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)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
tech

Company reveals $542m investment in start-up building 'a rocket ship for the mind'

News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004
music

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
football

News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album