Celebrating 75 Years of Serving Nevada’s Legal, Business, Government, and Civic Communities

Lawyers as HR Leaders? The Jury’s Still Out

An employer likely wouldn’t want an HR professional representing it in court. But what about an attorney heading the HR department?

‘‘I think in a perfect world, it’s an outstanding idea,’’ Emily P. Harbison, a partner in the Houston office of management-side law firm Baker McKenzie, told Bloomberg BNA June 28.

A top HR professional who is also an employment lawyer ‘‘is way out front from a compliance standpoint,’’ she said, adding that she has never worked with such a dual-credentialed person.

Someone who did wear both those hats, Harbison said, would be ‘‘better able to flag issues,’’ would often be able to handle legal matters herself, would be able to formulate HR policies through knowledge of what is common practice, and would know when to escalate a problem to other internal or external counsel.

Depending on how big the employer is, how widespread it is geographically, and how many HR professionals it employs, ‘‘the HR executive could be well served to have a JD degree,’’ especially if the degree is accompanied by relevant HR experience, Pat Lundvall, a partner with McDonald Carano and chair of the firm’s Litigation Practice Group and Employment & Labor Law Practice Group, told Bloomberg BNA in a June 28 email.

‘‘We have not seen this type of experience in practice,’’ she added. ‘‘But I predict we will, given the number of law school grads having difficulty finding employment.’’

Some working HR professionals agree that a law degree could be helpful in their jobs. ‘‘I do believe that in some cases it’s a good idea to have the HR person be an attorney,’’ said Esther Gutierrez, HR manager at Hokto Kinoko Co., a specialty organic mushroom company based in San Marcos, Calif.

She said she thinks that a law degree could help in HR because of how litigious society now is, the fact that HR professionals can be personally liable in some cases, and her own previous experience working for other employers who violated state regulations.

‘‘It would largely depend on the company’s culture, and their willingness to find and hire such a person,’’ Gutierrez told Bloomberg BNA in a June 27 email. ‘‘I can’t say I believe there are many persons who would fit the description.’’

Is There a Down Side? A dissenting note came from Amy Dufrane, CEO of the HR Certification Institute, who pointed out that HR is responsible for much more than legal compliance.

‘‘Whether HR leaders are lawyers or not, keep in mind that HR’s top goal is to drive business results through people,’’ she told Bloomberg BNA in a June 29 email. An HR official who is an employment lawyer would be good at managing ‘‘employment law risks,’’ she said, but HR executives must also be agile in the face of change and good at managing ‘‘workforce productivity, establishing high standards, and creating engaging cultures.’’

For these reasons, she said, ‘‘most HR departments are run by strong talent management leaders, who then rely on legal advice for employment law challenges.’’

Even lawyers are willing to admit that the law degree isn’t always everything. Harbison said a possible drawback of having a lawyer as a top HR official is that a sexual harassment complainant might be too intimidated to talk to him or her but the risk of that would be ‘‘minuscule.’’

By Martin Berman-Gorvine

Bloomberg BNA – Human Resources ReportTM

July 10, 2017


About McDonald Carano

In 2024, McDonald Carano celebrates 75 years of serving Nevada’s legal, business, government, and civic communities. More than 60 lawyers and government relations professionals serve state, national, and international clients from our offices in Reno, Las Vegas, and Carson City. McDonald Carano provides legal services and government affairs and advocacy counsel to startups, corporations, trade associations, nonprofits, public entities, high-net-worth individuals, investors, and public-private partnerships throughout Nevada. We are proud to be your Nevada law firm since 1949.

Media Contact

Mark Buckovich


You have chosen to send an email to McDonald Carano. The sending or receipt of this email and the information in it does not in itself create an attorney-client relationship. If you are not already a client, you should not provide us with information that you wish to have treated as privileged or confidential without first speaking to one of our lawyers. If you provide information before we confirm that you are a client and that we are willing and able to represent you, we may not be required to treat that information as privileged, confidential, or protected information, and we may be able to represent a party adverse to you.

I have read this and want to send an email.