• Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be in (or a customer of) the legal business?
My name is Sonya Olds Som. I was born in Pittsburgh and raised in Detroit. I went to high school in Southfield, MI, a suburb of Detroit. I attended Kalamazoo College in Michigan as an undergrad (where I majored in English, and studied overseas in Caceres, Spain and Freetown, Sierra Leone, West Africa) and Cornell University (where I studied abroad at the Sorbonne in Paris) for law school. After graduating from law school in 1997, I became licensed in Georgia and Illinois, and I practiced immigration law in various firms (rising to the level of law firm partner) across the country before I joined legal recruiting firm, Major, Lindsey & Africa (“MLA,” which had previously placed me when I was a law firm partner) in 2010. I currently live in Chicago with my husband, 10 yr-old son, and cat. I have now been in the legal business as an attorney and as a legal recruiter/search consultant for a combined total of 20 years.
• What do you do for a living right now?
I am a partner in the legal search firm Major, Lindsey & Africa (“MLA,” www.mlaglobal.com). I am a part of MLA’s general counsel/in-house counsel recruiting practice group, based in Chicago. I primarily focus on candidate coaching, business development and marketing for MLA’s in-house practice group in the Midwest, but have a national focus on diversity and inclusion in the legal profession. I also advise and place law firm lawyers and generally act as a “Connector” and resource to attorneys nationwide. As a member of the board of directors of the Minority In-House Counsel Association (“MIHCA,” pronounced “MEE-kah,” www.mymihca.org), and as an active member of organizations including the National Bar Association (NBA), Hispanic National Bar Association (HNBA), National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA), and Black Women Lawyers Association of Greater Chicago (BWLA), I collaborate on programming and initiatives related to advancing the cause of diversity and inclusion efforts in the legal profession on behalf of MLA.
• What has been your greatest triumph and your greatest success in the legal services field and what did you learn from each?
In my career as a practicing attorney, I would cite becoming an equity partner, head of my practice group, and recognition as a “40 Under 40” by the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin in 2007, in addition to the many clients who I was able to assist in immigrating to the Unites States, as among my greatest triumphs and successes in the legal profession. As a recruiter for Major, Lindsey & Africa, I consider the ongoing opportunity to support and counsel other attorneys on their career paths – especially lawyers of color and women attorneys – as most important to me. My role at MLA, working closely with my incredible teammates in Chicago and colleagues worldwide, allows me to have a huge impact on the legal profession as we advise and place women and minority attorneys in General Counsel and other significant in-house counsel positions. I am very cognizant of the fact that these candidates often go on to hire diverse outside and diverse in-house counsel (frequently with MLA’s assistance), and that their success inspires and lifts up their families and communities, in addition to providing the candidates themselves with their dream jobs. MLA’s/my part in this is often unseen/unheralded, but is none the less critical. Besides raising my son well, I consider my life’s work as an immigration attorney and then as a recruiter as my legacy.
• Do you think the legal industry is headed in the right direction, the wrong direction – or which direction?
I think that the legal industry is generally headed in the right direction. I just think that change – especially in the very risk-averse legal industry – is slow to occur. Slower than we’d like. Often, for every two steps forward, it feels that we are taking a step backwards. And sometimes it feels like we aren’t moving at all. Those days are incredibly disheartening and frustrating and it is tempting to lose hope and give up. But I do feel like positive change is occurring and we must not give in to fatigue or despair. The change is incremental, and it zigs and zags, but it is happening! We can’t always see it or fully appreciate it from where we are now, but when we look back on it, we can see how far we’ve come.
• Who – or what – inspires you – and why?
First and foremost, my mother, late grandmother and the women (especially the African-American women) who came before me. I stand on their shoulders and my life represents the fulfillment of their wildest dreams! In the legal profession, women like my friend and mentor Patricia Brown Holmes (of Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila) help show me the way. Trying to do the best I can every day as a wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, colleague, mentor, legal service provider – it’s a lot. A great many people depend on me and I want to do the best I can by all of them. But I am only one, imperfect person, and I fall short. People like my mom and Patricia inspire me to get up the next morning and try again.
• What advice would you give to the younger generation contemplating law as a career?
The advice I would and do give to those considering the practice of law and to new lawyers is to be as sure as you can be that this is what you want long term, and to be prepared to fight for this career. I have found the practice and business of law to be a very rewarding career over the last 20 years as an attorney and a legal recruiter. But it hasn’t been easy. It’s never easy. The work is long and hard. The challenges and expectations are many. The highs can be very high, but the lows can be very low indeed. There are always tradeoffs, personally and professionally. You can have it all, but not all at the same level at the same time. But if this is what you want, what you really want, and you are committed to this profession, be all in. Study constantly. Always be improving. Learn the business of law as well as your clients’ businesses. Develop your craft, skills and reputation. Be known for being polite, positive, punctual, prepared and professional. Dedicate real time to developing and cultivating your brand and network. Always be cultivating mutually beneficial relationships. You won’t be sorry you did. Every time I have been up the creek in my 20 year career, my brand and network were the paddle that allowed me to make it to shore again. Every. Single. Time.
• How ready for change do you think the legal industry is?
Not very. Again, lawyers are naturally change averse and risk averse. Being cautious, thoughtful and deliberate in our advice and actions serves us and our clients very well in many ways, but being too hesitant to move forward can render us obsolete. Change happens whether we like it or are ready for it or not. Our clients demand that we get ready and help them be ready. Those practitioners who embrace change and are adaptable while balancing the need for prudence and caution will do well. Those who refuse to will inevitably, eventually, be pushed out. “The law must be stable, but it must not stand still.” —Roscoe Pound.
• Is more – or different – leadership required? In what ways?
Thoughtful, engaged, inspirational leadership that respects and understands the past and the way that things have always been done and why, successfully married to a firm grasp of and appreciation for the future, is absolutely required. Having a strong grounding in established ethical principles and values while being willing to question them, listen and adapt – this delicate balance is what separates good leaders from great ones.
• How deep do you think will be the inroads of technology in the industry?
I think that some forms of technology that are well integrated into the industry in a practical way will ultimately prove to have a deep and lasting impact on the legal industry, but it will be gradual.
• In ten years, do you see an industry much as it is – or do you see new players, new technology and an altered state?
I see in essence an industry much as it is now in fundamentals but with some new, practical technology and procedures integrated in, the way that email, for example, gradually became standard and integrated into the industry.
• Are consultants and lawyers looking increasingly similar? Should the distinction continue?
Yes, there are increasing similarities between consultants and lawyers in terms of fulfilling the expectations of clients in the efficient, cost effective delivery of services in many ways. But I think that there will continue to be (and there should be) additional expectations and responsibilities, ethically and otherwise, on attorneys.
• What are your thoughts on the increasing availability of data to guide client-side procurement of legal services?
I think it is a very good thing. The means by which we gather, track and assess data in a myriad of ways will continue to evolve. The technology will continue to advance. And we will be challenged to integrate the conclusions that we derive from this data into our daily human interactions.
• Lawyers have typically regulated to keep non-lawyer investors out but that’s a two-edged sword these days. What are your thoughts?
I think there are important roles for legal professionals who are not attorneys to play in the legal industry that will compliment and complement the important role played by attorneys. We will all be challenged to work seamlessly together to service our shared clients.
• What’s the one most significant factor that will drive change in your view?
• Are we seeing the demise of the “profession” and the real emergence of the “business” of law?
Clients will increasingly demand the seamless integration of their attorney and business of law services.
• What do you consider is the greatest challenge facing the industry?
Navigating all of the technological and social changes while continuing to adhere to certain necessary pre-existing legal, ethical and other responsibilities of the profession.
• What do you see as the greatest opportunity for the sector looking forward?
The ability to be true business partners and social counselors to our clients as well as legal consultants.
• Do you think law can improve its track record on diversity and inclusion? How?
Yes. Clients must continue to consistently demand it and enforce those demands. The rest of us will do our parts if our clients are steadfast in insisting that we must.
• Will the current regulatory framework around law help or hinder it in the future?
There will be an ebb and flow, as there always is. The regulatory environment will always be shifting. Change is the only real constant. Attorneys and other legal service providers must try to anticipate where we can, but always be prepared to help our clients navigate both the expected and the unexpected.
• Who do you think are the greatest influencers on the industry these days?
General Counsel and senior in-house counsel in conjunction with the board and the rest of the C-Suite. Procurement and legal operations will continue to rise in prominence and authority. Behind the scenes, law firm partners and legal industry influencers like recruiters will continue to have more impact on decision-making than is generally known.
• If you had to do it all over again, would you? Or what would you do differently?
I would do it all again, absolutely. I have learned so much from every “mistake” and “failure.” As I am quite happy where I am now, and as everything that I have done along the way has led me to where I am now, I wouldn’t change a thing.
• If a law firm was a startup pitching for investors, would you be an investor?
Yes, but not for a traditional law firm. A new take on the traditional firm would be needed to inspire me to invest.
• If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
I actually get to incorporate my alternate career options in my current position. I focus on diversity and inclusion, write/publish, speak publically, travel, host events, do social media, act as a career counselor – all part of my role as a recruiter, business developer and marketer for Major, Lindsey & Africa. If I were to do something completely different – something completely outside of the profession/business of law – I would be a writer/public speaker/actor/performer.
• What would you like to be known for?
Both as a former practicing attorney and now as a legal recruiter, I would like to be remembered by individual clients and candidates as having made a positive impact on their lives and careers.
• What would surprise everyone if they knew (they may now).
I am actually fairly shy and introverted by nature. I push myself outside of my comfort zone to interact with others every day, and I am always glad I did.
• What’s your favorite hobby or activity outside of law?
Spending time with my family and friends. Reading, music, theater, tv and movies. And social media.
• What’s your favorite sports team?
I don’t have one. Sorry! I am not into sports.
• What’s your favorite city?
Sweet Home Chicago!
• What’s your favorite food?
• What’s your nickname – and why?
Professionally I am sometimes known as “The Connector,” because that is what I do!