Law: The appliance of science: Can organisational psychology help firms through recession? Paula Nicholson reports

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The Independent Online
Many legal firms are now paying the price for the rapid expansion of the Eighties. According to a recent Coopers & Lybrand survey, more than 250 will not survive the recession, which means many solicitors are either facing redundancy and curtailed career expectations, or considering ways to expand their skills.

Catherine Berney, an international finance solicitor turned organisational psychologist, is making this her business. She has set up Catherine Berney Associates to offer redundancy and careers counselling. 'Solicitors are traditionally competitive individuals, used to working in isolation and intent on achieving a partnership,' she says. 'In the current climate, many talented people need to accept that they will not reach their professional goals.'

It is not only individual solicitors, however, who have to reconsider their approach to these problems. Law firms need to examine their human resources management records to ensure that they are not wasting human or financial assets, Ms Berney says.

Psychologists are able to apply science to this process through the use of psychological testing to select and recruit staff. 'This means the end of the 'old boy network', as only the most capable will be appointed,' she says.

Ms Berney confidently predicts that the flourishing legal business of the future will take human resource management seriously as a basic professional skill. Any casualties, she is convinced, will occur in those practices with old-

fashioned and inflexible senior people.

'While it is accepted that individual firms employ excellent legal staff, there is increasing recognition that solicitors need training in communication skills to equip them for economic survival in the contemporary market-place,' she says. Clients are now demanding greater commitment and flexibility from law firms.

The legal world has changed, Ms Berney believes. Now, alongside expertise, lawyers have to demonstrate competence in listening and flexibility. Inspired by her own interest in 'inter-personal communication', and the Law Society's initiative on continuing education, she hopes to persuade the legal community that it needs to take this message seriously.

'Partnerships need people with both legal credentials and expertise in human relations,' she says. 'Personnel departments have traditionally handled the bureaucratic side of hiring and firing, but they have not been involved in dealing with low staff morale or organisational friction.'

Solicitors need to include these activities in their own professional repertoires. Firms that choose to employ a management guru to train their staff are likely to be disappointed, because, she says: 'They don't speak the language of the legal profession.'

She believes that her own background - six years with the Dublin law practice McCann Fitzgerald and two with the City firm Linklaters & Paines - will give lawyers confidence that she understands their pressures. 'To a lawyer, a psychologist means a shrink, but I persuade them otherwise,' she says.

Ms Berney, whose recent one-year training in organisational psychology allows her to apply for membership of the British Psychological Society, already feels competent to offer training programmes in team building, appraisal and recruitment techniques, as well as being prepared to step in on a consultancy basis to make recommendations about staff communication, career development and marketing strategies.

'There is no point in sending someone to an expensive conference if they miss the opportunity to advertise their firm at the cocktail party because they lack basic communication skills,' Ms Berney says. She achieves her aims through a mixture of didactic techniques, role play, discussion, and standardised personality or aptitude tests.

How far organisational psychology can fend off the ultimate consequences of competition during recession is debatable. Effective team building, communication networks and enhanced staff morale may influence career decisions of secondary staff, but they cannot compensate ambitious solicitors for the loss of the partnership carrot.

Ms Berney hopes firms will adopt the 'investors in people approach', but this will not help them to retain solicitors striving to reach the top. In the current climate, when organisations as diverse as universities and the media are competing to hire marketable staff, it is questionable whether a firm's reputation for listening will entice either the best solicitors or the most valuable clients.

Dr Paula Nicholson is a lecturer in psychology at the University of Sheffield.

(Photograph omitted)