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What Makes a Good Privacy Professional?

For companies striving to maintain compliance with myriad global data protection and privacy rules, and keeping up with future developments, the privacy professional is key. Increasingly companies seem to think that they have to hire qualified lawyers to fulfil this role, but is that really the case?

Most privacy roles require someone who can advise on the rules and their application in practice. So do you want a lawyer who just advises on the interpretation on the law and leaves decision making on privacy and subsequent implementation to the business? Or do you want a practitioner who can drive the privacy programme from the ground up, making key decisions and delivering privacy effectively across the business?

Whether a lawyer or not, an effective privacy professional is someone who can make decisions, understand business priorities and limitations, deliver training, assist with risk assessment and project manage: in short, develop and run the privacy programme. The privacy professional has to take a strategic view as well as firefight daily. They have to plan for the medium and long-term but also react quickly to changing demands and deadlines. They are unlikely to also be experts in employment law, coding, firewalls or liability caps so they need to be able to successfully co-operate with, and use the expertise of, all facets of the business. And speak their language—whether marketing, IT, legal, audit, risk management or business development.

Privacy professionals also need to be leaders. They have to be able to explain to and influence the senior management to get buy-in for projects, resources and changes to process, policy or even culture. They have to champion privacy and compliance among the business, often globally, and both lead and support other compliance staff or business champions. They need to be visible, personable and available to all staff: a source of advice and expertise, and a business enabler.

In some companies the privacy role is one person; in others there is a team, but either way companies demand a lot of their privacy professionals in terms of multi-skills and multi-tasking.

Many companies also want their privacy staff to represent them externally—tasks such as speaking at events, taking part in industry and other initiatives and liaising with regulators to name but a few. This requires public speaking skills, presentation skills, diplomacy and the ability to think on your feet. It may also require knowledge of other languages. In some companies the privacy role is one person; in others there is a team, but either way companies demand a lot of their privacy professionals in terms of multi-skills and multi-tasking.

On this basis it is hard to understand why, when faced with recruitment, many companies think that only a lawyer can do the job. It is true that most companies will need contracts drafted, as well as litigation expertise. But most companies already have a legal department with qualified lawyers to fulfil these roles across the business, not just in privacy. So it is not an ‘either, or’: the privacy professional has to work as closely with legal as with other parts of the business. As with non-lawyers in other compliance or business roles, a privacy professional can, where appropriate, supplement their own understanding with privacy-related legal advice from a lawyer (just as in-house privacy lawyers might sometimes consult an external privacy counsel).

Different corporate structures mean privacy professionals sometimes sit in departments such as legal, IT and HR. However, increasingly companies are recognising the value of putting their compliance functions together and including privacy in this group, which seems a more natural home. As part of compliance the privacy professional is able to advise all aspects of the business and run privacy programmes, while liaising with training, audit, HR, legal and other functions in a neutral capacity.

My own view is that the right skills and abilities are crucial. Knowing the law is just one aspect; applying it in practice and delivering a successful privacy programme is the challenge, and most privacy professionals I know (whether lawyers or not) are still learning, even after years in the role. The rise of IAPP globally with its privacy qualifications, networking and events is testament to the desire and need for learning, networking and sharing good practice among privacy professionals both ‘new’ and ‘old hands’.

The privacy profession is growing, and we are a varied and interesting family from all backgrounds, styles and experiences. We should be developing our profession, being inclusive and willing to learn from those with different experiences to ours. It would be a great shame if hiring managers excluded highly qualified candidates on the basis of no law degree, and caused our family instead to get smaller and less diverse.

So this is a call to all those companies out there who want to recruit good privacy professionals. Look at what you really need that role to be and do; get the skills you need, and stop obsessing over legal qualifications! Legal qualifications should be seen as a bonus to the skills and abilities described above, not a pre-requisite for the role.  Use your existing privacy staff to guide and help you—they know what is needed, so trust them.

Written By

Emma Butler, CIPP/E


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  • Flora Egea Dec 10, 2013

    Hi Emma, very interesting article indeed. I totally agree with your approach, as being a Lawyer should not have to be a pre-requisite for the position of DPO at all, however I am a Lawyer :-) Of course, what a good Data Privacy professional requires is a balance of the skills mentioned in your article, that is the real key. And by the way, I still need to reach some of them, I hope in the near future, ha, ha, ha.
    Thanks a lot and regards.
  • jairo Dec 10, 2013

    hola soy jairo participa
  • Cheryl Canfield Dec 10, 2013

    Thank you for the article, especially the points about having to work cooperatively with other areas of expertise, being a resource and an agent for change. I am not an attorney and worked in compliance for over fifteen years. My  experience has revealed that my effectiveness as a privacy professional is strongly linked to being able lead change, being a contact for information and having the ability to forge relationships and trust with departments and clinical units. If staff don't feel comfortable asking questions or reporting incidences, the privacy program is limited. As for continuously needing to learn, that is the best part of the job! 
  • Bernard Woo Dec 13, 2013

    Emma, thank you for the article. Having worked now in privacy for close to 10 years, across both public and private sectors and in different industries, I can certainly echo your points about the skills required of a privacy professional. It is great to have fellow pro's like you offer your insight into the skills required in our profession which hopefully will lead decisions maker to realize that privacy need not be treated as simply a legal compliance issue. Thanks!
  • Hugo Brown Dec 20, 2013

    Thank you Emma, a great article. I have many years of data protection recruitment experience and I am enjoying watching the market grow and development, creating new opportunities for both the experienced and for people relatively new to the subject matter. Certainty in recent years the question “should this role be filled with a lawyer?” crops up many times, if not most of the time. With senior level DP recruitment processes the legal department will normally be involved this often leads to the decision that they probably do need a lawyer, I would say that in most cases they don’t need a lawyer and they have  quite often ruled out the best candidates because of that decision. I 100% agree with all of Emma’s point about the data privacy officer, being a lawyer is in no way essential. 
  • Chris Zoladz Dec 23, 2013

    Well put Emma.
  • Jim McNeill May 31, 2014

    A thoughtful article that I have returned to today from a recent comment by Emma on LinkedIn. I'm an IT manager rolling out a Data Protection program along with the group solicitor, and we contribute definite and different skills to the program. I rely on the solicitor's definitive judgements based on his deep and wide knowledge of legislation, and I like to think I play my part in terms of project and change management - there's a lot to do on a privacy rollout in terms of teaching and persuasion that's just like a system rollout!


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