Sara Mandelbaum, a former staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, joined Akerman this week as the Am Law 100 firm’s first hire from the OnRamp Fellowship, a program that seeks to bring women back into the Big Law workforce.
“Akerman’s participation in the OnRamp Fellowship program is an opportunity to help pioneer a re-entry model for experienced women lawyers and empower them to advance in their careers,” said a statement by Carol Faber, chair of Akerman’s women’s initiative network. “The program also provides Akerman greater access to an untapped group of incredible talent and sends a powerful message to women lawyers that there are many pathways to success.”
The American Lawyer reported in 2014 on Boulder, Colorado-based legal consultant Caren Ulrich Stacy establishing the OnRamp Fellowship to help women resume their legal careers after extended periods away from the workplace for personal or family reasons. In September 2015, six new firms signed on to the initiative. Since that time, several more firms and the in-house legal departments at Accenture Inc. and Microsoft Corp. have agreed to participate, Ulrich Stacy said. (Click here for a complete list of OnRamp Fellowship participants.)
Mandelbaum, a trial lawyer who has joined Akerman’s litigation group in New York, began her career as an associate at Paul Weiss. In 1992, she joined the ACLU to lead the organization’s Women’s Rights Project, where Mandelbaum successfully represented Shannon Faulkner in her nearly three-year battle to attend The Citadel, an elite all-male public military academy in South Carolina. (Faulkner’s case reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1995 and after a ruling by the nation’s top court in another case, The Citadel began admitting women the following year.)
But after the birth of her second child, Mandelbaum realized that she wouldn’t be able to devote the time she wanted to her family, while also pursuing her career. After eight years at the ACLU, she left the nonprofit in 2000.
“I took what I thought was going to be a temporary step off the career treadmill and focused on raising my kids,” Mandelbaum said.
After a brief stint a decade ago as of counsel at small New York firm Scarola Malone & Zubatov, by 2014, Mandelbaum was ready for a return to Big Law, despite its troubled track record on women’s issues. She spent the past two years as a staff attorney at Paul Weiss. Earlier this year, she applied to the OnRamp Fellowship in search of a new position.
Ulrich Stacy, who has nearly two decades of experience doing recruiting and professional development work for large firms, said in an interview that the OnRamp Fellowship has been increasingly busy during its nearly three years of existence.
Since its first placement in 2014, the OnRamp Fellowship has placed 45 women at firms and in-house legal departments, said Ulrich Stacy, noting that 86 percent of those women have received official job offers after their fellowship ends. (The OnRamp Fellowship is a 12-month program that comes with a salary ranging from $125,000 to $150,000 per year.)
“These women are supposed to have a year to refresh skills, and there were several instances where the women were doing so well that [employers wanted] to bring them on as fast as they can,” said Ulrich Stacy, who has worked at a handful of Am Law 100 firms.
Following a rigorous assessment that included a writing test, skills assessment and personality evaluation, Mandelbaum joined Akerman as an associate in September. She will do commercial litigation and pro bono work at the firm, which has its roots in Miami.
“I feel like I’m back in my early days of practicing [law],” Mandelbaum said.
Mandelbaum is not the last placement by the OnRamp Fellowship in 2016. Ulrich Stacy said she anticipates the program placing 15 more women in legal positions before year’s end. The fellowship currently has about 450 applicants and is working to meet demand and provide women returning to Big Law the support they need during a time of transition.
The OnRamp Fellowship is also cognizant of the culture and needs of various firms, making selective placements based on data and culture assessments, Ulrich Stacy said. Mandelbaum, her newest candidate, is keen on seeing the program expand.
“Hopefully it’s going to become the more mainstream attitude to reincorporate women like me into the profession,” Mandelbaum said. “Right now there’s only a handful of firms that are at the forefront and recognize that this is not just a great thing to do for women, but it’s a great thing to do economically for law firms.”