Transitioning into an HR role

How lawyers and general managers can leverage transferable skills

Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl 

In my last post, I discussed some of the various vocations and professions that have the most similarities with HR. This week, I am going to discuss how people with backgrounds in law and general management specifically can move into careers as HR practitioners. 

While I know career change can be incredibly tough and it seems to be getting much harder to convince prospective employers of the transferability of one’s knowledge and skills, it can be done. HR in particular is a very difficult profession to break into, but at least some people are able to parlay their previous experience and education into a successful career in HR. 

Lawyers as HR practitioners 

More than a few HR practitioners are also lawyers. This is partially because having a legal background is quite beneficial for a career in HR — particularly for labour and employee relations-type roles. 

While many of those types of positions are staffed with lawyers, having a legal background can also be excellent training for very senior positions in human resources. That’s because ‎operating at the most strategic levels in HR requires an understanding of legal risks and the broader legal and regulatory environment, and a legal education provides a certain element of intellectual rigour.  

While HR practitioners are often accused of being too focused on legal compliance‎ and there is certainly a danger of some lawyers failing to appreciate the non-legal side of things at times, those who can also appreciate the “softer” and more strategic sides of HR tend to make better HR professionals and employment lawyers. To fully appreciate the law, it is also important to understand the social, economic, political and business reasons behind specific legal rules. 

Lawyers who want to move into the HR profession — especially beyond labour or employee relations roles — should take some HR courses and perhaps consider pursuing a professional designation in human resources. Another option is to do what some employment lawyers do in providing assistance to their clients that moves beyond the realm of legal advice into the area of HR consulting. 

One problem some lawyers who transition into HR have is being perceived to be overqualified for many roles in HR. Because law school is rigorous and competitive, and ‎lawyers in North America are pretty highly educated (with most attending university for seven years or longer), many people have the idea that lawyers are somehow “superhuman” and are all able to command huge salaries.  

While HR can also be a demanding profession with quite a bit of stress and long hours, there is generally a little more work-life balance in the HR profession than the typical “big law” job in private practice. Many legal jobs these days aren’t paying what they used to either, with some HR roles actually being fairly competitive. 

Nevertheless, lawyers transitioning into the HR profession may need to convince prospective employers they’re in it for the long haul, that money isn’t the most important factor and perhaps that improved work-life balance is important to them (understanding, of course, most HR departments aren’t country clubs either). 

General managers as HR practitioners 

I have mentioned the cliché a few times that to some extent every manager is a human resources manager. There’s a lot of truth to that because HR is a management function, line managers often roll out and make decisions relating to HR programs, HR generally focuses on improving managerial effectiveness and there is a huge overlap in the body of knowledge for general management and HR. 

Because of these factors, having line management experience is often a good preparation for a career in HR. In fact, people with line experience often have a greater understanding of “the business” and are more likely to appreciate the strategic side of human resources management. 

For this reason, many HR job postings ask for previous management experience. It is also true that senior business leaders are quite often parachuted into CHRO roles in spite of their lack of any previous background in the HR function. 

Like lawyers, I would advise any general manager transitioning into the HR function to take some HR courses and highlight transferable knowledge and skills. Recruitment, training, performance management, change management, talent management and termination‎ experience are all relevant to the practice of HR, especially where a manager’s involvement with those areas was particularly heavy and moved beyond what most managers do. 

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