010 study by the Center for Work-Life Policy, nearly 75 percent of women attempting to return to the workforce after voluntarily leaving have difficulty finding a job. What’s a talented, driven, hard-working woman to do? Enter the OnRamp Fellowship program, an “experiential re-entry platform” designed to help women lawyers return to the workforce. The program, which began in 2014, is the brainchild of Caren Ulrich Stacy, who spent 20 years inside law firms recruiting talent. She says during those years, she saw hundreds of resumes from qualified women who were attempting to re-enter the profession after leaving, usually to raise families. Some of those gaps were a few years; some were a decade or more. And the gaps made those women seem risky to firms. 

While Caren understood the hesitancy of firms to take on lawyers who had been out of the workforce, she felt they were missing out on women who could become top performers and leaders. So she designed the OnRamp Fellowship to given women a pipeline back into the profession. Fellowship applicants are thoroughly vetted by Caren, whose experience and insight helps her select women who will be a good “fit” for each position. Those women are then given the opportunity to interview with some of the top firms in the country for practice groups with open positions or groups expected to experience future growth. Fellows are hired by participating firms for six-month or one-year terms and are paid through those firms. There is no guarantee of employment at the end of their fellowship year, though the hope is that the fellows will obtain full-time employment, either through their fellowship firm or elsewhere. And that’s been the case for most fellows.

Take Mary Klumpp, for example. Mary’s spouse is a former member of the military. Mary left her practice in Washington, D.C. and moved around the country for her husband’s job for 12 years. Mary had been thinking about returning to practice full-time, but when her husband transitioned into civilian life, Mary started actively looking. She did some contract work while she searched for a full-time position but didn’t find the contract work challenging or fulfilling. Mary heard about the OnRamp fellowship through a Facebook page dedicated to military spouses with J.D.s. She submitted an application and received a fellowship at Cooley, one of the nine fellowship positions offered in 2014. Mary equates the OnRamp Fellowship with “winning the lottery” because, for her, it was an “inside” track back into the practice of law.

Dora de la Rosa, pictured at right, is another example. She’s now employed as an associate at Sidley Austin LLP. Dora left practice to raise her children. While she was out of practice, Dora worked to improve her community through educational initiatives and served two terms on her local school board. Once her children were grown, she started looking for a path back into practice but wasn’t having much luck until she came across an announcement for the OnRamp program. She immediately felt the program was tailor made for her and was thrilled to receive an interview at Sidley, but was somewhat hesitant as the position was transactional, and she had only practiced as a litigator. With Caren’s encouragement, Dora interviewed for and accepted the job, loved Sidley’s Los Angeles real estate group, and, in May, accepted a full-time position.  

It’s not just the fellows who benefit from the OnRamp program—firms benefit as well. Dora’s firm, Sidley, bought-in from the beginning. According to Jennifer Hagle, partner at Sidley and co-chair of the firm’s Committee of Retention and Promotion of Women, “Sidley continue[s] to view the program to be an excellent opportunity to provide talented women, who left the practice of law, the chance to return to a full-time practice and advance in their careers. To-date we have had four OnRamp fellows join us full time as associates and we have four more fellows in the midst of their fellowship year with several more practice group positions posted. Having access to the consistent pipeline of talented and diverse lawyers this program offers benefits to the women seeking to return to the practice of law, our firm as well as the legal profession as a whole.”

Everyone involved in the OnRamp program credits Caren and the Fellowship’s Managing Director, Jennifer Winslow, with its success. Caren and Jennifer not only work with women before they begin their fellowships, they provide constant support throughout the fellowship, speaking with the fellows on a regular basis, providing them with career coaching, and ensuring they have the support they need to return to practice full-time.

Thanks to the work of Caren and Jennifer, the OnRamp program is growing exponentially. In its first year, the OnRamp Fellowship offered nine positions at four firms. This year, twenty-five firms and two businesses, Amazon and Barclays, have signed up to take thirty-one fellows—that’s astounding growth for a program that’s not even two years old. And the program is looking to expand internationally in the next few years and involve even more women in the fellowship program.  

Caren is thrilled that so many deserving women are getting the opportunity to re-enter the practice of law and that firms are recognizing the value in hiring these women. She hopes to continue to spread the message about the OnRamp Fellowship: “I expect many people reading this article know at least one hard-working, energetic woman who is trying to re-enter the practice of law. Please share this article with that woman. It may be just the opportunity she’s looking for!”

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