Sonya: When did you first realize that you wanted to become an attorney? What first drew you to a career as an attorney? What do you enjoy most about your career now?
Ekumene: I embraced the idea of joining the bar, when I was around 10 years old, and it’s all because of Perry Mason. I loved watching the show Perry Mason with my grandmother. Her love for “Perry” was infectious, every day I looked forward to sitting with her and watching Mr. Mason beat the prosecution (usually the character Hamilton Burger) at trial. I guess Mr. Mason’s mastery of the courtroom and the idea of due process drew me to the practice of law as a career. I think at a higher level what captivated me the most about the show was Perry Mason’s ability to reason and solve problems. The notion of problem-solving is fundamentally what I most enjoy about my career today.
Sonya: Have there been specific people (real or fictional) or pivotal situations/events that have inspired you, helped shape your career?
Ekumene: Most definitely, namely my uncle. My uncle was the first lawyer in my family, and I grew up watching and admiring him. He served as a strong role model for me. My uncle’s real career helped to provide context for the fiction of Perry Mason. But, then, in 1986 my grandmother introduced me to yet another fictional character that emboldened my passion for the law even more. The character’s name, Ben Matlock.
Sonya: Are there particular traits that you believe successful attorneys share? Traits that you believe you have yourself and which you look for in hiring outside and in-house counsel? How about common traits you’ve observed in other successful GCs?
Ekumene: The most successful attorney’s I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and working with during my career possessed exceptional problem-solving ability. Problem-solving is certainly a skill set I believe I have, and certainly a skill set that I look for in potential teammates (either in-house or external counsel). As for GCs, I believe the skills that set the exceptional GCs apart from the ordinary, include predominately their (1) team building, (2) emotional intelligence (EQ), and (3) collaborative abilities.
Sonya:: What professional accomplishment are you most proud of? What would you like your legacy to be in your company/law department? In the legal profession?
Ekumene: Achieving the rank of the public company general counsel is, to date, my biggest accomplishment. My book is still being written; however, I would like my legacy to be one of bringing people from all sides of the profession together through serving as a spokesperson for diversity and inclusion.
Sonya: Have you had mentors/sponsors? Have you acted as a mentor/sponsor to others? Is mentorship/sponsorship important? How? Why?
Ekumene: Although I have not formally asked these people to be my “mentor” or “sponsor,” there are various colleagues in the profession that I admire and try to emulate. Over the years I’ve keenly watched people like Ron Brown (Pedcor), Alan Tse (Jones Lang Lasalle), Juliette Pryor (Cox Enterprises), Benjamin Wilson (Beveridge & Diamond), Laurie Robinson Haden (CBS Corporation and CCWC), John Page (Golden State Foods), and many others navigate our profession and inspire through action. The aforementioned people and others like them motivate me to be the best lawyer I can be each day. I have tried in my own small way to motivate those with whom I’ve interacted whether practicing or aspiring lawyers (law students). I, personally, believe mentorship/sponsorship is not optional, but required in service to our profession.
Sonya: Think about the legal profession over the course of the next 10 years. What do you see as the big changes that are coming which you believe will most significantly impact the profession and the role of the GC/in-house legal department?
Ekumene: Obviously, the explosion of the digital age has brought humanity closer together. Geography, both domestic and international, no longer separates us. Reality has expanded into the “virtual” realm. Our information and data exist in the “cloud” and the electronic transmission of information has become the norm. These changing landscapes have permanently altered our notions regarding the unauthorized/multi-jurisdictional practice of law. Furthermore, the access to and limitations on the collection of data will constantly be written and re-written with the advancements in technology over the next decade. The above developments and many others will reshape the in-house practice of law, now and in the future.
Sonya: Describe a significant challenge you have faced in your life or career. How did you overcome it? What did you learn from it?
Ekumene: The most significant challenge I’ve faced in my life has been overcoming the prejudices and ceilings created because of my name. It certainly hasn’t been easy going through life with a name like Ekumene Makinde Lysonge; however, I’ve taken my unique “conversation piece”, combined it with a cool nickname, and created my own brand going simply by “E”. My evolution in the practice of law has taught me that just as companies have “brands,” we must develop our “brand” as well.
Sonya: What does Diversity & Inclusion mean to you? How important is D&I to you personally? As a GC? To your company/legal department? What advice do you have for GCs and others seeking to make a positive impact on the progress of D&I in their organizations and in the legal profession?
Ekumene: D&I isn’t optional, it’s imperative. People of the world are closer than ever, with information and communication just one mouse click away. Given the realities of the day, companies and GCs are best served to enhance their points-of-view at all costs. D&I is one winning strategy companies and GCs can use to expand their respective points-of-view. My advice to GCs and others seeking to make a positive impact on D&I is to participate in the conversation, and avoid standing idly on the sideline. It’s important for everyone to “get in the game”.
Sonya: If you were not General Counsel of your company (or of any company or even a lawyer at all), what career do you think you would most like to pursue?
Ekumene: That one is easy. In the absence of a law career, I most certainly would have pursued a career as a stock trader. Working on Wall Street would be cool.
Sonya: Knowing what you know now about being a lawyer and a GC, if you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be? At what point in your past would you give yourself that advice?
Ekumene: Hmmm, that one is tough. I probably would tell my 20-something self not to take relationships (parental, spousal, and friendships) for granted, as what I’ve learned is that relationships are far more valuable than money.
Sonya: Tell me something fun about yourself. A personal skill or hobby that, while not directly related to your day job, you feel makes you more well-rounded, helps you be better at your day job and/or helps relax and focus you to do your job as a GC better.
Ekumene: Well, I’m an avid comic book fan and collector. I’ve been collecting comics since age 5. Collecting and following the Marvel and DC Comic Universes has always been fun, but it has never been better than it is today with the attention devoted to the respective universes in television and film.
Sonya: Hashtag/Brand yourself in 5 words or less (For example, mine is #SelfiesWithSonya)
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Sonya Olds Som is a Partner in Major, Lindsey & Africa's Chicago/Midwest office and is primarily responsible for strategizing and leading networking, business development and marketing initiatives for our In-House Practice Group team throughout the Midwest. Sonya focuses on sourcing in-house counsel search opportunities for attorneys at all levels – from junior counsel to general counsel -- in corporate legal departments in a wide range of industries by developing and maintaining relationships with general counsel, human resource leaders and other C-Suite executives. Sonya also provides career advice to attorneys and is a recognized Thought Leader regarding diversity in the legal profession nationwide.