From Legal to HR: One Woman's Story

Audrey Boone Tillman tells her personal story of transitioning from being a lawyer at Aflac Corp. to becoming the company's HR leader, and the lessons she learned along the way.

Thursday, November 1, 2007
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After Audrey Boone Tillman transitioned from law to HR at Aflac in Columbus, Ga., she received some great advice from her mentor, Coleman Peterson, a seasoned HR executive who retired as vice president of Wal-Mart's People Division.

Peterson told her to stop thinking like a cautious lawyer, to not be afraid to take risks, to focus on overall business objectives.

"I loved being a lawyer but was excited about an opportunity to do something different and deliver a different kind of value on a daily basis," says Tillman, who practiced employment law at Aflac for about five years as vice president and senior associate counsel of the legal division until the CEO approached her in 2001 about becoming the senior vice president of HR.

Tillman was told she'd never be bored and probably would even have a lot of fun in HR -- both of which turned out to be true.

"HR is a tough business, but you also get to see how a lot of things work up close and personal," she says. "It's been a good move for me and has allowed me to see the whole corporation, which I never would have seen in the general counsel's office."

Tillman says there have been times when her legal skills were a hindrance in HR. For example, she was trained as a lawyer to mitigate risk so exposure to liability would be lessened.

"But on the business end, you've got to take risks," she explains, amazed by how she now champions this thinking in conversations with her adviser in Aflac's legal department.

"As a lawyer, I would never have dreamed of going forward in a relationship with a consultant or vendor without first having a contract signed, sealed and delivered, but in my new role as an HR executive, I want to strike while the iron is hot, and I don't necessarily have time to wait for the internal contract cycle to run its course."

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Tillman says wading through the privacy provisions associated with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act was "a convoluted undertaking" even for lawyers.

But her sharp legal skills helped raise the bar on health-plan compliance in the HR department, which was able to avoid the constant involvement of corporate counsel. She knew how to comply with the law, helping reassure senior management at a time when intense media scrutiny created an anxious atmosphere.

The same scenario has applied to other intricate pieces of alphabet-soup-style employee-benefits law: the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act, which Tillman describes as "constantly evolving."

"Much of it isn't black and white," she says, pointing out all the gray areas.

But when the time comes for actual legal advice, she and her team simply call in her former colleagues in the legal department.

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