Key Components for Successful Career Transitions from Executive Search Strategist Sonya Olds Som

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Sonya Olds Som, a partner at the global executive search and consulting firm Heidrick & Struggles, has maintained a robust career within the legal industry for the last 20 years, first as a practicing immigration and labor & employment attorney, and then for the last 10 years within the external legal recruiting world.

In this interview, Som shares her best guidance on how lawyers should think about exploring and navigating career transitions based on her own experiences and the many attorney placements she has helped to make.

Learning from Her Own Career Transitions

Som grew up in the Detroit area and was a first-generation college and law school graduate in her mostly blue-collar family. “There really wasn’t any road map for me or blueprint for how you’re supposed to go about crafting your career,” she says. After graduating from Cornell Law School, she moved to Atlanta without a job — her first challenging career lesson — and networked her way to an opportunity in the immigration practice of Paul Hastings.

Her first major career transition came about because of the economic downturn in 2008. Som moved back home to Detroit and then to Chicago after changing law firms, in part because she wanted better options to balance her work commitments after the birth of her child. Within six months of joining the new firm, however, she was laid off and took it as “an opportunity to take a step back, think about my life, the new dynamics of the intersection of my personal and professional lives, and about what I really wanted to do going forward,” explains Som.

Sonya Olds Som of Heidrick & Struggles

After a year of speaking with numerous people, relationship-building, and much deliberation, she started at the bottom of the legal executive recruitment industry and worked her way up over the next decade, never imagining that she would remain there for all that time. “I started out as a cold caller, someone who just called up companies to see if they might need assistance with legal recruiting,” she says. “And I continued on, and the role continued to evolve.” What made Som effective as a recruiter was her own experience and ability to relate to candidates. She says she would tell them, ‘Listen, I’ve been there. I’ve been pregnant and trying to figure out what I’m trying to do with my career at the same time. I’ve been laid off. I’ve been uncertain as to my next move. It’s ok. You’re going to be ok.’

In contemplating her most recent career move to partner at Heidrick and Struggles, Som thought about which organizations she admired, which organizations she had come across as either collaborators or as competitors, and who she had seen in the marketplace that she respected. From there, she sought out these people to meet with her. “You have more options when you have a strong brand with strong relationships,” Som observes. “And organizations are generally, genuinely interested in at least meeting with you to explore the potential collaboration opportunities that may be there.”

Distilling Successful Attributes of a Career Transition

Som naturally performs a lot of unofficial career coaching in her daily work as someone who has built up her own book of business, first as a law firm partner and then again as an executive search partner. When she is talking to someone who is exploring a new career opportunity, she always starts with the assumption that the person is smart, works hard, and has good credentials.

The key differentiators in successful transitions of candidates (once substantive qualifications are assumed as a given) are three things, according to Som — brand-building, strategic relationships, and emotional intelligence. “I am best suited to try to help people with building their brand and reputation and strengthening key relationships,” she adds.

“The difference-maker between the one smart person who could have gotten the job and the other smart person who actually did get the job is usually the relationships and effective emotional intelligence skills.”

The Importance of Resilience & Patience

In Som’s experience, resilience and patience are areas where lawyers need the most career guidance and support because most attorneys tend to be very linear in their thinking. For example, many lawyers believe that if they study the right things, then they will get a good grade on a test. If they pass the bar, then they will get a good job. If they bill 2,000-plus hours per year consistently, they will advance. They assume that job-hunting and client acquisition will follow the same predictable, linear cause-and-effect process. Unfortunately, that is not generally the case in building a book of business or searching for a new job.

How to build resilience — Som advises candidates to assume there will be disappointments over the course of a career trajectory of multiple decades, even if you “do everything right” because of the ongoing dynamic business environment pushing drastic changes within the legal industry. “There are things that you can try to do to make career losses less likely to happen,” says Som. “And there are definitely things that you can do to try to set yourself up to rebound successfully when they inevitably will occur, but there are never any guarantees. The only constant is change.”

To better remain adaptable to uncontrollable career situations, Som advises candidates to prepare for how they will respond when an unexpected career glitch occurs, much like how a company prepares a crisis response plan. “Careers today are a little bit more elastic than you might think, and therefore, developing that resilience and consistently evaluating what key relationships you need to build or maintain, what skills you need, and frankly, what brand and network you can count on” are primary factors in effective response planning.

Patience & business development — Patience is particularly important in client development (as it is in career development and job-hunting). A lot of lawyers struggle with their careers and find client development difficult because of their linear thinking, Som says, adding that many lawyers have told her that ‘networking and using LinkedIn do not work because I tried it once and I did not get any work.’

Som encourages lawyers to be patient with the process. “The old saying goes that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, but the second-best time to plant a tree is today, so plant today and start nurturing. Start watering…”


Hear Sonya’s advice in real time in the next Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law’s next Ask-a-Mentor session on November 19 at 1 pm ET. You can register for the complimentary session here:  Transforming Women’s Leadership Q4 Ask-a-Mentor Session