UniCourt Influencer Q&A with Susan Sommers of Ogletree Deakins
Susan Sommers’ contribution to the legal industry through her expertise in knowledge management (KM) and change management is undeniable. Susan launched her career as a business analyst before taking an interest in the overarching “why” behind data organization. Now, she serves as the Director of KM Innovation and Solutions for premier AmLaw firm Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C. Her experience spans KM initiatives within AmLaw firms and she is a sought-after speaker on issues relating to change management in legal.
We were fortunate enough to sit down with Susan to learn more about her background, career path, and contributions to the industry.
UniCourt: Tell us your story. What is your background, and what led you to what you are doing now?
Susan Sommers: My first several jobs were as a business analyst and then as a consultant in the healthcare industry. In every project, I was intrigued with making the content and the data relevant and meaningful. I discovered I had a knack for understanding the “why” and connecting to the audience, whether it was the C-suite or staff. After my transition from consultant to knowledge management, I was fortunate to have several wonderful mentors who recognized my talents and brought me along to build internal and client facing tools, which honed many other skills such as program management, strategy and product management. Along the way, I learned about taxonomies, user experience, automation, and many other fun technologies and frameworks. Even well into my career in KM in legal, I always found myself leaning on the edge of the possible, whether it was in design or emerging technology or streamlining processes to solve user pain points.
UC: You have a broad range of experience managing firm-wide knowledge management initiatives within AmLaw firms. How has leveraging change management best practices made your large-scale KM projects run smoother and increased user adoption over time?
SS: Change Management helps keep me honest to listen, engage divergent thinking, and also help not jump to the solution. In KM, ideas are often borne either from internal KM or sometimes mandated from attorneys who have a great idea, but understanding the level of disruption for people, process, technology, and data is critical along the whole project. Change management is also a mindset that goes beyond projects and is an important skill and awareness for anyone involved in KM.
UC: What are the biggest changes you see taking place in the law firm knowledge management space? What types of KM innovations are changing the way law firms operate?
SS: It is so fun to see the changes and the pace in law firms. However, this is not new to KM – it’s where we have always played – at the inflection of this change. I think it’s really more of the impact on KM departments and how we are constantly redefining our ecosystem. For KM departments to understand data, automation and user experience requires our people to be upskilled and have the space to learn.
UC: You recently presented an excellent session at ILTACON 2021 entitled, “Ewww, David! Change Management and User Group Lessons Learned from the Roses.” What gave you the inspiration to combine Schitt’s Creek and change management together, and what are the key lessons we can learn from David Rose about change management?
SS: Thank you! I am grateful to ILTA for taking a chance on the idea, and to my amazing panel! During the pandemic, in addition to doing a lot of puzzles, I binge watched shows and read a lot of books and I also changed jobs. During this transition, I was reading Switch by Chip & Dan Heath and also watching Schitt’s Creek in the evenings and my worlds just collided nicely! At the show’s core, Schitt’s Creek is about change and acceptance. Everyone in the show is on a journey and by the end…oh, don’t want to spoil it. But I will say that the journey David goes on with the General Store is so similar to developing a KM solution for our lawyers and staff. There was an idea, naysayers, hope, hard work, and an evolving understanding of what the customers needed. And all that requires a framework to understand and connect with the why of your users and focus not just on the solution but the whole picture.
UC: What are some of your favorite sayings? Do you have any real-world examples of how you’ve seen those sayings come to life?
Oh I love this question! I have many, but a few come to mind. The first is from Eleanor Roosevelt and is relevant both on a personal and professional level:
“Courage is more exhilarating than fear and in the long run it is easier. We do not have to become heroes overnight. Just one step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up, seeing it is not as dreadful as it appeared, discovering we have the strength to stare it down.” Eleanor Roosevelt
On a professional level, this is a great quote to apply to innovation, which inherently by its meaning can bring the feeling of pressure to make something big, to be disruptive. However, being ok to make small shifts often helps to expose the next and the next, and sometimes there are large shifts and sometimes the smallest tweak in staffing or skills or adding another data point makes the difference. And the courage part is being comfortable with where you are and your vision, and then working with your team to instill that courage.
Now on the flip side, “disruptive technology should be framed as a marketing challenge, not a technological one,” (Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail) is also a quote I take to heart. Mr. Christensen was addressing innovation, but all technology is a marketing challenge – and in legal KM that shows up as adoption problems. We need our teams to continue to move past releases and launches and be hype-men and women, continuing to investigate and understanding the “why” (nod to Mr Sinek). The “why” will change as we progress and introduce new data or ways to do work and solve our clients’ problems.
UC: What are your goals for the rest of the year? What projects are you working on? Are there any events in the legal tech and legal innovation space we should know about?
SS: In our KM team, more of what we have been doing! I work in a great KM Department and also collaborate across the firm with our stakeholder groups, our IT department, and our PMO to create, refine, and deliver valuable tools for our attorneys, staff, and our clients. My team is very talented and coming into this role, I was grateful Ogletree already had a strong culture of knowledge management. This year has been a big year for us and we have moved at a very fast pace to launch many products and solutions. We have moved our intranet to SharePoint online, replaced our enterprise search and upgraded our chatbot, KARLOS. And we have also launched many client-facing tools, and have a big project that we are working on in phases – going slow to go fast – to make sure we are building a valuable solution. And our pace is not slowing – our strategy is to move into an agile product design. So not just resting on our laurels, but putting in processes, learning new skills, and leveraging different tools to continue to iterate in all our tools.
I’ve also been able to hire some great talent this year, and we have several open positions. I’ve looked outside legal to consulting and technology vendors to bring in diverse thinking and expertise that supports the great team already in place.
Regarding events, outside of the big ones like ILTA, CLOC, and ARK, I like to follow webinars where vendors of interest are presenting. I also rely on my LinkedIn feed where I can find non-legal webinars, whitepapers, and learn about trends in technology and customer experience that impact our legal tech space.
UC: Where can we learn more about you and your work?
At the Inflection Point of Change
As Susan points out, keeping up with changes in the market requires providing space for everyone within organizations to grow, learn, and adapt. She is setting that example by constantly striving to learn more about the ways technology is affecting the legal industry. We loved learning from Susan and look forward to following her career in the coming years.