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
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Suite dreams: the JW Marriott in Venice
travelChic new hotels in 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
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

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect