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

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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'