Some top law firms intent on improving their racial and gender diversity are rethinking a recruiting pipeline that has historically focused on snapping up the brightest law school graduates.
Driven by experienced women pushed out of Big Law jobs by burnout, children, or other circumstances and younger, upcoming lawyers more likely to step away from the legal grind, the pipeline for top talent is evolving, firm executives say.
“As I think about where the mindset of our newer lawyers is, Gen Z in particular, I think we’re going to see more people who choose to work for a while, take a break, do something different,” said Gina Kastel, executive partner at Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath in Minneapolis.
“So, I just see this as an evolution in the way employers need to think about how they bring people into their firms, that those kinds of breaks are part of a life journey, and that we need to be respectful of that, and receptive to people who have made some of those choices. So I think it’s just changing a historic way of thinking about a career.”
Women in particular who leave the Big Law ranks often find the door firmly locked behind them, despite their desire and determination to come back. Big Law pipelines fixate on recruiting right out of law school, but firms can tap into another source of talent by turning to attorneys who have taken a break and are looking to return. Particularly at a time when the industry is starved for diversity, said Lauren Rikleen, president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership, a consultancy group on workplace culture.
“If firms could just get out of their own way, in that regard, and look at what the skillset of the person that they’re bringing back in and do that without stigma and with whatever appropriate grace time is needed for somebody to reintegrate, those skills come back and it’s not tough to build back in a culture that is embracing and accepting of somebody doing and welcoming of somebody coming back into the workplace,” she said.
Women seeking a way back into Big Law have tried programs like Diversity Lab’s OnRamp initiative, which has one-year paid fellowships for women who have taken time away from law, and New Directions, which helped refresh lawyers’ skillsets.
OnRamp has a goal of placing 200 women in law firms and legal organizations by 2025 with 110 lawyers matched so far and at least 35% of the participants are women of color. Diversity Lab said 88% of the fellows have received full-time offers. “The reason we started it was exactly to replenish the pipeline, really the pipeline to leadership in law, because there’s sort of a leak,” said Lisa Kirby, Diversity Lab’s chief inclusion and equity officer.
More than 40 major law firms and legal departments have joined the program, including Squire Patton Boggs, Sidley Austin, and Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath and in-house teams at companies like Amazon.com Inc. and Microsoft Inc.
Ayana Partee, an experienced attorney who had to walk away from law in 2008 in the face of mounting mental health pressures and her father’s ailing well-being, was hired in July by Squire Patton Boggs in New York through the OnRamp program as a public finance transactions associate for example.
“Life happened,” Partee said. “But I really wanted to get back to work. And every time I went to apply for a job, I was either overqualified or I’d had too much of a gap of experience. I took jobs that were outside of my career path just to make ends meet, but I always had that passion.”
She added that while other firms she interviewed with during the program felt more like a direct recruitment, Squire felt committed to improving diversity and upholding what the initiative set out to do.
“This OnRamp program is just one facet of figuring out a way to provide opportunity for the law firm to find talented women lawyers who had experience, but who, for some reason, left the workforce for some period of time,” said Fred Nance, Squire’s global managing partner. “You can have all the talent in the world, but it’s hard to come back in from outside and say, ‘I did this 10 years ago; now I’m ready to do it again’ because that’s not how most firms’ business models work.”
To that end, New Directions sought to boost returning lawyers through a certificate program focused on skills like legal writing, resume and cover letter building, and career planning, said Jill Backer, an associate dean for professional development and alumni affairs at Ave Maria School of Law and former chair of New Directions. However, the initiative closed in 2017 over lack of students.
“Our problem is that we were seeing classes that were less than 10 and it wasn’t worthwhile for us to continue the program. And what it told us is that the market didn’t want the program anymore,” Backer said.
While these types of programs may have a positive impact, they can’t be the only way, Rikleen said.
“If I had a successful 6, 8, 10 years as a lawyer, and I had built a track record and had a good reputation, and I took several years off, do I really need to come back in a fellowship program to be hired? It’s great that that exists, but they can’t serve a hundred percent of the population of people who want to come back into the workplace,” Rikleen said. “I just don’t think it should be the only opportunity.”
The assumption that taking a break means skills erode has been another challenge for women seeking a return to law.
“There is a grind cycle in the law and if you’ve stepped away, you’re considered not part of that fraternity anymore and that your skills are stale and that’s just not necessarily true,” Backer said.
The bias against older women can also be incredibly blunt, Sheri Porath Rockwell, said.
“There was this one guy when I worked in the affordable housing business, and he just flat out said, ‘Look, gonna do you a favor because you’re just too old. I don’t know that you could do the work. I don’t think that you could work as hard as my junior associates, and your best bet is to do something else, like just hang it up.’ And at this time, I wasn’t even 50,” said Rockwell, a senior managing associate at Sidley Austin in California and a previous OnRamp fellow.
Big Law has to change its attitude on how recruitment and retention to begin addressing this issue, Rikleen said.
“Status matters, particularly in larger law firms, and there is a loss of status with leaving the workforce for some period of time. Then when those individuals are coming back, they often have the additional hurdle of people questioning whether they can still be as good or as effective as lawyers when they’ve been out of the workforce for some period of time,” she said.
“So it’s a stigma. If firms could understand that as simply a bias that they are bringing to the hiring table then and recognize that bias. And I think that people coming back from the workplace might get a better shot at how they are viewed and in, in the opportunity for, for actually being retained.