Vinella Sido left her job as a corporate securities associate at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati to follow her husband to Alabama for his job in September 2011. But despite more than 16 years of experience as an in-house lawyer and an associate at big firms, she was offered only temporary contract work when she returned to California last fall.

“I had tried going through recruiters and legal job ads, but with ads I hardly ever got responses,” she says.

Then she learned about the OnRamp Fellowship, a program that brings women lawyers who have been out of the workplace for as long as 20 years back into big firms with training and mentoring. OnRamp led Sido to a position as a midlevel managing associate at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe in Menlo Park, California. “Without the OnRamp program, I would not have found a position such as this,” she says.

OnRamp, launched last year, was the brainchild of firm consultant Caren Ulrich Stacy, who came up with the concept out of necessity: When she tried to place experienced, highly credentialed female attorneys with gaps on their resumes, law firm leaders would say, “‘Gosh, Caren, that’s really risky,’” Stacy says. Its purpose, she says, is to “try to plug the leaks in the pipeline” of women to partnership and leadership.

Under the one-year program, women receive a stipend of $125,000—less than the median first-year associate pay in big-city firms, but without the same billable hour requirements. Stacy says she wanted to set compensation at a rate where hires would be profitable even if they weren’t as productive as others while getting back up to speed.

OnRamp applicants submit to skills, writing and personality tests and behavioral interviews, for which they pay $250. They’re matched with firms whose corporate culture also has been assessed by Stacy’s company for a good fit. Once at the firms, fellows work alongside other lawyers as they brush up on their skills and the law. They also receive mentoring and career counseling. The program is modeled after similar programs at Goldman Sachs and the former Sara Lee Corp.

As of early May, more than 325 women, a third of them lawyers of color, had applied as fellows for 125 openings throughout the country in 15 practice areas, says Stacy, of Boulder, Colorado, who has consulted with firms for more than two decades. She’s also an adjunct professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

“Firms are seeing this as a way to tap untapped talent and lessen the risk,” she says. “If it is not the right fit for the firm or the woman, everyone can part ways after a year.” Seventeen firms are participating.

Mimi Ophir, an OnRamp fellow at Sidley Austin in New York, says such programs are “absolutely necessary” until it becomes the norm for women who have taken a break to go back to work. She left her job as a fifth-year associate 18 years ago, after her second child was born. Programs like this “help get your foot in the door, and sometimes that is all you need,” she says.