I’ve been asked many times to share resources about HR careers and becoming a human resources professional. Today’s reader note has an interesting facet – they’re studying to be a lawyer.
Hi there. Thanks for taking out the time to read my query. I am a law student currently in my final year. I’m contemplating earning a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) with human resources as my specialization. I have received a call from a respected business school with one of the best HR programs in the country. I want to make an informed decision whether to pursue the Master’s so I have a couple of questions:
I’m struggling with how I would align my existing legal knowledge with the knowledge I would gain in a business / HR program. It would really be very helpful if you could provide me with some guidance regarding this. That leads me to my second question. What HR opportunities could be leveraged by a legal person such as myself?
Any help would be welcome. Thanks again.
Obviously, the decision to earn a degree (and in what subject) is a very personal one. So, I don’t know that it would be fair to give out specific advice. But there is definitely a relationship between HR and the law.
When I received this note, I immediately thought of a friend of mine who I know has sat on both sides of the HR and law table. Carrie B. Cherveny, Esq. is senior vice president of strategic client solutions and chief compliance officer at HUB International Southeast, an insurance brokerage providing a full-suite of coverage, investment, benefits, and wealth management services. Luckily, I asked Carrie if she would share her story and she said “yes”.
Carrie, I know you’ve been both an HR pro and now you’re a practicing lawyer. What would you say are the common knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) between the two professions?
[Cherveny] In the role of legal advisor and in human resources I have always understood that I was there to serve and support both internal and external customers. I am, at the very core – a in a service role. My philosophy:
- I am here to serve and support those who rely on me.
- When someone calls me, he/she is likely concerned/stressed – it’s my responsibility to do what I can to put him/her at ease, make a potentially difficult call as pleasant as it can be, and most of all – be helpful and responsive.
- There’s always someone out there who would be happy to take my place, so I remind myself each day that I’m fortunate to do the job I do.
It’s this philosophy that has shaped my paradigm for the job I do and the service I provide. The four KSAs that I use every day are:
A Service Mentality – My first job in human resources was in the hospitality industry. After I completed my masters, I began working for Marriot International in its healthcare division. At 24 years old (or so) I traveled to Washington DC where I spent several days at the Marriott International headquarters. Many years later I still remember the vital lessons I learned: 1) We are here to serve those who rely upon us and 2) Our service should be courteous, professional, and prompt
Analytical Skills – Near the end of my HR career, I worked for a boss that required I develop a myriad of spreadsheets and conduct extensive data analytics. I’ve grown to appreciate his insistence that we compile data, organize it in a variety of ways, and look for patterns, details, and anomalies to help better understand our circumstances. Both as an attorney and an HR professional you have to allow the facts, data, and documents tell the story.
People and Communication Skills – I’ve met all kinds of HR professionals and attorneys in my life and those who excelled in their profession were the same people who knew how to communicate with and relate to the people they served. Empathy, compassion, and the ability to deliver constructive and honest feedback are key skills for an HR person and an attorney.
Reading People and Circumstances – Both as an attorney and as an HR professional, reading the person that you’re speaking with, along with contextual circumstances, is an extremely valuable skill. What I have learned is that in all cases there is more going on than what ‘meets the eye’. Pay attention to non-verbal’s, tone of voice, facial expressions, and the smallest details and pieces of information. The details tell the story.
If I’m a legal professional considering HR careers, what would I be surprised to find out about the job?
[Cherveny] I think attorneys would be surprised by the nature of many of the issues that make their way to the HR department. Quite frequently, the nature of the issues that arrive in human resources can (at times) be relatively small or inconsequential. Attorneys generally become involved in matters of significance, consequence, or risk. However, the day-to-day in human resources can be quite different.
HR professionals very frequently do far more than employee relations. I think an attorney may be surprised by the variety of projects and areas of work that arrive in the HR department. As an HR professional I’ve been responsible for in projects including marketing, budgeting, sales, safety/OSHA, purchasing, commercial insurance, and vendor relations/negotiations.
And let’s do the reverse. If I’m an HR pro and decide to get my law degree, what would I be surprised to learn?
[Cherveny] Your professional success won’t mean much in law school. By the time I went to law school I had been in charge of two different HR departments for multi-million-dollar organizations. I was mentoring several new HR professionals and I was a frequent contributor and speaker at HR events. I was confident. I was successful. I was totally unprepared!
Think of law school as a total reboot. Who you were in your past professional life is not particularly relevant in law school – especially in the first year. The first year of law school is a pre-defined curriculum. In year-two you can begin to add electives. Imagine my excitement to finally take an employment- law class! After 12 months of total discomfort and stress I was sure I was going to finally find my groove. I was very excited to read all those cases that I heard attorneys reference throughout my HR career. Wrong! Would you be surprised to learn that my employment law class was my third most difficult class in law school (just behind property and agency)? It was!
Why was it so difficult for me? What I learned during my time as an HR professional was the practical application of legal principles. Black-letter law and cases are very different than real-world application. Law school will remake you into someone stronger and more capable than you ever imagined you could be. Trust the process. Be prepared to feel like a fish out of water for at least the first semester. Be open to reinvention. Be excited about the possibilities.
One of the things that I was surprised to learn is that some individuals study the law and get a law degree, but don’t practice law. Is this a strategy? What are the pros / cons to this approach?
[Cherveny] Sometimes it’s a strategy – sometimes it’s a necessity because of challenges passing the bar. In today’s increasingly competitive educational environment, a Juris Doctorate (aka ‘JD’) is a way to set you apart from the MBAs and other advanced degrees. Let’s talk about the cons first:
CON: Law school is expensive! And stressful!!Even in-state tuition at a public law school is by no means a cheap endeavor. Individuals who choose to attend law school and take advantage of law-school loans should be prepared to carry some significant debt after graduation.
Law school stress is nothing like any other stress I had experienced. I had a master’s degree, worked in corporate America, been in court hearings, depositions, board meetings, and even had a shoe thrown at my head by a very angry CEO. I thought I knew stress and anxiety well – I felt we were old friends! Law school is a completely different kind of stress and anxiety. Its fiercely competitive and failure of any kind is completely public.
CON: Perception of a JD vs. Practicing Attorney– recently I was partnering with a co-worker who is a JD but chose not to sit for the bar. Instead, she went right to work and is now a very successful sales professional. She shared with me that initially when she graduated from law school, she encountered some people who viewed her choice not to sit for the bar negatively – as if she were somehow less qualified or less intelligent than other people who had a JD and sat for the bar exam.
PRO: Competitive Edge- In a world where MBAs seem to be a far more common achievement – JDs remain a unique and impressive achievement. A JD sets you apart from many of the other advanced degrees in a very competitive educational environment.
PRO: Versatility and Relevance- When I was making the decision to go to law school everyone had an opinion. I was well on my way in my career and had already realized some significant success and growth in my career path. Why would I toss it all aside? Because I knew that a JD degree could never be a bad thing.
While I initially followed the traditional path of litigation, in the past 8 years I’ve had non-litigator opportunities become available to me that never would have been an option without my JD. The work that I do now – helping clients operate compliant employee benefit plans and HR departments – would never have been available to me without a JD. Regardless of whether you take a traditional path of litigation or go in another direction with your JD it will be something that you rely on throughout your career.
Last question. The reader mentions talking to a college / university in evaluating HR careers. What are 2 – 3 questions that someone considering a Master’s or Juris Doctorate should ask (to help them make this decision)?
[Cherveny] To quote Stephen Covey, ‘Begin with the end in mind.’ I would suggest finding professionals who have achieved the goals that you are considering for yourself. Find individuals working in the field or industry of your interest. If you’re interested in a JD and applying it to a corporate position, then speak with executives in organizations who have a JD and never practiced law. Ask the questions that will help you make your decision:
- Was the JD helpful or instrumental in his/her success? How did the JD add value to his/her career and growth?
- Would he/she do it the same way if he/she did it all over again? What would he/she do differently?
- As a person who makes hiring decisions, would he/she value a candidate with a JD over a candidate without one? What skills and experience are most important to him/her when making a hiring decision?
Another great resource is recruiters. Speak with recruiters who recruit for your industry of interest. Recruiters will have the best view into the job market and the desirable educations, skill-sets and experience.
A huge thanks to Carrie for sharing her experiences with us. As the mantra of “owning your career” becomes more popular it’s important to do our homework and ask ourselves a few questions before making big career decisions. Carrie’s advice to reach out to your network and understanding the job market are spot on no matter what career path you’re considering.
Image captured by Sharlyn Lauby at the WorkHuman Conference in Austin, TX11