Caren Stacy Speaks Out

The legal marketplace is more competitive than ever.

But the leading firms are getting more and more creative about how to get ahead.

I recently interviewed Caren Ulrich Stacy, a PD superstar and the founder of the OnRamp Fellowship, which matches select law firms with experienced female lawyers returning to the profession.

Caren, I know you had experience with a broad swath of firms before moving on to consulting and other ventures. What are some of the hot button PD issues you see large firms facing in the next few years?

As the legal marketplace evolves, so must our lawyers’ skills and attitudes. Gone are the days of lawyers’ saying “this is how we do it” and “this is what we charge for that” to clients. Lawyers must adapt to new ways of delivering legal services and offer pricing structures that provide clients the best value. Helping our lawyers gain the skills they need to thrive (and survive) in a changing profession is one of the biggest PD hot buttons law firms face right now.

The profession has become so brutally competitive that firms need every talented lawyer they can get. I know you started your OnRamp Fellowship in part to help employers dip into an underexploited pool: women who have taken a few years off from the profession and are now eager to return. Can you tell my readers briefly how it works and talk about what changes you foresee, if any, in Stage Two?

The OnRamp Fellowship is a new program launched earlier this year to provide women lawyers re-entering the legal profession with an opportunity to update their skills and legal contacts through one-year, paid positions with top law firms. The program aims to replenish the talent pipeline in law firms with diverse, high-performing lawyers who have the potential and the desire to advance into leadership roles. The four major law firms piloting this new program–Baker Botts, Cooley, Hogan Lovells, and Sidley Austin–have selected nine women as part of the 2014-15 OnRamp Fellowship. The nine OnRamp Fellows, chosen from a pool of 170 women who applied for the pilot program, completed a rigorous screening process that highlighted their impressive qualifications and experience.

What will I do differently for the next phase of the pilot this fall? I will include more firms. The interest in the program is positively overwhelming. More women than I ever imagined applied for the program, and over 20 law firms have asked about participating. I was originally going to wait and not run another program until we completed the first year so we could learn from any missteps. But I am convinced that the window of opportunity to bring these experienced women lawyers back into the profession is now, so we can’t wait until all aspects of the process are perfect.

There’s so much talk nowadays about lawyer skills and, in particular, about how to synch law schools with the profession’s needs. Is this just another passing trend, or do you really see some real change in the horizon?

I believe that law schools want to better prepare their students for practice in the new normal, but they are struggling with what to change and how to make change happen. Forward movement is possible, of course, if there is an insightful Dean at the top who has the support of the faculty. At the University of Colorado Law School, for instance, the Dean has instilled a culture of entrepreneurism in the students. The co-founder of LinkedIn, as well as one of the biggest venture capitalists in the country, led the 1L orientation this past year. The topic was “The Brand of You.” The goal of the program, which was also followed up on in other programming throughout the semester, was to help students think about and pursue the skills and behaviors—such as adaptability and resilience—that they will need to effectively service clients in an ever-evolving world.

Finally, I know that many of my PD clients have their own anxieties about upheaval in firm life. If you were to single out three skills that PD professionals should develop to make themselves indispensable, what would you list?

  • Be a strategic thinker, not just a doer. Gain a clear understanding of the marketplace, your lawyers’ personalities, the clients’ needs, and the goals of the organization first. Then put programming in place that meets the needs of all of those constituencies.
  • Find creative ways to teach lawyers important skills and behaviors that they need to service clients effectively—but sometimes don’t want to acknowledge that they lack—such as listening, adaptability, planning, and resilience. As my mom once told me when I tried to feed my son peas, which he hates, “Smash them up and put them in something else he wants to eat.”
  • Measure the outcomes of what you do and report the findings to management. “Talent” is often seen as touchy-feely, but our efforts are as measurable as those of marketing, finance, and the other entities in the legal organization. Management is more likely to support your efforts with time, money, and resources if they see evidence that proves that your team is making an impact on the institution and its people.

One straightforward way to measure value and return-on-investment is through use of assessments and feedback loops. For instance, if you offer leadership training to senior associates, ask them to take a leadership assessment and to participate in a 360- degree feedback process before the first training. Then, after the associates have engaged in considerable training and coaching activities over the full year, retest them. If their scores improve and the partners compliment their progress, you have two important measures of success to report to firm management.

Thanks so much, Caren. I’m excited to be a part of your OnRamp Fellowship! If you’d like to get in touch with Caren, please email her at