Legally-savvy human resources professionals in high demand

A new dawn is rising for human resources – that of the legal eagle.

Ever since legendary guru Dave Ulrich first floated the idea of HR acting as a business partner, HR practitioners hoped the days of filing CVs, updating personnel records and comforting disgruntled staff were numbered. And now there’s a new career trend taking hold, upstaging even the role of business partner: HR legal eagles.

Employers are crying out for legally-savvy HR practitioners to help them manage the ever growing octopus of employment legislation, say recruitment experts.

HR professionals such as Imelda Walsh, HR director at Sainsbury’s – who has been single-handedly tasked with leading a governmental review into flexible working, – are increasingly likely to be found setting the legal agenda, keeping organisations out of employment tribunals and shaping new policies. Welcome to a new dawn for HR.

Alistair Cook, director at HR recruitment firm Digby Morgan, says he has seen a massive growth in demand for employment law specialists over the past year, especially on the interim side.

“There’s been an increase of about 60% in the number of legal HR roles in the past 12 months. At a senior level, employment law and employee relations specialists can command £2,500 a day or £250,000 a year,” he says.

Martyn Wright is director of Oakleaf Partnership HR recruitment specialists. He says that the advent of shared service functions has meant the responsibility for employment law is increasingly being devolved to HR, especially within London’s square mile.

“Most generalist HR jobs involve some form of employee relations but now employers, particularly in the City, specifically want employment law specialists to work in HR.”

Soaring law experience

Johnny Nichols, head of HR at law firm Bird & Bird and a former employment lawyer, is a case in point. He says his background in law is fundamental to his role as head of HR, and not just because he works in the legal sector.

“I’d be much more nervous and have less confidence doing my job without a law degree. I was previously HR director at a recruitment company and my background as a lawyer gave me a much better understanding of the way the processes worked. The one constant in HR is change, whether it’s restructuring or redundancies, and you’ve got to understand the legal framework from the outset,” he says.

Nichols began his career in HR after becoming an in-house lawyer at Lloyds of London insurance brokers during the corporation’s restructure in the mid 1990s.

“I got very involved with the HR function and found I was giving more and more employment advice. It was more fulfilling – although less glamorous – than working in a law firm,” he says.

But it’s not just City employers that are jumping on the bandwagon. Lesley Scriven, employee relations manager at Tesco, says HR practitioners are acting as legal advisers at the supermarket giant.

“We have a number of people who, while not legally qualified, have a high degree of employment law expertise. They operate in advisory roles to the business on key employee relations matters. They have usually held key HR roles and draw on their experiences.”

Cook says that HR practitioners with a sound knowledge of TUPE (Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006) are really in demand.

“If a company is restructuring, it wants an employment law specialist who’s managed a similar project before. As well as having a technical legal understanding, they need someone who can communicate effectively and get the managers’ buy-in. That’s where the HR bit comes in.”

Recruiting top HR practitioners with legal expertise is nothing new in Europe, however. UK businesses are ­simply following the trend, according to Cook.

“Across Europe, especially in places such as Germany, many, large organisations have huge employee relations departments within the HR function. Many of the heads of HR are trained employment lawyers. Now it’s started to catch on here in the UK.”

Increasing challenge of employment law

Mike Emmott, employee relations adviser at the CIPD, says that historically, the responsibility of keeping on top of employment law fell to trade union representatives.

“Employee relations has always been an important issue but it wasn’t regarded as a senior level activity back in the 1960s and 70s. It was more about dealing with trade unions and company communications,” he says.

The huge onslaught of EU employment legislation, however, has forced employers to take employment law seriously as the risks of getting it wrong can be catastrophic.

“The raft of employment legislation coming through has made it almost impossible for employers to keep up,” Emmott says.

The public sector’s struggle to keep on top of employment legislation has also been well reported. The Local Government Employers body estimates that councils are facing a staggering £5bn in equal pay claims for back-pay liabilities and future wage bills.

Hardly a month goes by without at least one high profile employment tribunal case hitting the headlines. And that’s where the legally-savvy HR practitioners come in. Companies want to do all they can to avoid the damages, and HR is responsible for managing the risk.

Wright says the increase in employment tribunal claims, which rose by 15% last year from 115,039 in 2006 to 132,577, is a big factor in the surge in demand for employment law specialists.

“HR isn’t just acting as an intermediary with the lawyers. They’re running the show. It’s HR’s job to keep on top of the case law and guess what’s around the corner, and that’s what employers are paying them to do,” he says.

However, Gareth Jones, director at recruitment specialist Courtenay HR, says that HR has a more complex role to play than just keeping companies out of the courts.

“It’s more about developing and engaging employees and using understanding as a way of staying on top of legislation, such as having an inclusive attitude to diversity. Companies are saying we want an engaged and inclusive workforce and HR facilitates that,” he says.

Engagement and understanding is crucial to managing employment law, but Nichols says that HR practitioners need to go further.

“The prescriptive EU laws and litigious culture aren’t going to go away so we’ve got to find a way of embracing them,” he says.

And it looks as if employers are doing just that, by recruiting HR practitioners who really know how to manage the law and come out on top.

What you need to know (from those in the know)

Employment law and employee relations specialists at a senior level can command £2,500 a day or £250,000 a year, according to Alistair Cook, director at HR recruitment firm Digby Morgan.

Johnny Nichols, former employment lawyer and head of HR at Bird & Bird law firm, says HR practitioners looking to move into an employment law specialist role should get as much practical experience as possible.

“Understanding the law and your own limitations is a must, but it is also important to understand the most effective way to apply the law in different situations. Finding an effective mentor would be a great first step,” he says.

Gareth Jones, director of recruitment firm Courtenay HR, says keeping tabs on what’s happening in employment tribunals is vital. “The law is so complex many organisations are understandably reluctant about putting it in the lap of someone without a law degree,” he says. “They need someone who can keep on top of case law and know it inside out.”

HR practitioners who want to move into a more legally-focused role should get as much experience as possible in employee relations, advises Martyn Wright, director of Oakleaf Partnership HR recruitment consultants.

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