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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Evil Lawyers, Evil HR People, It's All the Same

I am a middle aged woman who recently acquired a law degree (and bar admission) and wish to pursue a career in HR. So far, I'm told that my law degree is worthless in HR! I'm a bit surprised by this because my 30+ years of corporate experience (in administrative positions) tells me otherwise. HR as a function includes employee relations, which is a goldmine for plaintiff's attorneys. Let's face it - management and employees sometimes do not share an amicable relationship.

I assume that I will need to start in an entry level position and work my way up. Is it a good idea to "minimize" my legal education on my resume?

Any advise would be appreciated.

Surprisingly enough, I dealt with an extremely similar question back in July. Click over and read it and all the comments. There are comments from actual labor and employment lawyers!

Here's where your law degree is a liability for you. If I'm hiring an employee relations person, I want an employee relations person, not a lawyer. If I wanted a lawyer, I would hire a lawyer.

Richard Bales at Workplace Prof Blog reported a study that indicated that humans are disposed towards optimism--except for lawyers.

I found this highly amusing as my most enthusiastic, optimistic sibling is a lawyer. So I asked him. He said, "I can see why that is. All day long you deal with people who make bad choices and are arguing with other people making bad choices." Or anyway, he said something similar, as I didn't actually write it down because I didn't plan on regurgitating it until this very moment. (He can correct himself in the comments, if he so desires.)

My point with all this? Lawyers are adversarial. They are used to arguing a case. (Note that when you go to court, it's for "oral arguments" not for "a meeting with some nice donuts and maybe some fresh fruit for those who are watching their weight.")

Not saying this is bad or good, just saying that it is. Now, you may or may not be adversarial. You may have just gone to law school to learn the law and now you want to apply it to HR. Great. But, I see lawyer on your resume and I think, "adversarial." I do not want someone with that mindset in an employee relations role.

Yes, you must know the law to be a good HR person. However, the law you must know is limited and we have lawyers who we rely on if things get complicated. But, HR isn't so much of a "negotiating" with employees kind of a role as it is a "coaching" role.

We try to develop. We try to resolve. We don't try to argue. (Although, sometimes we do and sometimes we silently bang our heads repeatedly against our desks, but usually with our office doors closed--that is if we haven't been stuck in a cube. I currently have a head banging causing situation that I can't write about. All I can say is it's good that the employee in question is actually located several hundred miles from me because I might become a little more "adversarial" than I should and start banging his head against the wall.)

If you want to be in HR, you need to convince potential employers that, while lawyers are trained to be adversarial, you are not that type of person. You just have a firm understanding of the law. You want to develop people. You want to "resolve" conflicts, not win cases.

As with my other person with a similar predicament, I would recommend labor & employment law. Work for a law firm. Get an in-house position.

Now, that the advice is over, I have some questions for you. I'm curious as to why a "middle aged" woman would spend the time and money to go to law school when the end goal wasn't to practice law? That's something I would expect a 22 year old to do--I don't know how to get a job, so I'll just go get another degree! But, you've been in the work force for a long time and know the ropes. Ask yourself, why did you really get a law degree?

Prestige? It was close to your house? Big salary dreams? If you knew you wanted to do HR, why not get a master's in Human Resources or Organizational Development? Why did you choose law school?

If you wanted to be a lawyer, but haven't been able to secure a job and figured that HR was a good second choice where you could at least use some of your knowledge, well that I understand. I have a master's degree in political science, and we all know how useful that can be. (But it works--politicians are corrupt and self centered, some management is corrupt and self centered. It's all the same, really, except a distinct lack of bribery goes on in my current work.)

For those of you who have managed to wade through this long answer, (what can I say? It's Thanksgiving morning and Grandma is fixing the Offspring's hair, and everyone else is sleeping, so I have time), and who are not done with school, or are thinking about going back, I have some thoughts for you.

Why are you going into this particular program?

What do you think this degree will do for you?

What doors will open with this degree?

What doors will close with this degree?

Have you talked to alumni (notice, I used the plural) about how their degrees have helped them?

Is this the school you really want to be at? Why? Why didn't you pick a different school? If you could easily move, would you attend a different school? Why?

Will this degree raise my earning potential? Are you sure? What makes you think that?

I hate to see people finish school and go, "now what?" Or, "But I thought I could do X, but no one will hire me now!" Or, "I really wanted to work for company X, but they don't recruit candidates from this school."

Think before you jump into graduate school. Think, think, think. Then do it. Or not.


Lea Setegn said...

I work in HR in a law firm, and I've noticed that the leaders of our legal recruiting staff have law degrees. My understanding is that it takes a lawyer to recruit lawyers. So this might be an option in this case.

Evil HR Lady said...

Excellent tip! Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Good idea founder, although I think Evil is correct in thinking that the concern here is not truly the law degree itself, it's recruiters wondering why you are applying for an entry-level HR job when you have 30 years of administrative experience, a law degree, and have passed the bar. I certainly would question your goals during the interview process.

In terms of continuing the conversation about HR and the law, yes, I do believe it is extremely important to have a good basis in employment law when working in HR, but my personal perspective is that lawyers are "black and white" on employee issues, while HR understands "the shades of gray". 99.9% of the time, I can resolve a situation to the benefit of all involved with mediation skills, the trust I've built over time, solid basis in ethics, and HR-related legal and other knowledge. In fact, if I had gotten legal counsel officially involved in some of these situations, I can guarantee it only would have made things go from bad to worse.

Don't get me wrong, I fully believe that there is a place for legal counsel in the HR world, but as a legal consultant, not as the primary manager of employee issues. I highly doubt legal counsel would even want to be a manager of employee issues! :0)

I'd love to get others thoughts on HR and the law...

Unknown said...

Having had friends in L&E law go in house and become successful HR people, the key is not the law degree in and of itself. (And for those who went to law school, you know that you actually learn very little substantively there anyways). Rather, its the experience in dealing with HR-related issues. Those who have made the successful transition into HR can typically boil problems down to simplest concepts and solve them quickly based on their experience.

I think the other difference with lawyers is that we tend to make things more difficult than perhaps they need to be. We're trained to think about worst-case scenarios which prevents practical advice from being given for some. When lawyers can boil problems down into easy-to-understand concepts, it leads to success no matter what avenue -- lawfirm, in-house, HR -- they choose.

Anonymous said...

Have you thought about specializing in ERISA? Good benefits lawyers are hard to come by.

Anonymous said...

Since most organizations don't value vision, it does not shock me that someone might be wondering through their career not connecting the dots (which sounds like this individual). In fact, many organizations are content to let people wonder. This is tragic!

I think she is a person who would benefit from finding a caring guide/mentor to help her find that preferred future. Finding "true North" should be of paramount concern to her.

Anonymous said...

Don't worry.. Putting law degrees in to the resume for the position, should only do good, if at the same time one could also prove their ability in HR work & management.

J.C. Carvill

Diane Pfadenhauer, SPHR, Esq. said...

My oh my, how profoundly disappointing.... I hate all of this mumbo jumbo about what lawyers are supposed to do and what HR people are supposed to do and that never the twain shall mix. I heard a statistic somewhere that only about 40% of lawyers work in traditional firms. So, does that mean the rest are not lawyers? I think not. Plenty of highly qualified lawyers are engaged in areas related to employment law and dispute resolution and aren't "adversarial" as you suggest. Heck, do you know Bob Lewis? - That would be the former "Lewis" of the Jackson Lewis law firm - he's a highly successful mediator now - a role that is far from adversarial.

I went to law school later than the norm and when I graduated (with over a decade of HR experience), the HR folks drew the same conclusions as you - that now that I was a lawyer, I was somehow a problem - I suspect it was really ignorance of the value of a law degree (far beyond mere litigation as you suggest here) and perhaps a little paranoia. I guess my BS and MS in HR couldn't convince people I really like HR.

I think the last thing anyone should do is question why someone went to law school, particularly with such myopic and limited thinking about what lawyers do. Moreover, as a true HR lawyer I can see lots of value to persons with law degrees in HR and I can also see the problems with nonlawyers in HR who lack dispute resolution skills and dole out legal theories and advice as if they know what they are talking about. The world is full of opportunities for those who seek them. The important thing is not to put people or professions in little boxes - most of the world really isn't that way.

Anonymous said...

The reality is HR people are high school educated and innately evil (as you say). They act stupid and they are stupid. I work for one of the biggest Cities in the country and their requirement in HR is that they do whatever MGT asks....whether it is legal or not. If they don't know it's legal, all the better.

Get a real job.

Anonymous said...

I do not disagree with the above comments but you cannot deny that fact that in real life there are always going to be “cook lawyers” or “shysters” and “bad cops” a.k.a. “pigs” who selfishly work their best to spoil the “perfect world” for as long what they do makes their pathetic, antisocial self “feel good about it”.

If Karen Nagad is crook she is likely crook because she knows someone likes crook lawyers and would pay good money for crook lawyer services… same I am certain, goes for that character Adrian Adams, who, if part of the above is true, appears to be seriously damaged goods” !

Weather Karen Nagad and Adrian J Adams lie in court is not as nearly important as it is why the system allows it. I am puzzled. Perhaps more referrals to CA BAR should be logged against all “bad apples” who ruin the day for the good, hard working and honest lawyers.

Does she (Karen Nagad) really lies in court? Does she really fabricates evidence? That’s preposterous! For that she, as well as Adrain Adams would be disbarred in some less corrupt states.

Anonymous said...

Crook lawyers like Adrian J Adams, Esq make me sick. There should be double penalties for crook lawyers and bad cops who are cought braking the law.