Sunday, 26 February 2012

Not so special

I found an hour this week to attend a very interesting roundtable discussion at Allen & Overy organised by RSG Consulting, who run the annual Innovative Lawyers awards in the FT. The topic was "In-house legal: Talent engagement and retention". Various heavyweight luminaries of the in-house scene were there and the debate was very interesting.

Inevitably we covered the interaction between in-house Legal teams and HR. There were a couple of comments in this section which deserve to be examined more closely, because they tell you a lot about why Legal isn't part of the mainstream in many companies.

The first comment was that lawyers looking to broaden their career could go into HR. Excuse me? Let's just try that the other way around. HR managers looking to broaden their career could go into Legal and give that a go. Or perhaps if people in Legal or HR are bored, they might like to try being the company's Financial Controller? A quick read through IFRS ought to do it.

Maybe this idea of lawyers going into HR makes sense for employment law specialists. But for others? 
I led HR for 2 months last year and I can tell you good intentions and common sense aren't enough. If I ask you whether Learning & Development should be grouped with Organisation & Staffing, what's the answer? Everything is specialised nowadays. Don't make the mistake of thinking "I'm a smart lawyer. How hard can it be?" I devoted a lot of those 2 months to hiring an excellent, professional HR leader to replace me.

The second comment was that Legal is "special" and some things which HR push, such as talent management programs, aren't going to work for Legal. I have to say I think this is dangerous nonsense. How exactly are the people in Legal different from the professionals in Finance or Tax or any number of other functions in a business? Of course there are differences between Sales and Legal. But the idea that the company's HR programmes aren't applicable doesn't make any sense.

Thinking back over my career, I realise I've heard this "we're special" line again and again. Open plan offices? No thanks, we're special. Electronic filing? No thanks, we're special. Really? 

I think this mentality, comforting though lawyers may find it, is a perfect predictor of how engaged Legal will ever be in the mainstream of company life. The more special you think you are, the less you'll be able to achieve.

I'm currently acting Chief Executive Officer of my company. Among the 4,000 employees, there are 35 in Legal. If I heard them telling me "I'm special", I'd tell them "no you're not, you're just another part of the company". And that's a good thing.