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Observations from an HR director: transitioning from the media into law

Two years into her role at Fox Williams, Blair Wright reflects on how the HR role in the legal sector differs from her previous roles in the creative industries. Interview by Ashleigh Webber

There are very few characteristics that are true of both the legal sector and the media and communications industry, both of which have traditionally worked in very different ways. But, when she joined City firm Fox Williams two years ago, Blair Wright welcomed the challenge and has found the transition has made her a better HR practitioner.

“The HR community in law has been really welcoming and I have been really taken aback by how kind and generous everyone is with their time,” Wright, who is HR director at the business law firm, says.

Transferrable skills

“When I joined the firm and our previous director of HR introduced me to everybody, I immediately got invited out for coffee and people wanted to get to know me. I never had anything like that in the creative industries – it was much more cut-throat.”

Prior to joining the firm, she worked for five years as HR business partner and subsequently head of HR at communications agency MHP Communications. Before starting her HR career she had roles as a personal assistant, wedding planner and car salesperson – all of which helped develop the negotiating and planning skills essential for a senior HR position.

But, armed with a law degree, her heart was always set on a role at a law firm or in the professional services industry, which she admits were quite challenging to get into with no prior work experience in either.

Understanding the legal sector

“It’s quite difficult to get into the legal sector at senior level unless you’ve worked in law before, because there’s a hesitancy around whether you understand the sector and its work, or whether you understand the partnership structure,” Wright says. “I have worked in a partner-led organisation before, so that helped me in persuading Fox Williams to give me a chance.”

She is set to become a partner in the firm in September.

One of her immediate observations upon joining Fox Williams in 2018 was how different the tone is compared to how things are communicated in the media industry.

Academic rigour

She says: “In media people will put kisses on the bottom of their emails and communication will be quite informal. But in the legal sector you need to try to be concise, think about what you want to say, and come up with three points that you want to get across.”

Presenting to the partners or meeting with the board is very different to having a conversation with the senior management team at her previous firm.

“Those meetings in the media sector were very much about everyone chucking their thoughts in and being creative, coming out with hundreds of ideas. But in law you go in with one idea and it’s drilled down into the minutiae and everything is considered with academic rigour.

Overarching people challenges

“I think it makes me a better practitioner and challenges me on an intellectual level in terms of the detail and rigour of any proposals and changes you want to make.”

Now that Wright has had time to settle in to the role, she can reflect on how it differs from her former job. She says there are several overarching people challenges that the sector needs to address as a priority: diversity; succession planning; and ways of working.

She says the sector “can’t keep making excuses” about its lack of diversity, especially at senior level, and also needs to get better at attracting people from less prosperous economic backgrounds into the law profession.

Reflecting on our systems

“We as HR practitioners have got to take some responsibility to make proper change and become accountable for decisions about recruitment, development and talent retention. If things aren’t working, we need to look at why they’re not working. We need to reflect on our systems and processes and look at if they’re the best fit for everyone,” says Wright.

Fox Williams is playing its part in improving inclusivity and diversity in the sector by launching a reverse mentoring scheme in September. Lawyers and business services staff from BAME backgrounds will pair up with a board member for six months to educate them on the challenges they face at work and to help review the organisation’s policies and procedures.

Some of its lawyers and business services team members also volunteer  as mentors to students from less-advantaged backgrounds to offer career advice as to how they can secure roles in the legal sector.

Revolutionising working patterns

The lockdown and widespread home working has revolutionised the way law firms operate, particularly around flexible working hours. Wright says this progression needs to be accelerated as the restrictions are lifted and people feel more comfortable returning to the workplace. It is unlikely the sector will return to the traditional Monday to Friday office work pattern for everybody.

“It’s probably the same for many sectors, but we’ve really realised that people can work remotely and there’s no need to have paper everywhere,” she says.

Flexibility and change

She says new initiatives and processes can be introduced sooner if the sector avoids overthinking. Due to lawyers’ cautious nature, it often takes six months for a new programme to be up and running, whereas in the creative industry change is introduced almost immediately.

“Media and creatives are very good at coming up with an idea, trying it out and if it doesn’t work, binning it and moving on quickly. But because there is so much focus on the detail in law firms, it takes quite a long time to put everything in place and there’s a reticence to move on too quickly.

“I’d like to see the legal sector try not to overthink things too much. Sometimes perfection is the enemy of good. Sometimes it’s better to roll something out and make adaptions when needed to improve it organically.”

Succession planning

Finally, the sector urgently needs to address how talent pipelines can be created to fill partnership roles that become vacant. Wright says younger people coming into the sector have less of an aspiration to reach partnership level than the generations before them, so succession planning is a vital issue for HR to address.

“Our younger lawyers love the academic side, but the responsibility for fee generation is not for everyone,” says Wright.

Learning from the creative industry

“HR directors across the sector are thinking about how to create alternative career paths for our talent pipelines that reflect the range of contributions individuals make to the overall success of the firm. As more experienced partners think about retiring, we need to focus on sponsorship, in terms of developing more junior partners and their client relationships.”

While the legal sector will doubtless remain distinctly different from the creative industries, some of the media’s fearlessness to try new things could be a learning point for law firms as they adjust to the new ways of working brought about by the pandemic, she says.

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