Q&A with Diversity Lab’s Caren Stacy: Creating a “Returnship” to Bring Women Back into the Legal Profession

Topics: Client Relations, Corporate Legal, Data Analytics, Diversity, Law Firms, Talent Development, Women’s Leadership Interviews & White Papers

diverse women

By any metric, Caren Ulrich Stacy is an innovator. She co-founded Lawyer Metrics, which helps law firms better understand the value of data analytics, and later launched the Diversity Lab to employ similar data analytics, science and design-thinking to address the problem of gender gap in the legal profession.

As part of her overarching company, the Diversity Lab, Caren launched the OnRamp Fellowship, a “returnship” program that helps qualified women join or return to law firms. Stacy also created the “Women in Law Hackathon” — a pitch competition to generate ideas to boost retention and advancement of women in law.

Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law recently sat down with Stacy to discuss these projects, their successes and where these projects will take us.

Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law: Tell us a little bit about the OnRamp Fellowship and the Diversity Lab, how they came about, and what needs they are filling.

Caren Ulrich Stacy: When I was head of talent at several different law firms over the last 20 years, there wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t get a resumé from a woman who had a gap in her employment history, either because she took time off to raise children or maybe care for elderly parents. There were always different reasons, but always good ones.

Spotlighting the Gap

Unfortunately, when you put that woman’s resumé showing a significant gap up against a lateral candidate who’s just moving from another firm, typically the lateral wins out. It’s a big risk on the part of the law firm to look at somebody who has that gap versus someone who has been working consistently, and has the skills the law firm thinks they need to hit the ground running.

Diversity Lab's Caren Stacy

Diversity Lab’s Caren Stacy

At Lawyer Metrics, part of our goal was to better understand what we should be valuing in legal skills and experience and which things are we overvaluing. I transitioned that thinking into looking at these resumés and started to see patterns.

I started to see where I could have compared and contrasted the lateral candidate versus the woman with the gap. I began to see what traits she had and what we should be valuing, and I saw we weren’t paying enough attention to those qualities. That really did spark the idea that we could value these women and show with evidence that they would be great contributors to the legal market if we would just let them back in.

So, I launched the OnRamp Fellowship. Soon I had partners at the law firms with whom I was working saying to me, “This is great. We’re replenishing the pipeline!” And they also started to come up with other ideas that would help retain and advance women. Then, I would say, “That’s great. Let’s do it.” But most of the time, they would reply, “Well, maybe it would work in the bigger marketplace, but I’m not sure it would work here.”

TWLL: So that’s where the idea for Diversity Lab came from?

Stacy: Exactly, the Lab was basically a forum for testing some of these great ideas that people have to retain and advance women. At many law firms, it’s hard to get new ideas passed, especially when the lawyers like to enact their issue-spotting prowess too much, and because, of course, there’s always something that’s not perfect about an idea. But part of the idea with the OnRamp Fellowship and part of the idea with the Diversity Lab is to get away from the old saying, “Perfect is the enemy of the good.”


“Unfortunately, when you put that woman’s resumé showing a significant gap up against a lateral candidate who’s just moving from another firm, typically the lateral wins out.”


Why not just try some things that we don’t think are perfect, but might have an impact, especially if we design them in a way that is meant to be an iterative process? We can prototype it, put it into the marketplace, test it, measure it, reevaluate it, and then put it back into the marketplace even better, based on that testing and on that data.

That’s really what happened with the OnRamp Fellowship. Four law firms piloted it. There were definitely some bumps in the road, but as we tweaked those elements, it got better. Then more firms joined, and now we have 42 fellows at 30 legal organizations and financial services firms around the world.

In fact, that’s why I’m going to London next week. We’re expanding into Australia, the UK and Canada.

The Returnship Process

TWLL: Could you explain how the program works on the ground?

Stacy: First, as I mentioned, we’re now partnered with 30 of the world’s top law firms, legal departments and financial services firms to replenish the pipeline of women and advance them into leadership. The organizations’ needs mostly range from the mid- to senior-level ranks.

The returnship is one year. We go through a pretty rigorous vetting process, using data and a behavioral sciences foundation. The women take online personality, skills, and motivational assessments. They also take an online writing assessment that was developed by Ross Guberman. Then we use all of that data to do a structured behavioral interview.

But we also study the law firm, legal organization or bank as well as their existing personnel. We interview a large portion of their high-performers to find out what behaviors, skills and mindsets lead to success at that organization. We also do an organizational culture analysis, in which we look at the values of each individual person and how that rolls up into a division or a practice group. We’re really trying to dig deep to better understand individual team-matching, not just firm- or person-matching.

We then make our recommendations, and the firm or the legal organization decides whether or not they want to interview the women and eventually make her a Fellowship offer. If they do, the person goes in for a year at a set salary with benefits. They receive the typical support that the law firm or legal organization would normally give them if they were an associate or a partner, but in addition to that, the OnRamp Fellowship provides support through one-on-one coaching. We also do training in oral advocacy and negotiation, project management — all of the things we know that these women need to refresh their skills and eventually advance through the organization.

TWLL: What has been the placement rate?

Stacy: So far, 86% of the Fellows who have finished the program have received offers to return to the practice. The conversion rate from fellow to a longer-term role has been pretty high in comparison to other returnships, which typically boast 50% at most.

So, we originally started with the OnRamp Fellowship, and that led us to creating the overarching company, Diversity Lab — which I would say was born out of a request from the legal industry and now the banking industry to do things better and differently related to diversity.  Our mission is to create and test — and eventually perfect — innovative initiatives that retain and advance women in the legal and banking industries.

(This is the first part of Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law’s interview with Caren Ulrich Stacy. In the second part, we’ll learn more about Diversity Lab and its other project to advance and retain qualified women in the legal profession. Stay tuned!)