Should An Attorney Be On Every HR team? Don’t Kick The Idea Out Of Bed Yet.

Dawn Burke Dawn Burke, Employee Engagement 4 Comments

A few days ago I read an insightful post from the HR Bartender herself, Sharlyn Lauby (go ahead and start following her stuff now).  The post titled, Employees: When Should You Lawyer Up…”, answered a reader’s question about getting legal advice from an employment attorney. The reader was an employee, not an HR pro.  

Reading this article stoked a question I’ve been asking myself for years.  As a good employee engagement practice, should companies hire attorneys as a typical part of every standard HR team? I think it is an idea worth exploring.

The attorney would not report to the CEO, but rather the head of HR, and would be SME on employee relations issues.  Let me repeat, to me this may be a good idea to improve engagement.  Hear me out.

For a point of clarification, I realize many uber-large companies already have in-house counsel or expensive retained council. What I am talking about is hiring a licensed attorney to be a full-time or part-time, regular employee of the more standard 3-4 person HR team.  

So why would this help engagement??

Good-for-nothing attorneys are only there to advocate for the employer, right? I, like you, have seen every John Grisham movie and, from what I’ve seen, every protagonist in the 103 John Grisham flicks were asshole attorneys. I rest my case!  Well, truth be told, every lawyer I have worked with in my career was really top-notch.  They were objective, able to give advice on pros and cons of certain actions, and frankly advocated for employees quite a bit (if you want to know who I recommend, give me a shout!) . The attorneys participating in Sharlyn’s post seem to fit that bill too (at least that was my perception).

Most importantly, I think HR will never be the corporate connectors or influencers in creating a culture of engagement until they get out of the business of firing. HR won’t be trusted if in their jobs they continue to walk a fine line between employer and employee advocate. I mean, HR can be both…but it doesn’t work. Employees know you are a master of two servants.  Your CEO does too.  It’s too easy for HR to be manipulated (even unintentionally) with the split focus. It’s too easy to be ineffective.

Pragmatically speaking, HR won’t be totally out of the firing business any time soon.  And firing isn’t a bad thing.  But a first step could be to bring an attorney to the HR team to partner on the disciplinary processes. Some thoughts:

  • The attorney would typically be the employer advocate; the HR representative the employee advocate. First of all, there would be complete transparency and clarity on these two roles or this will not work.  Transparency is crucial when creating a culture of engagement. Hopefully this would help eliminate the fuzziness felt toward the typical HR rep who currently has to advocate for employee and employer.


  • Both would partner on all significant coaching matters together. In addition, the HR pro and attorney could partner on all coaching or performance management trainings. This would give the attorney exposure to employees and would allow employees to ask relevant questions to understand all sides of an issue (especially the employer’s side). This builds trust.   


  • The mission of the partnership would be very clear to all employees.  The mission would be to make decisions that are best for the company holistically.  In cultures of engagement the employee and employer really are part of the same circle.  No “employee vs them”. It’s what’s best for “us”.


  • The attorney would be hired like every other employee.  They wouldn’t be “independent” nor would they be consultants.  They wouldn’t lurk in the shadows and pop up when something is wrong. They would be employees. They would be upheld to the same standards, cultural norms, values and purpose as everyone else.


  • They would report to the CHRO and not the CEO. Why? Because if they report to the CEO, he or she will bypass the HR process and just get the legal advice.  Sorry, I don’t make the rules, but we all know that would happen.  Reporting to the CHRO doesn’t completely eradicate that phenomenon, but it would add some buffer.


  • They would be beneficial in growth strategies.  For instance if your company acquires an organization in another state, they would be responsible for understanding the law.  Or if your company is going through an equity event, they would be in charge of pulling the mounds of data necessary.  I do mean mounds.


  • If you want to hire an attorney, it’s a buyer’s market. The high unemployment rate (15.5% in 2015), hasn’t significantly rebounded since the financial crisis.  Many attorneys are open to jobs that do not require receiving the bar. That coupled with a significant increase in law school tuition rates is making it easier to find good talent.

So, there are some of my ideas.  And there are many, many holes to be poked in them.  This thought doesn’t eliminate being manipulated nor does it make all aspects of discipline or coaching easy.  But, it would bring much needed clarity to the role HR plays in the process, and would allow for HR to get on with their true modern value proposition – creating a culture of engagement.


Dawn Burke

Dawn Burke, founder/advisor for Dawn Burke HR, is an HR leader, speaker and writer specializing in new HR practices, engagement and workplace culture. Her HR/leadership career has spanned the last 20 years, most recently serving as VP of People for Birmingham, AL’s award-winning technology company, Daxko (And yes, Kris Dunn and Dawn are making Bham the HR capital of the world! Who knew?). You can also check her out at and a variety of other interesting places. Google her, it’ll keep you posted on what she is up to.

Comments 4

  1. I must disagree with some of this. First, in my experience, attorneys always tell you to take the less-risky course. I’m an editor in the publishing field, and throughout my long career, whenever there was a “should we publish this” question, an attorney said: no, don’t do it. Usually I agreed. Once in a while, the risk seemed so minute and the story to be quashed was so good that over time I got really jaded into a belief that attorneys really weren’t considering the merits of the case but rather knee-jerking a “no” because they knew that they couldn’t get into any trouble that way.

    Second, the talk about HR serving two masters? It’s preposterous. HR always has been and always will remain an employer advocate. Period.

    1. Hey David!

      Your comments are great. And I think in many ways on point. A few things I do agree with:
      * I HATE KNEE-JERK NO’s. Deplore them. I hate them from HR people too. It’s why HR sucks.
      * Attorneys typically are in the business of saying no, for the reasons you listed. I’ve been fortunate with mine that they gave me risk chances and options. We then could make the decision as a corp. Now, you situation was heightened given your advice (“No!”) regarded items you were going to publish publicly. Ours not so much (at least directly).

      Don’t agree with we are only there to serve corporate. Without going into too many semantics, my experience is that HR spends a great deal of time advocating for employees, to be told by higher ups — we’ll go with the non-employee option. Now that is a very general statement — but there are a lot of HR pros who take that dual role seriously and do all they can to support.

      Thanks for your thoughts — this topic is interesting to me….

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  3. I found this article surprising, given that I’ve worked in EEO and labor relations for the last 15 years, always with a supervisor who was an attorney, who in turn reported to our VP of HR. Perhaps it’s the type of HR that I practice, but I believe attorneys have been part of the larger HR organizations for a long time as mediators/ombuds, workplace investigators, diversity consultants, and labor relations professionals. See also SHRM National…That being said, I think it’s been very valuable to have HR professionals who also have a JD working that dual employer/employee advocate role. I have certainly learned quite a bit!

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