Law School Boosts HR Careers

By Sappir, Mark Z. | Personnel Journal, September 1994 | Go to article overview

Law School Boosts HR Careers

Sappir, Mark Z., Personnel Journal

RESPECTED, VALUED, VERSATILE AND influential. These are terms that we'd like our colleagues to use to describe us and the way we as human resources professionals serve our organization's various customers. Without a doubt, there are many paths that can lead to this level of professional prominence. One route that HR practitioners should consider is the one that leads to becoming a layer.

With increasing frequency, I've encountered evidence that lawyers are becoming more prominent in the human resources profession. Executive recruiters say that they want HR candidates with a legal background. I also see this interest in job advertisements and press releases. But where are these lawyers coming from, and how did they get here?

Many lawyers were employed by governmental agencies right out of law school. Upon leaving governmental service for the private sector, they chose to work for the companies they previously regulated. Another group are lawyers who had been employed in corporate law departments and developed specialized knowledge in HR areas such as ERISA and labor law. Seeking to broaden their career horizons, they capitalized on their previous experience by transferring to positions in their company's HR department.

Finally, there are those like myself who began their careers as HR practitioners, but who made a conscious decision to enhance their professional capabilities by attending law school and becoming lawyers. We undertook this endeavor with the expectation that upon graduation, we would not practice law per se, but continue our careers as full-time HR professionals.

If you're seriously considering law school to advance your career in HR, it's vital to comprehend the demands that will be made on you and your family, and to appreciate the level of commitment needed for success.

Unlike most other areas of graduate study, you can't complete law school on an extended basis--taking one or two courses per term. Full-time law students must complete their course requirements in three years, carrying between 13 and 16 credits per term. Part-time (typically evening) students have only four years to complete the program, with a per-term course load of between eight and 11 credits.

In addition to the actual hours spent in class, law-school students generally devote one to two hours per week per credit to course readings and preparation. The math becomes simple--attending law school even on a part-time basis is the equivalent of a full-time job. As a result, law school does not mesh well with normal career and family responsibilities. However, in spite of these obstacles, thousands of people successfully complete law school while working full time.

As one would expect, law-school students learn about the law and our system of jurisprudence. However, this is only one component of the training. The best description of the law-school experience that I've heard can be paraphrased as follows: Law school provides the necessary preparation that an individual needs in order to embark on a lifetime regimen of self-study in the law.

Thus, while it might seem to the casual observer that the bulk of the student's efforts are directed toward learning law, the basic essence of a law-school education isn't only to impart legal knowledge but also to develop a series of skills that can be applied to many endeavors.

Facts are the grist for the lawyer's mill. Law school forces students to deal with vast quantities of information under tight time constraints. This data must be examined, evaluated and categorized in terms of accuracy, materiality, relevancy and usefulness with respect to the advancement or hindrance of a particular legal position.

A major part of a lawyer's job is selling. Lawyers must merchandise ideas, opinions and concepts to skeptical customers, operating in marketplaces filled with strident competitors. Whether it's persuading a judge to rule favorably on a motion, convincing a jury of their client's innocence or extracting concessions during difficult contract negotiations, successful lawyers have been trained to get their messages across. …

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