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The rebranding fallacy: Why HR should stay HR in law

Over the last years, a growing trend can be observed in our firms: HR teams rebranding themselves as “people and culture”. What has changed to warrant a rebrand? Is this merely a brand refresher, or is there a proper business reason behind it? Writes Christian van den Bosch.

user iconChristian van den Bosch 12 July 2023 Big Law
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Bottom line upfront: rebranding is not only incorrect; it is likely to create the opposite effect. People and culture and human resources are not interchangeable terms; they focus on separate parts of your firm or your business, so to speak.

When it comes to a firm’s people and its culture, the ultimate responsibility does not lie with HR. In fact, the primary responsibility for healthy and thriving people lies with a firm’s chief executive, managing director, or managing partner.

The problem


What’s in a name, is this semantics? No, it is not. Where we seem to cross wires is between people and the workforce. Even though the workforce is made up of people, responsibility for a healthy and growing workforce is not the same as responsibility for wellbeing and development of people.

Some may say the rebrand is a result of oversensitivity, as “we do not see our people as resources” is a common response when asked about the reason for the rebranding. I do not believe this is the case. Any firm comprises three essential resources: financial, physical, and human. The efficient use and development of the combination of these resources make a firm productive, profitable, and subsequently efficient.

What is it all about, then? Why is this even worth talking about? Many HR teams in — and outside — our firms seem somewhat lost. Their identity, or their brand, is often not clear and as such, they are looking for guidance on their purpose in the firm.

HR teams are frequently misused and are then downgraded to personnel administrative tasks, coated with leadership matters partners and practice leaders do not have time for. The teams are busy, yet their core business is neglected. They are not able to impact productivity, leadership, organisational learning, and ultimately current and future profit.

Heads of HR are overloaded with people-related matters, which prevents them from addressing workforce development matters. To make matters worse, HR teams are often treated as quasi-corporate governance teams. We often see health and safety, quality assurance, diversity and inclusion, and sustainability fall under the HR umbrella, responsibilities that are clearly corporate governance functions.

The root cause

In a way, and without a business mind, the rebranding to people and culture is understandable. Partners and practice leaders are often too busy with fee-earning work to address their primary responsibility: leading their team, practice or firm. The situation has been allowed to happen, as the status quo in law firms has been upheld over the past decades. Only recently we are seeing a change to become more business minded.

A stagnant firm tends to take current results and looks to repeat them into the future; a truly operational approach. As qualitative growth is not a part of the daily conversation, people have been undervalued. The responsibility of people has been handed off to the HR department, and culture to go with it.

So, let’s forget rebranding has anything to do with oversensitivity to the words “human resources”. The root cause of the rebranding is a conflict in priorities and a lack of available time of senior leadership. People and culture are downgraded in importance and handed to a department under-appreciated for their role in a firm.

Perhaps a little confrontational, as we take away the reality so many firm and HR leaders have become accustomed to. Over the years, HR leaders have become too familiar with picking up the people and culture responsibilities that are better suited on partners’ desks. They have assumed a serving role in the firm, much like the partners tend to serve their clients. Servants are rarely truly valued; they are just expected to be available whenever called upon. Their needs are never considered, their presence is hardly ever noticed, and their absence in a time of need can start a crisis.

Even though this is very common in many firms, it is not normal. Normal means meeting a norm, a standard, if you will. If we consider it would be normal how many HR teams are misused, it would indicate low standards we set and uphold.

Compounding the undervalued position of HR is a belief HR can be outsourced, or even off-shored. It may apply to standard personnel administration tasks, but your core HR function has no business being outside your firm.

Why is HR so important?

We all know the most important asset in a professional services firm is its workforce, but somehow, we have lost sight of the workforce and started focusing on the details in the workforce: our people.

What is the role of HR, then? If the understanding of the role is not common, how can we expect our leaders to know or remember? Actually, it is not that difficult; HR is responsible for developing the workforce as a whole. But what does that mean?

The department focuses on developing operational capabilities to meet the firm’s strategic objectives. Helping leaders assess their current people performance, identifying gaps with the desired future performance and developing strategies to bridge this gap.

The policy and regulations part of HR is a small compliance part, which comes with every function in a business. Somehow this seems to take up most of their time nowadays. If your head of HR or director of people and culture has any formal interaction with people outside the HR team, who are not practice or firm leaders, this may indicate an issue. The same applies when your most senior HR person deals with personnel matters, no matter who they talk to.

Your HR department has a significant role to play in the competitive position of your firm in the mid- to long-term future. It, therefore, plays a strategic role, not an administrative or operational one. It requires elevating HR from a service to a capability, to get the full benefit your HR team can offer.

Imagine HR as a major enabler in the firm’s growth and profitability. A change to this view would not only make the HR team better, but when an HR team can focus on its core business, it will make the whole workforce better.

Leadership and HR

Many industries struggle with leadership development and succession; law firms are not unique in this area. In my daily work, I often hear juniors looking for more from their leaders. They have high expectations of senior leaders in the firm. Ideally, they should have these high expectations, but that is purely in a theoretical world. Most senior leaders in law firms have risen to these roles because they are outstanding lawyers. They have spent their careers developing their legal skills to their best ability.

Other than CPD and mandatory practice management courses, they have rarely been offered business leadership development opportunities. So how can we possibly expect them to be the leaders they need to be?

We humans are a weird bunch, we only start to value things once demand exceeds supply; that’s why we now start to appreciate our younger lawyers. We also appreciate things we must put effort into.

The best way for leaders to truly appreciate their people and, through them, generate an excellent firm culture, they need to put effort into recognising and developing the people they lead.

Leaders need HR support to develop themselves and their people. HR needs leadership support to develop the workforce. If you want to advance your firm, this is the first relationship to get right. Leaders look after your people, let your people look after your culture and support HR in looking after the development of the workforce.

What about our people and culture committee?

Your P&C committee is probably a good forum to advocate on behalf of your people. It is a separate body and has no direct link to your HR department. Another reason not to rebrand as this would make it seem part of the people and culture department.

Head of HR as an equity partner?

I’ll leave you with a question to ponder: Have you ever considered your head of HR as an equity partner in your firm’? I know, a ridiculous question — or is it?

In future-focused firms, heads of HR are strategic leaders. Even though they likely do not bring any revenue in the door, they are instrumental in developing the workforce, which does win and deliver all your work. When we speak of equality and parity, offering equity partnership to non-fee-earning executive leaders should be on the table.

Christian van den Bosch is a consultant for legal and professional services firms.