Legal Recruiter Sonya Olds Som Builds Connections and Confidence
Sonya Olds Som ’97 had built a career as a successful immigration lawyer and had just made a lateral partner move to a new firm when the financial markets collapsed in fall 2008. A year later she was laid off, like many of her fellow law grads around the country.
Immigration law was work she’d liked from the get-go, when a Cornell Law School alumna in Atlanta, where Som had moved following law school graduation, helped get her an interview that led to a job, and then a career in that area.
“It was rewarding and a privilege to get to make a difference in people’s lives at a time when they were most anxious, hopeful, and vulnerable,” she recalls.
But was it something she wanted to continue doing after many years, and the layoff?
“I’d recently become a mom, and my priorities had shifted. I wanted to take some time to think about what I really wanted to do,” Som says.
During that time of reflection, she reached out to Pam DiCarlantonio, an outgoing, energetic legal recruiter who had helped guide Som through her recent lateral move. A former Big Law lawyer, DiCarlantonio was now a partner at Major, Lindsey & Africa—considered one of the top U.S. firms in legal recruiting.
In the midst of their ongoing conversations about the next chapter in Som’s career, DiCarlantonio called to tell her that there was an opening at Major, Lindsey & Africa. Som interviewed, got the job, found her new calling, and is now partner at the firm. Put simply, she and her team help corporate legal departments find, hire, and retain the best candidates for the jobs they seek to fill, and they help top candidates put their best foot forward.
Day to day, what Som does is much broader and can include everything from advising job seekers on distinguishing themselves from the pack, to speaking on panels, publishing articles online, and using social media to help more women and minorities advance in the legal profession, to counseling general counsels on how to be more thoughtful and strategic about their brands, to promoting the value of a more diverse workforce.
“Sonya’s ability to connect with people is off the charts,” says DiCarlantonio. “And she is a true thought leader when it comes to diversity. She thinks big picture but is also able to effectuate real change. She has elevated our game so much at Major, Lindsey & Africa.”
“She also goes to great lengths to ensure that her close contacts in the market, many of whom are minorities and women, receive the visibility they deserve,” DiCarlantonio continues.
And how does she counsel job seekers?
“I tell them that to be smart and hardworking, with great credentials, is good but it’s not enough,” Som asserts. “I say, ‘Ask yourself what’s the difference between you and the other 500 people who are smart and hardworking and have great credentials and maybe an Ivy League law degree.’”
She explains: “Often, the difference, particularly for in-house counsel positions, involves the intangibles: the EQ [emotional quotient] skills, relationship-building, gravitas, judgment, values, the ability to bring consensus, leadership acumen, to have been through a crisis and shown grace under fire.”
That kind of counseling is especially important for job candidates who are minorities, women, or immigrants, says Som, because they may never have been taught to value and develop those key qualities and abilities. That was certainly true for her when she started her legal studies and career, she confesses.
The first person in her family to finish college, Som, who grew up in Detroit, got her undergraduate degree at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. She knew no lawyers when she decided to apply to law school. But she had seen a successful fictional lawyer and working mom, Clair Huxtable, on The Cosby Show when she was growing up, and calls her a pivotal influence.
Among the law schools Som applied to was Cornell, mainly because it was suggested by her college Latin professor—a former Cornell undergrad but no expert on law schools. “He recalled it had a summer program in Paris that might interest me,” she says.
It wasn’t until she was accepted at all the law schools she applied to, including Cornell, that Som learned it was Ivy League from a friend, who told her: “You have to go there.”
She enrolled in fall 1994 and did end up participating in the Law School’s Paris Summer Institute at the Sorbonne, which she calls “a highlight that I cherish to this day.”
Professor Winnie Taylor was a role model. “She was sharp, poised, smart, funny, and a great inspiration,” notes Som. “To have her as an example was wonderful for me as an African American woman lawyer-to-be. Representation matters! To see people who are similar to you and who are able to be successful in different ways is incredibly important. It lets you see what’s possible, that there’s a path forward and you could do it,” she says.
In her current job, as partner at Major, Lindsey & Africa, Som says: “I often tell women and minorities whom I’m involved in placing, ‘I want you to continue to do great things, not just for yourself but so that others will see you do them. I want you to speak on panels, write articles, be interviewed, get awards. Be visible, not just because it’s good for your career but because out there somewhere is someone who is going to look up at you and think, Wow! I had no idea that the general counsel at X company was a minority and has a background similar to mine.’”
Of her job, she says: “It’s incredibly gratifying work. But I couldn’t do it without my team.” She cites team member Ryan Whitacre ’00 for “doing great work in support of all our candidates and clients and especially advancing legal industry diversity to include more Asian Americans.”
In May 2018, Som, an active volunteer beyond work, was honored as Executive of the Year by the National Bar Association at its Third Annual General Counsel Invitational in New York City—the oldest and largest group of African American lawyers. In September 2018, she was honored as Ally of the Year by the Hispanic National Bar Association.
After the speeches and encomiums, “I stood up and said: ‘I’m dying, aren’t I?’” she relates tongue in cheek. “No one has so many people say so many nice things about them unless the Grim Reaper is approaching.”
~LINDA BRANDT MYERS