Too many organisations make the mistake of not involving HR in the early stages of key decisions. HR does not get the respect it deserves.
So says Alison Love, head of employment law at Cardiff -based solicitors Hugh James. And she should know.
Now well established at this general practice in South Wales, Love joined as a partner and has built up a team of six executive members and two support staff over the past seven years. This would be evidence of achievement for most people, but particularly for someone who made HR, not law, her first-choice career.
“After my A-levels I ignored the advice to go to university,” Love admits. “And I went into HR in the Civil Service.”
A nine-year career in HR followed across various industry sectors, and Love sought to boost her chances by studying with the Institute of Personnel Management (predecessor of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD)).
“I did my IPM qualification, as it was then,” she says, “and it gave me a lot of confidence because I was competing against graduates.”
Unfortunately, this high was matched by lows back at work and Love became increasingly frustrated with her final role at a US company where she says HR was not valued. “It was very much a hire-and-fire kind of environment,” she says, “with enormous retention issues. There was little scope for promoting good practice, and banging your head against a brick wall hurts after a time.”
Fuelled by the conviction that her career would be boosted by a degree, she decided to try for a law course at university. With the initial intention of taking this expertise back into HR after graduation.
Love’s self confidence at this time amazes her even now. “I would never have thought about doing law when I was 17 or 18,” she says. “But I knew that years of working meant that I had self discipline, time management skills and a good attitude towards the hours of work involved.”
She was lucky to be one of the last round of students to get a grant, but was still mindful that she had given up a job to be a student and was determined to make the most of the opportunity.
Benefits of experience
Her early ambitions of taking a law degree and then moving back into HR were abandoned when Love got caught up in the mechanics of becoming a solicitor.
“In year two you have to apply for law school then there’s two years of training,” she says, “I went along with it just in case, then I got to the point where I thought I might as well qualify,” she says.
“But I’m very pleased with the choice I made and I have been a qualified solicitor for 13 years.”
The two strands of HR and legal experience are now standing Love in good stead.
“My HR experience now is highly valuable,” she says. “I’m dealing with HR practitioners all the time. For me to have been there and understand the situations they may be in, is very useful.”
This is not just empathy. “My experience makes me very aware of the practical implications of employment law.”
Love joined law firm Hugh James seven years ago with the brief to build up a specialist department. To confirm her belief that a practical HR input is always needed, she has hired an HR consultant as part of her team. The consultant advises clients from the small and medium-sized enterprise sector that don’t have much in-house support as well as helping the larger clients support their people strategies by running events such as round-table discussions on talent management and age discrimination roadshows.
Love believes that her HR background has given her an additional skill. “I’m very good at reading people and their motivations,” she says. “HR has given me an insight into how individuals react.
“My view is that HR and employment law are so interlinked that you can’t have one without advising on the other,” she says.
Ones to watch
Do not isolate HR practice and legal awareness, says Alison Love, as she sets out the key areas for employers to watch this year.
Age discrimination will affect capability issues because HR can’t rely on people to retire at 65. If people are getting to the stage where performance is dipping and there is a lack of motivation, then these issues have to be managed.
The Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations (TUPE) is a particularly frustrating area of law. While the new amendments (which came into force in April) have helped in a number of ways, employers are still faced with difficulties in effecting any harmonisation of contractual terms following transfers. This means that employers are often in a position of having to risk-manage the potential liabilities.
Better training and awareness of best practice could keep employers out of court, Love says. “I have heard of a lot of unfair dismissal cases where line managers are not following HR’s advice and practice.”
Is the law for you?
“If anyone was thinking of doing the same as me, my advice would be to go for it,” says Alison Love. But what is involved?
The conventional route
It takes six years to become qualified lawyer. This is made of up three years at university, a year on a legal practice course and then a two-year training contract (on a minimum salary of £17,527 in London) with a firm of solicitors.
“It is quite tough,” says Isobel Rowley, a spokeswoman on training for the Law Society. “There are less training contracts available and it is increasingly competitive.”
Graduates from other disciplines
Graduates who do not hold a law degree have to take an additional year of study. “They have to take the Common Professional Exam, also known as GDL, the Graduate Diploma in Law. This one-year course is followed by the legal practice course then a two-year training contact,” says Rowley.
Mature graduates are welcomed and certain exemptions from study could be available to those with management experience “but the costs and effort are considerable”, Rowley says. “People need to be determined and enjoy detailed work.”
This appeals to many mature students because it offers the opportunity to earn and learn, by working in a legal department for five years, under the supervision of a solicitor, while studying part time.
They have to pass the Institute of Legal Executives (Ilex) professional qualification in law in an area of legal practice to the same level as that required of solicitors. Fellows are issued with an annual practising certificate, and only fellows of Ilex may describe themselves as ‘legal executives’.