HR skills - past, present and future
Totum asks HR Directors what it takes to be a successful HR professional in the modern law firm.
So what is it like to work in HR in the legal sector? While it can be frustrating working with senior lawyers who often have absolutely no idea what it is that you do and how you do it, it is often described as an intellectual challenge, and has a seductive quality that many people can't resist (and secretly like).
HR is a black art for many who observe it from outside. It’s like water in a motor car – you’re not sure what it actually does but you better keep it topped up as you know things will start to go wrong if it isn't there.
But what skills and experiences do you actually need, or not need, to successfully practise HR in a law firm? How is that changing? And how can HR people continue to add value to firms that continue to make money and are often successful in spite of themselves?
The thoughts below are not personal ramblings but the summarised responses of 11 law firm HR Directors who were asked the same six questions.
What is the most important skill an HR person needs to be successful in a law firm?
In summary you lead on your personal style in a law firm and not your technical competence. You get no glory or credit for who you are, or your job title or salary - credibility will flow (in or away) from what comes out of your mouth! You need to be a relationship builder with the ability to influence clever people through the rigour of your arguments and the interest you take in their business, to have the ability to do the job well while having the maturity not to show off about it.
Are there skills that are needed now that haven't been needed before?
The ability to be more commercial, show more business acumen, think more strategically and lead the boardroom debate came out clearly and regularly in responses. HR professionals need to be prepared to move away from 'transactional' based conversations. Five years ago many roles were senior operational ones. In these more challenging times, law firms are looking to HR people to generate more creative solutions as to how the business can be profitable – so industry know-how and a better understanding of how resources are used to create profit are all increasingly important.
The ability to challenge appropriately and be innovative are key too – the on-going economic conditions and the strain that places on the law firm business model gives opportunity for change. Project and change management skills are in demand more than ever, as is the ability to introduce new concepts like career development frameworks and talent management concepts, which require greater influencing and communication skills at a level much higher than, say, five years ago.
Employee relations experience has also come to the fore – especially in terms of the recent climate in which firms have had to manage people out and make collective redundancies. In this context, partners have realised that HR is actually quite hard and have consequently started valuing their HR professionals much more.
Finally, for a lot of firms having an understanding of managing HR across different jurisdictions and a greater international cultural awareness and appreciation is in demand.
Are they any skills that HR people have that are just not utilised by law firms?
A number of respondents thought they use most tools in their black arts kit bag. Others felt that some of the broader business skills of HR professionals, including MBA skills, are only just being noticed and tapped into. Additional areas mentioned included under-utilised skills in compensation and benefits, resource management, interviewing and mediation/facilitation, and supporting lawyers to build good client relationships.
Is there a particular background (non-law) that you see as a great training ground for HR people, which will help them transition and thrive in a law firm?
This was an interesting area of debate where there was little consistency in views about sector background. But the common impression was that it is always about the person and their attributes and attitude that count rather than the sector in which they gained their experience.
Retail was mentioned in a positive light by a number of people, perhaps due to the volume of HR that retail HR professionals deal with, as well as the employee relations work they do.
It is commonly thought that management consultancy or other professional services partnerships backgrounds work well because their people are able to adapt and flex their approach to law firm HR strategy development and implementation. In fact anyone who has played a consultancy role – with a focus on outputs and a truly collaborative approach – finds it very easy to succeed in a law firm. People with accountancy backgrounds get the thumbs up from many people, if they can adapt to a less sophisticated way of working and take the steps needed to progress the agenda
But there are people recruited from education establishments, manufacturing and all sorts of walks of life who have succeeded if they had the right mind-set, approach and intelligence.
Do certain backgrounds not suit the legal profession at all (in your experience)?
Sectors particularly mentioned in responses were public sector, civil service, manufacturing, and construction. Interestingly, banking was mentioned a couple of times due to the cultures being so different. In fact retail was mentioned here too so it reinforces the point that you never can tell!
In summary people thought that if you are used to a high speed of change within a corporate (command and control) environment, a law firm is not for you. Anyone who prefers an environment with clear lines of authority and governance finds it hard to adapt to a world of influence, ambiguity and patronage. The key point is that in a law firm, you have to win over hundreds of stakeholders who have their own practice and see themselves as their own boss with discretion to do things their own way. If you work in a company where there is a clear hierarchy and a culture of compliance, then your initiative will probably be adopted once the Board have approved it. Getting Board approval in a law firm is the end of the start, not the start of the end.
As the legal sector changes and modernises, what should upcoming and clever HR professionals specialise in to make themselves invaluable?
Organisational development was the most common answer. Change management and risk management experience also featured.
The generalist role appears to be the most attractive for law firms currently but over time respondents envisage that reward, recognition and development are going to be key specialist areas where law firms will focus their energies. There appears to be a growing awareness of the importance of attracting, retaining and developing staff over the longer term within law firms, and the thought process is slowly beginning to transition from an operational to a more strategic focus. The breadth of experience gained from different specialist roles coming through the HR ranks will make for the best business advisors. One respondent worried about the number of people who now dismiss spending an early part of their career doing a stint in sections of HR work (learning and development, compensation and benefits, employee relations, recruitment, etc) because they want to be business partners or generalists as quickly as possible.
General management and an appreciation for all things financial will be increasingly important. Experience of another function altogether - or working within a business unit rather than a centralised HR function (so you are more exposed to the business itself) – were other suggestions.