Leading HR in a law firm is no child's play, says Webber Wentzel HR director Rachel Masuku

Rachel says credibility is the most important trait that one needs to have in a law firm.  

“When you are dealing with people whose expertise is the law itself, life becomes a balancing act in advising them on matters based on regulatory requirements, whether it's around employment equity, health and safety, or any other area,” says Webber Wentzel’s HR director Rachel Masuku.
 
Rachel has spent most of her career in the financial services sector. She says while that was tough, her current role has really stretched her, as it was initially outside her comfort zone. This is because, unlike most corporate organisations where the shareholders are external to the business, the shareholders in a law firm are equity partners who form a part of the fabric and day-to-day operations of the business. And, because these shareholders are practising law at the same time, they come to work every day and are impacted directly by any decisions made by the executive of the firm.
 
“Working for a law firm is not child's play. In a bank, for example, you may meet with the board quarterly, however in a law firm you meet the board regularly. Working in a law firm takes stakeholder management to a whole new level.” she says.
 
Since the early days of her career, Rachel has been fascinated by oorganizational development. It’s a problem-solving endeavour, which ultimately seeks to ensure that employees transform as the organisation transforms. HR professionals expect that each role/work experience will leave employees in a better position than their previous one and sets them up to succeed.
 
When Rachel was approached by a head-hunter for the position at Webber Wentzel, she was excited by the prospect. Her experience in supporting organisations in implementing turnaround strategies and business re-engineering positioned her for the challenge that awaited her at Webber Wentzel, where she had to support the firm with implementing a new target operating model and a new HR Platform within her first 18 months.
 
Credibility above all else

Rachel says lawyers are different from most professionals in that they are always ready to challenge your thinking or proposal. This is partly why she found the first six months in her role at Webber Wentzel to be challenging, saying that lawyers know excactly what they want, which makes dealing with them a process with little room for error.

Building credibility in that context, Rachel says, is about ensuring our information as HR professionals is always accurate and well presented.

As much as I believe in my gut feel, I have to augment that with factual information to ensure that I am able to get the relevant support from the different stakeholder groupings in the firm. You have to build credibility with lawyers and that comes from the information you put in front of them. If your information is consistently accurate and well presented, they begin to put their trust in you,” Rachel says, adding that lawyers are similar to investment bankers in that, once they let you into their realm and give you their trust, they support you wholeheartedly.
 
“You can call upon them to support you to drive any initiative and they will.” Their vested interested in the business makes it very easy to drive change as they can see both sides of the problem and can support the right decisions without calling for an outsider's view, as most corporates do. “This is something that I have enjoyed during my tenure at Webber Wentzel,” she says.
 
Bring your A-game

“If I were to advise an HR person with ambitions of working in a law firm, I would say: know your facts and bring your A-game to the table. You can't only focus on the soft issues,” says Rachel. Even after three years at Webber, she has to be on her toes every day. Agility and adaptability are important.

“You need to know your story. You need to make sure that you always prepare, and always check your facts and sources. You need to make sure that whatever you propose to the firm is something you have thoroughly thought about and researched. Just as lawyers engage their clients, they expect the executives to engage them. So, even though we are colleagues, they are my clients and I must ensure that their satisfaction is at the centre of what the HR function delivers. You need to prioritise pragmatism above all else.”