What is it like working in HR in a law firm?

How do 100 smart, demanding bosses sound? That’s part of the challenge and opportunity of overseeing HR in a law firm.

What is it like working in HR in a law firm?
Human resources leaders across Canada face similar concerns around recruitment, performance management and employee engagement, but every industry has its unique traits.
One of the stand out traits for the legal industry is the partnership system.
“You consistently have to balance the interests of multiple business owners.That is certainly a balancing act at times,” said Marva Bethune, director of human resources at Gowlings. “The HR role in any professional services firm is probably made more demanding by the highly demanding nature of our clients – the lawyers. We work with well-educated, demanding people and you need to develop a high degree of confidence.”

Working with lawyers means ensuring your stats and plans can stand up to scrutiny, and always doing your homework, but when you get it right you can move quickly.

“You don’t have to propose something 25 times before it gets approved,” Katrina Stevens, director of human resources at Miller Thomson said. “The line of authority is very clear and if you are prepared and ready you can move quickly.”

Lawyers’ ability to make quick decisions can be a benefit, but it also means HR has to work hard to maintain trust.
“You really have to establish trust and recognize the value of it – how quickly you can lose it and how hard it is to win it back,” Aird & Berlis HR director Georgia Rennick told HRM.
At Miller Thomson the HR role differs because the department oversees assistants as their line managers, so Stevens has both a big picture role and day to day responsibilities in attendance and performance management.
“You have to learn that side of the business and it’s a whole different set of skills to manage people in that way versus just managing an HR team,” Stevens said.
Rennick said the “real trick” is balancing the needs of staff and lawyers, and making sure everyone understands the role and how HR is supporting them.
“Sometimes we need to be better at communicating what we’re doing for them that they don’t see,” Rennick said. “You can’t always tell people what you’re doing because some things are confidential.”
At Gowlings, most legal assistants report to more than one lawyer but HR still have accountability so reporting conflicts can arise. Bethune said a big role for HR was supporting assistants, who are also managing competing demands, and ensuring those working relationships are as smooth as possible.
The environment is stimulating, Bethune said, and within the HR department everyone has to be a generalist. There’s no opportunity to specialize in a small team, which can be a downside, especially for some junior employees.
“The HR admin side in a law firm is relatively flat so there’s little room for advancement in many areas,” Bethune said. “Our challenge is to continue to be as creative as we can to ensure that our staff remain engaged motivated and committed.”
One major challenge can be when the executive or managing partner changes. They often come into the role with little understanding about how the back office works, Rennick told HRM. While Aird & Berlis has been lucky to be able to avoid that changeover for a few years, it can feel like starting over again.
Of course, working with top lawyers has its advantages when it comes to policies and procedures. From staying up to date on legislative changes, to having good advice easily at hand – the HR department at a law firm is not suffering like the shoemaker’s children. 
“One of the joys of working in the legal industry is I have the benefit of having one of the best employment firms in Canada at my disposal,” Stevens said.


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