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Is the Legal Counsel "Returnship"​ a great idea? Not in its present state, but it could be with some thoughtful modifications.

Approximately two years ago, I noticed that more and more attendees at networking events were no longer the traditional law firm associate seeking mentorship or an opportunity to spring into an in-house role, but rather men and women who had left legal practice years ago to take a full-time role at home caring for children or aging parents—a difficult balancing act faced by many in the “sandwich generation.” 

I was delighted to see so many people who had been out of practice for up to 10 years, women in particular, attending these events as their life experiences and intellectual horsepower made the events much more meaningful and thought-provoking. In the past, however, no amount of intelligence and life experience would win over clients who simply wanted candidates whose experience was contemporaneous and who had stayed abreast of recent legal and regulatory changes. As such, when I learned of Legal Counsel “Returnships” taking hold in recent months, I saw the potential opportunities for this intelligent, skilled faction of the workforce.

Coined by Goldman Sachs over ten years ago and in use today by powerhouses such as Wal-Mart, Goodwin and Wayfair, a returnship, or on-ramping, is an internship for “talented professionals who are looking to restart their careers after an extended absence from the workforce.”  A relatively new vehicle in the legal space, the Legal Counsel Returnship provides professionals, namely women, the opportunity to return to work at a law firm or in-house environment by taking an internship. 

While these returnships offer a way back into the fray, they are not without their flaws. For instance, while the companies and law firms offering these internships receive free or considerably reduced costs for work product, the women performing the legal job duties work for free or a meager stipend for the benefit of adding the experience to their resumes. These stipends operate much in the same way a traditional college internship does without pay or with a small stipend suitable for a college student, not a more established individual with adult responsibilities. 

Also, the companies and law firms operating returnship programs are the recipients of excellent PR and social buzz, while the women performing these internships often walk into politically charged environments as those employed on a full-time basis fear the loss of good projects as it is considerably cheaper to “employ” an intern. Similarly, women can be territorial. Those who have juggled both career and family—and faced many of the same experiences and obstacles as those who have stayed out of the workforce for a while—may not welcome someone who has not practiced in 10 years with open arms. And those who cannot afford child care/elder care while working an internship lose out on much needed career development opportunities when they cannot make ends meet.

How to Make the Returnship Work and Flourish

Despite this initial negative assessment, the returnship has potential for many positive results, including creating a more diverse workplace in terms of ideas and experience. Also, by giving these returning attorneys opportunities to re-enter the workforce, employers are helping them rebuild their resumes and making their skill sets more relevant, which is important to organizations looking to hire full time.

With a review of the current returnship model, returnships can become mutually beneficial to both parties by taking the following steps:

  • Clearly delineate the parameters and requirements of the returnship.  Make sure the intern attorney understands the time associated with the returnship and the type of work she/he will be expected to complete.
  • Restructure the compensation plan for returnships.  Align wages to be appropriate to the market and the experience level of the returning attorneys. Also, provide access to or a stipend for child care to ensure a returnship candidate pool that is truly diverse in terms of experience and socio-economic class.
  • Discuss long-term, permanent hiring opportunities.  Explain what is needed for the potential of permanent hiring plan and the metrics required to be considered for permanent employment. Also outline the compensation associated with that, if future employment is a possibility.  
  • Assist with future employment opportunities. If there is not a permanent opportunity, create outplacement opportunities for outstanding candidates. Also partner with a recruiting firm to provide the candidate access to other interim, resume building opportunities.
  • Communicate, communicate and communicate with your existing work force to ensure a smooth welcome of the returnship candidate. Even consider providing financial incentives for those who partner with or mentor a returning candidate.

Returnships are a valiant effort to bring women (and men) who have taken the time away from the office to handle important areas of their life that need attention back into the workforce. With a few thoughtful modifications to the program structure, these internships could be extremely beneficial and effective ways for diversifying the legal workforce.

More Articles by Elizabeth Smith 

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