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Thursday, July 05, 2007

Why Oh Why Law School?

Dear Evil HR Lady,

Love your blog- well-written, funny, insightful.

I have a Masters in Human Resources and now a J.D. I don't want to practice law (no work-life balance), and would like to work for the Fed gov't instead doing labor relations (interesting, potentially better work-life balance). But I have yet to hear back from anyone. I'm also applying to private sector companies and have received very little response. I think it's because I'm top heavy in education, light in experience (1 year full-time as an HR rep, and a few internships). Anyway, my question is, how should I package myself to employers? It seems like I have too much education for entry level positions, not enough experience for mid-career positions. I don't want to end up as the most educated Starbucks barista in town. What to do? Oh yeah, and my wife is going back to school in the Fall and we have to find something in one of 3 cities by August for that to happen this year. Good times all around. Thanks for any insight you can offer!


So, here is the obvious question: Why did you go to law school if you didn't want to be a lawyer? I mean, really, why? Think back and figure out why you decided to go.

As for the lifestyle of a lawyer, all law jobs are not the same and an in house labor and employment lawyer will have a much less hectic schedule than the Jr. Associate at Begge, Borrow and Steel, Attorneys at Law. When you are in house, you aren't worried about billing time. A smaller law firm may also provide a more relaxed atmosphere.

I'm not pushing you to take advantage of your law degree, but let me tell you, in order to get a good salary you will probably have to. You are worth more to me as a lawyer than you are as an over-educated HR person. Not that over education is a bad thing, it's just that you aren't as valuable.

Have you passed the Bar for the states in which you plan to end up? Start studying.

When you stay labor relations are you talking about union relations? That's a complicated area and you should be able to find a job in that, but you'll do better as a lawyer. (I think--someone out there (Mike Doughty maybe?) correct me.) The people who negotiate with the labor unions tend to be lawyers. The people who deal with the day to day grievances and provide general HR services to union members tend not to be.

Your best bet for the job of your choosing? Networking and signing up for the Ask the Headhunter newsletter.

If you decide to go the non-lawyer route, give clear salary expectations (and do your homework to find out what those should be) so that your resume doesn't get thrown out because you are "too expensive."

Good luck and I hope you find a great position soon.

13 comments:

Wally Bock said...

Ah, that Evil, a wise and witty woman filled with wisdom, much like a chocolate brownie, now that I think of it. She has given you wise counsel, friend. Let me add another way to analyze this.

Many times I see younger people (I'm 61 - five grown children)wander through college/grad school following the path of whatever seems interesting at the time or whereever their advisors think they'll do well. Then they wind up like you, trying to figure out what to do with the education they've got. Evil addressed that.

But I think you should also ask three other groups of questions. Start with "What am I interested in?" A client who had no "talent" but wanted to work in the entertainment business found a wonderful job as the administrator of a theater company.

What kind of work do you like to do? I'm not talking about "profession" here. I'm suggesting that you want something where you'll enjoy what people there do every day.

Finally, try to get a handle on what you do that you both do well (other people can tell you that) and that you really enjoy (your gut can tell you that). Then look for something where you can build on those strengths.

Just don't go into something because you've "invested" in a law degree. You haven't. Law school was a way of trying on law as a profession.

I can guarantee you that your education won't be wasted. You'll use knowledge and skills you picked up there in whatever you do.

Mike Doughty said...

Lots to chew on here. First, some background: I'm not a lawyer, nor do I have a law degree. I spent most of my carreer (32 yrs.) in Labor Relations, starting with a Big Three auto company as a trainee in a large plant (5000 hourly employees), moving to labor rep., Labor Relations Supervisor, then Labor and Employment Manager in a couple smaller facilities. In these jobs I did a lot of discipline, grievance handling at various steps of the grievance procedure and was part of the local negotiating team that negotiated local agreements (not the "Big Table", master agreement negotiations). At that time very few plant people at any level were lawyers or had law degrees. A few of the Corporate peole were , but it wasn't the norm. I left that company and went to the petrochemical industry as a Plant HR Manger, in a plant with many persistant labor problems. I stayed there a lengthy period to resolve that situation, became the HR manager at a large 3 plant chemical complex (one unionized, 2 non-union.....a fun situation) for several years, then became the HR Manager for all the company's manufacturing operations, reporting to the VP of Operations. In these jobs I headed the negotiations team at the various facilities that I worked at. A corporate rep participated. I negotiated with the UAW, Chemical Workers, OCAW, Steelworkers, Teamsters, and various AFL-CIO trade unions (on project agreements). I only had a lawyer present at the table in one set of negotiations that I can recall. This, however is changing, with more and more lawyers (or law-degreed HR people) taking part directly. My experience and opinion is that it's better to have the lawyer on call, to ask the legal questions during a caucus than at the table. As for in-house lawyers verus outside counsel, it depends. The problem with in-house is that most companies simply don't have enough, different situations that arise for a lawyer to gain real experience and expertise in any particular area, whereas with outside counsel, you can go to a specialist who handles these kind of situations on a regular basis. Here's an example: In one of the chemical plants I worked at, we had a strike after the rejection of a contract. There hadn't been a strike in this company for about 15 years. Since we planned to keep the plant operating with salaried and management personnel from that and other locations, there were lots of access questions involving gates, pickets, etc. Our in-house lawyers hadn't a clue, and frankly, if they'ed told me anything, I would have checked it with an outside counsel anyway, because I wouldn't have trusted their advice. This is a persistent probem for in-house lawyers; they often don't have credibility with people except in an area where those people know they have experience and expertise. I've had the unfortunate situation where in-house lawyers have tried to "wing it", when they actually knew less about a particular subject than I did. Not a confidence builder. Your results may vary.

Now to the question. The Evil One's advice is good advice. I think you may indeed have a problem. You're over-qualified for an entry-level position in HR. If you really don't want to be a lawyer, you're going to have to convince someone that you can add value with your law degree and that you won't leave after getting a little experience. Frankly, I think you would have been better off working in HR and going to law school at night. Then you'd have several years of HR experienece (and a job) to go along with the JD. I know this is Monday-morning quarterbacking and that working full-time and going to law school is very difficult (I've had people working for me doing it and it's not easy), so I'm sorry if I sound flip. I mention this for the benefit of others who may be contemplating law school. As far as Federal Gov. positions, I know next to nothing aside from limited experience with federal mediators and NLRB people, whom I decline to comment on.

In a more general vein, my observation is that there are more and more companies that are hiring lawyers to do labor relations. I'm biased, of course, but I don't think this has any particular merit. Legal thinking certainly has it's positives, and I know I'm generalizing, but in my experience it tends to be defensive, low risk thinking. This is not always the best way to approach labor relations issues. Arbitrations are a good example. The petrochemical compay I worked for raely lost an arbitration (the record in the plants I worked in was 28 wins, 2 "ties", and 1 loss, verus about a 45/55% split nationwide) and we rarely used an attorney to present cases. There are reasons for this, but my fingers are getting tired, so I'll desist on this topic.

Mike Doughty said...

Wally; Truly excellent comments.

Michael Moore said...

Legal training is never wasted. It gives you an insight and a thought process that can add value to any organization's decision making process. As others have already noted, your issue is selling that concept. That sale is a difficult one with which I personally struggled.

After practicing employment law for 20 years, I decided I wanted to move up stream in the HR decision making process by becoming an HR professional. I grew weary having a problem given to me as a lawyer when the "facts" were already set in stone and all that was left was finding a way out of the manure pile. I thought I could use my experience to avoid the problem and manage the risk.

To my surprise, lawyers are not universally loved and admired by HR professionals. They are not viewed as problem solvers. They are viewed as impediments and necessary evils.

I started and HR consuling firm and looked for HR Director postions. I had dozens of interviews. The feedback I got was that I was "too nontraditional" and "weren't sure what having a lawyer in that position would say to our employees." I was offered lower level jobs.

I am now back to practicing law and writing a blog. I still look for the chance to break into the HR world.

My suggestions to you is try to sell your legal training as a way to add value. Realize that you may need to take a lower level position to build your experience. Once you find a job, it will also show future employers that someone was crazy enough to hire a lawyer as an HR Manager.

Michael Wade said...

I agree with Wally's remarks. My advice: If you don't want to practice law, don't do it. There are many attorneys out there living lives of quiet desperation.

There are also plenty of examples of people with law degrees (I'm one) who have found their training to be helpful in other areas. I worked in EEO for years before moving into management consulting. A lot of my earlier experience was in employment discrimination investigations and those were a great way of learning about the ins and outs of personnel work.

Wally's advice of examining your strengths and what you want to do are right on target. Good luck!

Jason Greer said...

Very insightful, Evil HR Lady. Great comments from others as well. I found myself in a similar situation coming out of grad school with a Masters in HR/Industrial Relations and a Masters in Social Work. Although I was considered to be an attractive candidate to large companies, my focus was still on labor and industrial relations. I entered a training program with the National Labor Relations Board and became a Board Agent. Greatest thing I could have done. It has led to a great career as a labor relations consultant.
My advice to you is to determine what it is you want (even if it's only what you "think" you want) and begin exploring your options.
Don't worry so much about making big money from the start, but you obviously want to make enough to help with school loans; daily living, etc. Money, as they say, will come. But first get out there and find your direction. Only you can determine your direction.

JKB said...

If you want to work for a federal agency, you'll probably have to take the agency office of the general counsel route. They might see the HR Masters as an asset for their Labor and Employment Law division. HR will not view the JD as an asset as most lawyers in government throw up obstacles rather provide solutions. That being said GCs in government mostly do salvage work since managers can't seem to be bothered to learn to identify when they need shut up and get HR and lawyers involved.

It is in general, a stalemate - Managers don't consult with HR and the lawyers because the answer is always absolutes and seldom any constructive advice on dealing with the real world. HR and more so the lawyers say no to everything because they are too busy trying to correct all the situations the managers created by not knowing employment and labor laws and practices.

Holmes said...

Great advice from all of you. Much appreciated. Sincerely.

I had an in-house lawyer at a company for which I was interviewing tell me he wished he had gone my route. He swore he would never work billable hours and worked his way into an in-house counsel role doing labor relations work. I'm not really willing to spend 10 years of my life doing that. I understand I can make more money as a lawyer, and lots of it, but that isn't how I want to spend my life.

I suppose the federal labor relations idea appeals to me because the problems are very technical, but the role very focused. A LR person in a manufacturing plant is a generalist, typically, who also just handles the grievances and prepares for negotiations in addition to the other HR work.

I just interviewed for a position with the VA system today, so we'll see where that leads. I am also waiting to hear back from the postal service about a labor relations trainee position.

I like the law. But I don't like the practice. It would seem a technical government position would help me deal with and solve legal questions while working in an HR capacity and allow me to get home before 9pm.

I went to law school because it was something I always wanted to do and I knew once we had children I would never be able/be willing to go back. I also was partly inspired by a number of technical government positions- EEO specialist positions, specifically. I liken that to labor relations in that they are both internal justice systems governed by a legal framework.

But, as several of you pointed out, I just need to start moving forward at this point and gain some experience. I will let you know how it all turns out for me (I'm sure you're on the edge of your seat already!). Thanks again for taking my question.

Lisa said...

I am a little late getting in the game but as a HR Officer, Federal Sector, considering adding a labor employee relations person to my staff - you have the background I would snatch up in a heartbeat. I actually have an intern with a JD right now and his critical thinking skills, problem solving, ability to research, you name it, are awesome. He is a keeper, my challenge is to keep him challenged. It really does get down to what is it that you want to do (it is not always about the money) and both degrees are very marketable. Good Luck!

Evil HR Lady said...

I love all of you. I truly do.

Holmes said...

That is great to hear, Lisa. Hopefully someone in your position feels similarly about my skill set soon.

http://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2007/07/one-in-four-law.html

Apparently I'm not the only one who doesn't like practicing law.

The Engineer said...

Perhaps try not mentioning the law degree. If your history needs an explanation then you seem to have it down already (tried it, wasn't me).

I have a Masters in Civil Engineering. It gives me no overt advantage in my current position (i.e. no position within the government agency for which I work requires a Masters). The biggest thing I learned in graduate school was that I had absolutely no interest in research and the politics of academia. The coursework did add considerably to my understanding and provided a foundation from which to build when I have changed between specialty focuses in my career.

Smarter employers like Lisa understand that all skills are valuable even if you (the employer) don't know how to put them to use yet. They also understand that it really isn't all about the money.

Holmes said...

"So, (Holmes), what have you been doing for the past 3 years of your life?"