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Arise, human resource professionals: The value of your skills to a law firm is rising almost as fast as first-year associates. Within the last decade, human resources professionals have evolved from keeping records, pushing paper and planning holiday parties to helping shape the future of their firms. For decades, the personnel department within a law firm was primarily administrative, acting as a support service for recruitment, benefits and compensation, training, payroll, and employee relations. Most departments operated out of sight of lawyers because the groups served only the support staff. NEW DEMANDS Now, competition for talent has become a business issue and firms are de-emphasizing the administrative role of these practitioners and instead involving these human resources managers in executive decision-making. Much of this new significance is the result of shifting demographics and a tight job market. Firms no longer can ignore the effect of recruiting and employee retention on the bottom line. Partners also recognize they no longer can continue to ignore the stigma traditionally associated with workplace environments. During the 1980s and early ’90s, firms easily could overlook the sweatshop labels attached to their firms because jobs for attorneys and staff were scarce. As the job market opened and the economy strengthened, however, attorneys and staff made greater demands on their firms. Job options now are plentiful, and attorneys and staff are leaving for better workplace environments. In response, corporations continue to promote and support family-friendly policies and work-life initiatives. Better workplace atmospheres have helped these companies become major competitors for top legal talent. Some law firms have begun to mimic corporate retention strategies by emphasizing sensitivity to lifestyle issues. These initiatives are more prevalent in law firms where staffing has reached a crisis stage. However, as salaries continue to soar, law firms are exploring new tactics. MORE INTENSE COMPETITION Corporations realize competition for top talent will become even more intense in the future, and lateral moves will occur more frequently. So executives want HR practitioners to facilitate “succession planning” processes, the newest trend within corporations. This means helping executives identify internal talent and groom these candidates for leadership roles within their companies. Corporate HR professionals are aware that competitive staffing conditions will only increase in the coming years, and they are striving for lasting, innovative solutions. Law firm management also must develop long-term solutions, from succession planning to retention issues, instead of remaining puzzled as to why salary and bonus incentives are not the answers. Today, law firm HR professionals must work with management committees to address issues that easily could be ignored. These professionals, now under scrutiny, are hurrying to learn how to act as internal consultants after years of overseeing day-to-day administrative functions. In an effort to hasten the overhaul, some firms are replacing staffers with skilled practitioners who have secondary degrees in business administration, human resources management, industrial psychology, counseling or consulting. But while some firms are upgrading their HR departments, others are leaving them untouched. These traditional law firms are not weighing the need for advancement. And in today’s market, firms may suffer if they fail to establish an in-house human resources function to address issues. Law firm HR professionals also are becoming more proactive in increasing the value and visibility of their departments. For example, a cost analysis of attorney and staff turnover rates could lead to the development of stronger long-term recruiting and retention strategies and minimize costs associated with quick-fix solutions to issues in these areas. In addition, HR professionals are expanding their roles in training and development, diversity, compensation and benefits restructuring, evaluation systems and processes, and retention of women. In the future, the role of human resources practitioners within law firms will become even more prominent as their responsibilities become tied to business objectives. Many activities in these departments such as benefits, training and staffing may be outsourced so these skilled professionals can concentrate on issues related to human performance. In addition, HR managers will be expected to advise executive committees on policies, legislative updates concerning employment and external trends. These are not only “wake-up calls” for law firm management, but also for HR professionals. In a time when law firm life is evolving and management is steering firms toward a new millennium, HR departments are vital resources to the success of a law firm’s future.

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