The legal profession is often viewed as the last bastion of the bowler hat and pin-stripe suit a traditional sector where chambers, robes, wigs and wood-panelled rooms are still essential tools of the trade.
However, this stereotype is quickly becoming outdated, and law firms are increasingly looking at innovative ways of communicating with clients and employers.
Employment legislation has been one of the fastest-growing and most congested areas of the law in recent times, with the government and the European Union adding more workplace legislation than ever before.
Keeping up-to-date with new legislation has become an industry in itself. As well as shelves of weighty directories and private meetings with lawyers, firms are now providing a plethora of quirky communication tools designed to help HR keep abreast of all the latest legal developments.
The growth of e-mail and the internet as essential business for tools was the natural starting point for a boom in the legal alerts market.
Daniel Barnett, a barrister specialising in employment law with 1 Temple Gardens, has been providing a free e-mail legal update for the past eight years, and says demand has been growing steadily.
“There’s so much information out there it ends up being more confusing for HR,” he explains. “The huge mass of legal information from government and Europe is now becoming unmanageable.
“I think employers recognise there’s now a large volume of legislation out there and that any tool which can help identify what’s relevant is incredibly useful.”
The increasing use of technology, coupled with more time pressure on HR professionals, is fuelling the growth in these types of legal alerts, which, crucially, can be delivered instantly when the law changes.
“Technology has changed the way people are communicating and accessing information,” adds Barnett. “Offering something that’s convenient and timely is a real benefit to employers.
“For law firms, it’s a great marketing tool, but it also keeps employers up-to-date with changes in the law and reminds them when to look for more tailored legal advice.”
Law firm Maclay Murray & Spens (MMS) is using a range of new and old methods to help HR departments keep up to speed with employment law.
The MMS Knowledge system comprises e-mail alerts, smart guides, seminars and fortnightly podcasts on topical legal issues.
Most notably, the podcasts, which are essentially downloadable radio shows, feature a professional presenter interviewing partners from the firm about forthcoming legal issues.
The firm’s marketing director, David Sanders, says this new approach puts employment law into an accessible, flexible format.
“The idea behind the podcast was that it was really convenient for people,” he says. “This is added-value material that clients have told us they want. There’s two sides to it because it’s a shop window for our services and something that’s valuable for employers in itself.”
Sanders says that employers are constantly evaluating the best way of communicating in an age where knowledge and information are all-important.
“If you work in an industry that is based on knowledge, technology is something you have to look at,” he comments. “It is vital to investigate how people want to access information.
“Employers’ legal information needs are constantly changing, people are becoming obsessed with collecting as much as possible – real ‘info-maniacs’. Although the legal sector is still seen as very traditional, this is really starting to change.”
Pinsent Masons offers an even more radical solution, with its iPod-based news and training service.
The package includes a twice-weekly HR Network TV news show and an in-depth monthly risk management programme. Subscribers download the video podcasts, which look like familiar TV news shows, using a specially adapted iPod provided as part of the package, and material is automatically archived onto a PC for future reference.
The service also includes internet content and a suite of supporting materials, while the video podcasts can also be viewed on TVs, PCs or projectors.
Chris Booth, group head of employment at Pinsent Masons, believes the portability of the iPod is also a big advantage for an increasingly time-poor, travelling workforce.
“The HR community likes to be updated with the latest developments, and as a profession I think HR really likes to be educated in new ways,” he says.
“Employment law is one area that really has pound signs attached to it if you get things wrong – more so than in any other area. It is probably more fast-moving than any other area of the law because it is constantly changing.”
He argues that HR departments can be inundated with hard copy documents and, as a result, some things can get missed. By taking a more innovative approach and putting the information into a more accessible, convenient format, he is confident of getting the key messages across.
“It might be a bit of a generational thing because younger people do want to use more technology at work, but as a profession we need to be engaging with people,” adds Booth. “There’s an expectation of more innovation from law firms to help get away from this idea of lawyers writing with quills and going through ancient textbooks.”
The proliferation of digital and cable TV channels led to the creation of LegalTV, with a schedule made up entirely of legal advice shows. It can be watched online or through Sky channel 186. Although it covers all aspects of the law, there are dedicated employment law shows designed to help and advise HR teams.
Personnel Today and sister title Employers’ Law has even teamed up with LegalTV to produce specialist employment law webcasts, helping the HR community deal with the latest legal issues using a range of industry experts.
Addleshaw Goddard has developed an integrated system where clients get the newest legal updates but also gain access to a range of training for staff. This not only allows HR to be aware of the latest regulations, but also lets them prepare more thoroughly by educating staff.
The Employment Channel also offers TV programmes, delivered by Addleshaw’s lawyers and then broadcast over the internet. The programmes, along with podcasts covering a large variety of subjects, can then be downloaded to PCs or MP3 players.
Subscribers are alerted to new content by an e-mail containing a hypertext link that connects them directly to the Employment Channel. All news alerts are saved for up to three months and training programmes are stored indefinitely, allowing users the freedom to choose when they access the information.
“We broadcast TV-style programmes over the internet aimed at busy HR departments and employment lawyers,” says Justin Beevor, legal director at the company.
“They’re designed to be highly topical but also short and sharp. The training is aimed at managers to help prevent liability and the kind of mistakes that can often leave employers fighting claims. We think it’s a really cost-effective way of delivering legal training to a large number of people.”
Amanda Jones, head of diversity at the Co-operative, says discrimination is one area where employers must keep up-to-date, but thinks taking a leap beyond just raising awareness of legal compliance is the way forward.
She feels that simply informing HR about new laws can lead to a tick-box approach, and that a more creative approach can help staff engage with the issues.
“Organisations need to make the best use of technology, but I think it’s really about being creative and knowing what switches your audience on,” she says.
Jones believes that working in partnership with legal suppliers should help firms to look at innovative solutions that include training for staff on new legislation.
“We’ve got 87,000 staff so it’s really hard to get the message across and complete relevant training,” she adds. “We’ve used things like drama-based training and specially-tailored videos to raise awareness of topics such as bullying and harassment.
“With issues that really impact on the business, you need to make interventions that are genuinely powerful and get people thinking. Just telling people about new laws is one-way communication – we want to get people to actually understand the issues, not just the laws.”
Changing face of the law
- E-mail alerts Many law firms now offer automatic alerts that cover legal issues tailored to individual sectors or businesses.
- Podcasts Radio shows, interviews with lawyers and expert advice can now be downloaded from the web directly to devices such as PCs or MP3 players.
- Video podcasts See and hear all the latest legal news direct from the web.
- Legal TV shows Lawyers are turning into TV presenters to bring employers all the latest developments.
- Seminars Some firms provide regular face-to-face lectures on specific issues.
- Drama Specialist companies use actors to bring home the reality of workplace law.
If you would like to receive free regular employment law updates from Personnel Today and Employers’ Law, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org