Working for Justice

Q&A With Caren Ulrich Stacy

Posted January 13th, 2016 by in Employment Discrimination.

Fellow blogger Kate Kimpel returned from a conference earlier this year and told me how impressed she was with today’s interviewee, who founded the OnRamp Fellowship.  The fellowship matches experienced lawyers returning to the profession with law firms for a one-year, paid training contract.  As a former lawyer in Big Law (and currently a lawyer with Big Law attorneys as clients), I am well aware of the challenges and minefields women face in trying to grow a career there while also raising a family, and I was excited to talk with Caren Ulrich Stacy, who is doing something to address these challenges.

Kate

I’ve reviewed your biography and it seems that you have dedicated your career to increasing diversity in the legal profession – what inspired you to do this?

Caren

My career has been focused on finding the best talent for employers and making sure that the best lawyers are satisfied with their careers and given opportunities to grow and advance.  It’s true that a large part of that goal is to diversify the talent pool – there are benefits to everyone when you have more than just men in the workforce.

Kate

Increasing diversity in the workforce really does make business sense.  How does the OnRamp fellowship work?

Caren

It is a one-year, paid fellowship for women returning to the profession after taking an extended hiatus.  The women are placed with law firms.  The fellowship provides law firms with the ability to tap a pool of really talented and diverse women who want to return to the workforce and who are excited about doing so.  It also provides women with training, support, and contacts to help them leverage their skills.

 Kate

Can you talk about why the fellowship is necessary?  In other words, what is it that is preventing law firms from hiring these women outside of a formal program?

Caren

I was the head of talent at law firms for 23 years, and each time we got a resume from a woman who had a gap of ten years or more on her resume, we would get numerous skeptical questions from the hiring attorneys.  Why did the woman leave her career in the first place?  How do we know it was not her choice to leave?  Why is now the right time for her to return?   How can we know she will be able to hit the ground running?  Note that these questions would also be fair questions for any lateral applicant, but law firms were particularly skeptical of women who had taken time away from the workforce.  Employers saw a lot of risks to hiring them.

On the flipside, I also found that the women I talked with in the screening interviews would often undersell themselves.  They did not convey that they were confident they could hit the ground running. 

Kate

So, on one hand, we have employees reluctant to hire women who have taken time out of the workforce, and on the other, we have women who may lack the tools to address adequately these concerns.  How does the fellowship program address those challenges?

Caren

I wanted to create a program that would bridge the gap between law firms and attorneys and minimize risks to both of them.  I minimized the financial risk to the firm by having them pay the women a set stipend of $125,000, less than the market rates for attorneys coming in as lateral associates.

I also minimized the risk for the lawyers by creating a program with a reduced billable-hour requirement, so that the women did not feel burdened or overwhelmed if it took them longer to do something.   They still work full time and very hard, but the need to be immediately efficient is not there.  They can ease back in and shake off the rust.

Kate

How are the women doing?  Have the law firms found their fears realized?

Caren

The response from law firms has been tremendous.  Just six to eight months into the one-year fellowships, several firms started extending permanent offers to the fellows, even before their fellowship was over.

Kate

That is so great, and really a testament to the fact that any reservations firms had about hiring these women was not insurmountable, and, in fact, could be addressed in a relatively short period of time.

Caren

I see that women returning to the workforce face three challenges.  First, there have been a lot of changes to technology in recent years.  The issue is not with email or texts or Microsoft Word, but the systems that law firms use to run the practice have become more complex.  I’m talking about things like client management systems, billing systems, and document management systems.  It can be a challenge for people to learn unfamiliar technology.

Second, women can face challenges in the amount of work they are getting from law firms.  On one hand, there is often way too much work at the outset, causing women to feel as though they do not have a chance to ease back in.  On the other hand, some returning women do not have enough work, and are nervous about asking for it, because they are lacking the confidence in the quality of their work.

The third challenge returning women face is one that might surprise most people.  It can be initially difficult for returning women to figure out where they fit in in the interpersonal or social hierarchy.  These women are typically the age of firm partners, and they have had similar experiences and similarly aged children, but they are coming in at a level of experience closer to that of associates.  It has been interesting to see how the women manage this.  Many have been able to take on an almost mothering role with the associates, to talk with them when they are feeling stressed and provide perspective.

The fellowship provides training and support to assist them through these challenges.  

Kate

Can you talk with me about the process of matching the fellows with law firms?

Caren

We have an extensive process involving two industrial-organizational psychologists, two data scientists, a full-time researcher of law firms, and one individual screening candidates.  We screen the applications before the firm does through a three-hour interview process, a battery of psychometric assessments, a writing test, a personality test, and a structured behavioral interview.  Through this, we are able to collect a lot of information, and we rate the woman using a 5- to 6-page scorecard that lets the firm know a lot about the skill sets and cultural fit of the applicants.

We are also able to assess the cultural fit with firms because we do studies of the law firms as well.  We assess the culture of the firm and of each practice group and each office.  We also do a “bright spot” study to find out what high-performing women are doing that others are not – their habits and behaviors.

Kate

That sounds quite extensive!  And it seems like this is something firms should be using for every hire.

Caren

We have had a lot of interest!  We started about a year and a half ago with just four law firms who were looking to hire one to two fellows.  Immediately after the story hit the press well before fellows were even hired, I had fifteen to twenty more firms asking how they could participate.  We now have more than 120 positions in 29 cities across the United States.  We are also looking to expand the program into another five law firms, and in-house legal departments.

Kate 

Can you talk about the reasons or expanding beyond law firms?

Caren

First, not everyone wants to go back into Big Law.  Some returning women would prefer to go in-house.  Second, placing fellows in-house enables the law firm fellows to develop partnerships with their clients and prospective clients, so they have a ready-made business network.

Kate

So the women in firms may already be able to bring in business through the fellowship network.  Sounds to me like a win-win situation.

Ideally, we do not need a fellowship program for law firms to hire these women.  I think you’re in the same position that I am as an anti-discrimination lawyer in that we would both like to work ourselves out of a job.

Caren

Absolutely.  My goals in starting the fellowship are two-fold.  First, I would like to shift mindsets.  I would like to show everyone in the legal profession that they should not ignore these women seeking to return to the workforce after taking time to raise their families.  These women were highly recruited out of law school.  How can it be that no one will pay attention?  I would like to see law firms hiring returning women on their own, outside of the fellowship program.

Second, I would like to show law firms that there are better ways to screen and advance talent.  The structures that we have in place should be used outside of this process.  Our methods of screening and structuring the interviews and then counseling and training the women once they are placed sets everyone up for success.  We counsel them on negotiations, oral advocacy, social media, and provide them with a third-party coach who can help them navigate their return.  These are not tools that benefit only returning lawyers – they are tools that everyone needs to advance in the profession.

Kate

What do you attribute your professional success to?  Based on that, do you have any advice for younger women?

Caren

I’ve studied high-performing lawyers for five years.  I’m comfortable that I know the algorithm that makes for success, but the most important factors I look for are adaptability, optimism, and resilience.  We will all fail at something – everyone does.  Lawyers are so risk averse, in part because their job is to issue spot the risks and minimize them.  But the problem is that they become so good at avoiding risk that they find themselves paralyzed.   The successful person is one who can fail and pick herself back up.

I often tell the women in the fellowship program – What is the worst thing that can happen?  They’ve often already been through it.  For example, I talked with one woman who had been out of the workforce for twenty years and she had been trying to return for the last five and no one would interview her.  She told me she was afraid she would get the job and not be able to do what they need.  I told her that the worst that could happen would be that she would be out of a job again.  But she’s already been there, done that.  And she survived.  Her family survived.  If that is the worst that can happen there is no need not to go forward and do your best.

In starting the fellowship program, my husband kept saying to me, so what if it fails – what is the worst thing that can happen?  I kept thinking of all the risks.  What if the firms do not want to hire these women?  What if the women don’t want to come back?  I imagined plenty of ways that the program could have collapsed or failed and I kept seeing the roadblocks.  But the bottom line is – so what?  I may need to figure out a different way to do it; I may even need to do something else entirely.  I can deal with that worst case scenario – and know that gave me the confidence to take the risks.

* * * * *

I share Caren’s vision of workplaces free from the stereotyping that can prevent them from obtaining and developing the best talent.  As we noted previously on this blog, there is an increasing trend of women returning to the workforce after having spent time away, and I hope that through Caren’s efforts our workplaces are in a better position to welcome them and benefit from developing their talent.

Kate Mueting

Kate Mueting

Kate Mueting is a Partner in the Washington, DC office of Sanford Heisler Sharp. Ms. Mueting is responsible for managing much of the KPMG gender discrimination litigation and also represents employees in other individual and class discrimination and overtime cases. Learn More

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