Should HR practitioners go to law school?
They may want to think twice before deciding to study law
May 23, 2017
HR professionals may want to think twice before deciding to study law, says Brian Kreissl Shutterstock
By Brian Kreissl
Quite a few HR professionals are also lawyers. Because just about every aspect of HR relates somehow to legal compliance, having a legal background can be highly beneficial to the practice of HR.
Not having to call a lawyer every time a legal issue crops up can save time and money and provide an additional layer of credibility. Many labour- and employee relations-type positions in particular are staffed by lawyers. There are also in-house counsel positions that focus mainly or exclusively on employment issues.
Lawyers in private employment law practice can benefit from having training in HR. Because HR focuses on legal compliance, business and strategy, as well as the people side of the business, employment lawyers can benefit from having an understanding of the other aspects of human resources management.
While many labour and employment lawyers study business, human resources management or labour-management relations at the undergraduate level before heading off to law school, many do not. Because of that, experienced and credentialed HR professionals who go into the law can be particularly well-placed and often have a rather unique understanding of the challenges faced by their clients — particularly in the case of management-side employment law firms.
Having an HR background can be helpful when doing work that goes beyond legal advice and into the realm of HR consulting. Certain work that is quasi-legal in nature — such as developing an employee handbook or conducting a workplace investigation — can also benefit from having someone with both legal and HR backgrounds.
I may be biased, being someone with bachelor and master’s degrees in law, in addition to my HR designation and business education, but I think law and HR can be a particularly powerful combination. Several universities recognize this and offer master’s degrees focusing on labour and employee relations with an emphasis on the legal and quasi-legal aspects of human resources management.
My advice regarding law school
If you have a genuine interest in the law, are interested in practising law in some capacity and are aware of the issues and challenges in the legal profession these days, my advice is to attend law school. Law is a noble profession and a challenging and stimulating field intellectually, and the rewards can be (but aren’t always) quite lucrative.
The challenges I am referring to include long hours and poor work-life balance, an obsession with billable hours, fewer articling placements, significantly lower compensation outside “big law,” concerns about technological disruption, too many law graduates chasing too few opportunities, new billing models and the potential for offshoring legal work.
Another problem with obtaining a legal education is all the misconceptions surrounding law degrees — particularly if you decide to do something outside of legal practice. Employers and the general public have the idea that all lawyers are able to command huge salaries.
For that reason, many employers are reluctant to hire lawyers for non-legal jobs for fear they may leave for the next high paying legal job. They also tend to think of law as a highly practical and specialized discipline and often find it difficult to see how a legal education can be beneficial for other types of careers.
My personal opinion is the idea that law degrees are extremely versatile and can open many doors beyond the practice of law is utter hogwash. With a few exceptions, having a law degree tends to close more doors than it opens. Several legal bloggers have confirmed this.
I have been rejected for scores of jobs over the years precisely because of my legal education. People have even recommended I remove my law degrees from my resumé.
Of course, my situation is exacerbated because my legal education is from the U.K. and I never actually qualified as a lawyer in Canada (or elsewhere). That’s because I was told I would need to complete an entire three-year law school curriculum from scratch in order to qualify in Canada — something I couldn’t afford as Canadian law schools make it very difficult to study part-time.
While it is now easier for foreign law graduates to obtain accreditation in Canada, the number of foreign law graduates has flooded the market for articling positions. And there is still a stigma surrounding foreign law degrees in the minds of many Canadian lawyers.
For those reasons, I would think even harder before considering attending a law school outside Canada.
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Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.