A new scheme called the OnRamp Fellowship has just launched in London to help high-performers re-enter the legal industry and professional services sector after taking a career break. Many of these are women who have taken time away from their careers to raise children and then find it hard to return at the level they were at previously, or are put off returning at all.

Businesses are missing out on talent, and failing to plug a big hole in their diversity strategies. A report from the Institute of Directors pointed out that 40% of senior women who take leave to have children never return. Businesses will have presumably spent considerable time developing their rising stars so they are also losing out on their initial investment.

Figures for the UK legal industry also demonstrate the brain drain: females comprise more than half of the lawyers entering the profession, but represent only 24% of partners in law firms and just under 19% in Magic Circle firms, notes the OnRamp Fellowship’s founder, Caren Ulrich Stacy.

Many firms are looking at ways to deal with the issue such as providing more flexible working options. Others are taking a more direct approach, as is the case with those signing up to the OnRamp Fellowship. The programme, which initially launched in the United States in 2014, matches experienced women in the legal and banking profession with organisations for six-month and one-year paid positions.

The first law firms in the UK to sign up are Herbert Smith Freehills and Hogan Lovells, taking the number of law firms participating worldwide up to 28, plus the legal departments at Amazon, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Microsoft, and BMO.

Return to work programmes

 

The idea of a paid internship for experienced professionals wanting to return to work has been slowly gaining traction in recent years. Goldman Sachs, which first coined and trademarked the term ‘Returnship’, has been running its scheme since 2008.

Allen & Overy (A&O) recently launched its own pilot ‘returnship’ programme to help encourage experienced lawyers in the Allen & Overy Alumni network to return to professional roles in the legal profession following an extended career break.

Participants in the six-month Return to Work programme, which was made available from early 2016, undertake intensive technical training through A&O’s practice group universities and on-the-job development. They also work on their core skills, focusing on personal brand, impact and resilience.

Credit Suisse also offers a paid 12-week scheme where participants work on projects that match their abilities, can receive training such as updating their presentation and networking skills, and are paired with a mentor.

Pros and cons

 

There has been positive feedback on such schemes, from both participants and businesses. Businesses get assistance on ‘real’ projects and a way to assess a potential new hire in a low risk way. But in the long-term they also get the business advantages that top talent can bring – talent that may have been previously deterred.

Individuals, meanwhile, are finding such programmes not only provide a boost of confidence but also proper access to senior-level opportunities. And they get to assess whether they want to return full-time and potentially who for.

But there are caveats: the work experience needs to be paid appropriately, and the projects should be matched to the participants’ skills – and not making the tea. There also needs to be a fair chance of a high-level role at the end of it.

Goldman Sachs (US) has consistently hired half of the participants into permanent positions. In the UK, both Credit Suisse and Morgan Stanley took on the majority of participants after their 2014 and 2015 schemes, mostly in senior roles, notes consultancy Women Returners.

Returnships offer a win-win solution for businesses looking to maintain their female executive pipeline and for women wanting to return to the workforce, reckons gender diversity campaigner Opportunity Now, which looked at the aspirations of working women in its Project 28-40. It said that if such programmes became universal practice, they could become an important part of broader efforts to develop the pipeline of senior women.

Opportunity Now added that a few years out of a career that could span 50 years should not prevent someone – man or woman – contributing at a high level again. This latter point is key. While it is a fact of society that women still predominantly take on the main early years’ childcare responsibility, it is clearly not always the case. The schemes should always be part of a wider strategy to enable people back into their careers, regardless of sex or age – and provide a working environment that keeps them there. 

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