Unlike more traditional consultants, who recommend policies to solve problems or strengthen operations, psychologists concentrate on helping a firm's members find their own solutions by decreasing conflict and increasing cooperation.
The psychologists' work can be very complementary to that of the traditional consultant, said Lawrence J. Richard, who formerly practiced law and is president of Lawgistics, a Philadelphia company that consults with law firms on interpersonal issues.
He cites the case of a firm in which the four partners could not agree on how much each should be paid despite having obtained reams of information on compensation formulas from a traditional management consultant.
They eventually turned to Richard, who says he knows nothing about compensation but does "understand some of the reasons why people can't agree."
The underlying issue, Richard determined, was one of fairness: whether some partners were doing more work than others, whether the firm unfairly valued some types of work more highly than other types, whether some partners' opinions were being ignored.
Once these issues had been talked out, the partners were able to reach an agreement, Richard says.
When times are good and work is flush, cash flow provides a sense of security that can make such disagreements seem trivial, says Mark Brenner, a psychologist and head of Delta Consultants in Wayne, whose clients include accounting, law and other professional service firms.
But when times are slow and keeping up revenues becomes a major concern, the natural tendency is to "keep score" on other members of the firm. Then, even minor lapses or differences in workstyle can become major irritants.
The idea of talking about feelings, relationships and conflicts within a firm isn't exactly trendy among the fact-oriented types who choose professional careers.
Professionals are "intellectual, achieving-type human beings who have clients who worship the ground they walk on. It's hard for them to admit there might be something wrong," said Leslie D. Corwin, a specialist in partnership law with the New York law firm of Morrison Cohen Singer & Weinstein.
Still, the idea that feelings can affect a firm's financial health is slowly gaining ground, even among pragmatic professionals.
One of those is Joe Harenza, a manager at Stevens & Lee, a 70-lawyer firm with offices in four locations, including King of Prussia.
Harenza, who can be as gruff as the next guy, comes perilously close to psycho-babble in describing the reasons his firm used Brenner: "enhancing partner effectiveness."
"The law is confrontational, and we have a stressful practice" in corporate law, he said. "If you work long hours in a confrontational setting, your wife is saying you ought to be at home, or you're going through a divorce, sometimes you get sidetracked," Harenza said.
Brenner helps the individual understand his problems and how to cope with them, Harenza says. Brenner also helps other members of the firm understand how they can help their colleague get through the rough months and continue to be a contributing firm member.
As the Stevens & Lee experience illustrates, not all firms wait until they are falling apart to seek counseling. Some well-functioning organizations see it as a preventive measure, a way to assure that the strains of growth, economic downturn or personal problems are dealt with before they can wreak havoc.
At Corwin's firm, for example, Boston psychoanalyst Edward Shapiro was retained to help create a smoothly functioning operation from the merger of three smaller firms.
The issues raised by the merger "weren't monumental or profound," said partner Deborah E. Lans, but were the kind of petty aggravation that could mushroom and cause problems if left untended.
For example, Lans said, in the smaller firms all partners had a hand in everything that went on, down to the ordering of office supplies. The merged firm was too big to work that way; Shapiro helped the partners understand that they had to let go of some of that control.
Perlberger Law Associates, a small, two-year-old Bala Cynwyd firm, even has a trained therapist on its staff.
"If there are personnel issues - people not getting along, a boss being too hard on a secretary, a secretary being too aggressive in her approach to other secretaries - those kinds of issues can be very destructive to a firm," said Norman Perlberger, managing attorney. The job of mediating those conflicts and irritations falls to psychologist Diane Strausser. Strausser, who holds the title of human resources adminstrator, also fills other roles within the firm, including that of counselor to divorce clients.
But many firms don't admit they need help until crisis hits - and crisis has been an all-too-familiar scenario in the law and accounting professions in recent years.
Some law firms were pushed against the wall when the bottom dropped out of two lucrative businesses, real estate, and mergers and acquisitions. To compensate, some firm managers have pressured lawyers to maintain or even increase their rate of "billable hours," those in the business say.
As a result, many lawyers are under severe stress. An American Bar Association survey last year showed substantial increases in both job dissatisfaction and drinking since 1984. Last year, only 33 percent said they were very satisfied with their jobs, down from 41 percent in 1984. A possibly related finding: 11 percent of male lawyers and 20 percent of female lawyers say they have six or more drinks a day. In 1984, so few reported drinking that much that the ABA says the statistic is probably unreliable.
In both accounting and law, the drive to keep businesses growing has produced a spate of ill-conceived, poorly executed mergers, a number of which have gone down in flames.
Laventhol & Horwath, an international accounting firm based in Philadelphia, was forced to shut down and file for bankruptcy court protection last fall in the face of numerous client suits alleging negligence and fraud.
Its biggest problem, says Corwin, was that the company failed to integrate properly a series of acquisitions.
Laventhol has plenty of company in the courts. Accounting firms are defendants in at least 16 lawsuits that implicate them in the demise of a number of savings and loan associations, according to court records.
Suits and bankruptcies, however, are only the most visible indicators of the strains that people like Corwin say might be avoided if only partners had paid some attention to talking with each other.
Corwin says he represents "probably a dozen partners" in law firms that are breaking up because the partners can't agree on such basic issues as how the partners will divide the firm's profits.
Consultants say professional service firms are particularly vulnerable to problems caused by personal disagreements because they are generally set up to run like partnerships - which tend to operate more like associations of equals -even if they are incorporated. Because the power to make a decision is usually shared, festering disagreements can pose a serious threat to the firm's continued existence.
Not that consultants can always resolve such problems.
"Once you get to the crisis stage, it's not uncommon for a firm to be heading for a breakup," says Richard. "The only question is will it be bitter, explosive and harmful to all concerned, or can some benefits emerge out of it?"
Of course, success isn't guaranteed, even with intervention well before the crisis stage.
Change is very difficult for people, and many find it a daunting task even with a lot of help and support, says Jean R. Haskell, a human resources consultant and head of Haskell Associates in Philadelphia.
Haskell, who is often hired to teach effective management techniques, recalls working with one man who frequently yelled at others. After working with her, he moderated his outbursts somewhat, but he eventually left his employer because the new behavior was uncomfortable for him.
Those who use consulting psychologists aren't always convinced of their value. An accounting firm that was pleased with Brenner's success in helping some members become more productive is still debating whether to hire him to work with the entire firm to create a greater sense of teamwork and cohesion.
The partners' hesitation stems from the cost and the uncertainty about the outcome, said one member of the firm.
But proponents of counseling view it almost as a necessary strategy to ensure the health of their organizations.
"I think it builds loyalty if the whole operation is deemed to be humane," said Harenza of Stevens & Lee. "Two or three years from now, I might be struggling, and I'd hope the partners would work with me and not boot me out on the street.
"And if you get everyone pulling together like that, I think, long term, it enhances profitability."