Early on in my career, I wrote an article titled ‘Think like a lawyer.’ At that time, I was a lawyer in private practice and surrounded mostly by people who thought very much like lawyers do! Fast forward eleven years, I am back, working as a lawyer after over five years leading a specialised HR team, within a large HR function. Fellow lawyers will attest to the fact that the “lawyer thinking” never leaves you (any current or former lawyer who has ever been asked to sign a waiver for a recreational activity will probably agree!). However, in recent times I have afforded myself the opportunity to stop and reflect on the fact there was much for me to learn (and share) when combining my employment law background with being a HR leader. So, I thought I’d flip things around a little today and outline the lessons I learned, as a lawyer (and leader), working within a HR team.

1. Really understand your stakeholders – What is their core business? What are their pain points? Speak their language and understand the commercial drivers. Will they “go” for that idea? Of course, lawyers try to do this, but when you are embedded in a HR team, you get a unique opportunity to get up close to the business and understand the landscape and likely challenges. A junior HR colleague in my team used to say to me reasonably often ‘sorry, this is probably a dumb question but…’ I braced myself for her questions – they were never dumb. They were, in fact, her putting herself in the shoes of the business leader who was about to receive her advice. I learnt that there is a powerful synergy when advice is adapted to meet the fundamental needs of the situation and individuals involved, while concurrently reducing business risk and ensuring legal compliance. This combination increases the likelihood that the advice will be adopted and builds strong stakeholder relationships (and goodwill) in the process.

2. Consider how your advice will actually be implemented – All lawyers know that the best legal advice is useless if it can’t be put into practice. Working with HR professionals really highlights the practical challenges businesses face when implementing legal advice, particularly in complex and large workforces. For example, you want to update your employment contracts, but how do you practically do this, with the least resistance possible? Of course, lawyers will have some suggestions that they include in their advice, but working as a part of a HR team highlighted to me the complexities that arise in terms of system configuration, stakeholder management, planning and communication and finally, the execution. Considering these types of issues as equal factors to the legal complexities, as our HR friends do, is critical.

3. Technology is your friend, but careful consideration should be given to technology customisation – As a lawyer in private practice, I had never been involved in large-scale projects that involved the adoption of new technology. When faced with this new experience, it opened my eyes to the world of tech-based HR solutions, and the ability for these to drive efficiencies in high functioning teams, particularly through leveraging data analytics and automation. I also learnt that the time taken to thoroughly scope the project at the outset, clearly articulating the end goal (both for the immediate term and future) and consulting widely, are two critical elements to ensuring the right solution is adopted. I suspect in time, these learnings will be helpful for my clients too.

4. Always consider the impact of your advice – Lawyers often advise people leaders to make difficult decisions or have challenging conversations. In practice these situations are tough. The best HR leaders lean into these conversations, take the time to properly prepare and tailor the message, provide appropriate support, and demonstrate compassion throughout the process. Legal risks aside, I have witnessed how these situations can spiral when respect and compassion are not afforded. Considering the impact on the individual is critical in landing difficult messages effectively. This in turn, also goes some way to manage and reduce the associated risks.

This article was written by Bec Ellis, Director and Principal Lawyer at Decipher Workplace Law. Decipher Workplace Law is uniquely placed to guide employers through the range of people challenges from large scale transformation programs, through to individual disputes. The experience Decipher Workplace Law brings to these situations, is a unique blend of private practice law, coupled with internal legal and employment law speciality, and HR leadership. For more information, contact us.