Law Firm Psychological Contract

psychological contract with staff

It’s a contract but not as we know it…

There’s something lurking beneath the surface of every employer/employee relationship. It’s the agreement you never knew you made, that you can never read, and when someone leaves the organisation were probably never told was broken.

Psychologists refer to this as the “Psychological contract” with your staff. It is made up of everything you said at their interviews, their experience in the reception waiting to see you, garnered from reading your website and marketing material, your twitter updates and the employment contract itself.

It is fragile, easily damaged and broken, death by a thousand cuts if you like.

We may not even be aware of it ourselves. Problems with the psychological contract may manifest as a gut feeling that “this firm just isn’t for me anymore”.

There is a common saying that staff join a company and leave their line manager. There’s a reason for that. The custodian of the psychological contract is the line manager. The person or people in seniority that you have the most contact with. Problems start when your reality is misaligned with the psychological contract in place. If you talked about career and training prospects in the interview, yes, this is now written into the psychological contract.



Trust is always at the core of the psychological contract. If your new employee didn’t trust the organisation they probably would not have taken the job. This aspect of trust makes it both powerful and fragile at the same time. Small things can damage it, a forgotten promise, a missed meeting, the hurried dismissal of an idea, an achievement overlooked, a desert of feedback and recognition. This is the human psychology aspect of our working life, which transcends the need to pay bills or to further our career economically. At the heart of it we are all still human, and no matter how senior, all driven by the same core motivators of autonomy, mastery and purpose we discussed in my previous article.

Nurturing this psychological contract and protecting it from shocks whilst performing the job of management is a complex skill indeed. A responsibility which we may not even be aware of, or totally unprepared for, as new managers.


Two tips for managing people

Two key ideas have helped me become a better people manager over the years.

Firstly, assume nothing. I am constantly surprised by how others can interpret the same piece of information, misunderstand emails, or just use a completely different lens for the world. Being aware of the psychological contract is a good first step to having better conversations. Asking open questions about a team’s expectations or motivations can be very revealing.

Secondly, and this takes practice, framing change with one eye on the three stars of motivation (Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose).

If you or the firm wants to introduce a change of some kind, how can you organise and communicate that change to tap into and boost your team’s personal and long-term motivators?

The obvious answers are not usually it and often revolve around what is good for the firm and not necessarily good for the individual. Here’s another clue, you won’t ever see money on this list. It takes more refinement and digging to really tap into these long-term motivators, but when you do, prepare to see engagement with that change skyrocket. I’ll write another article covering the detail and results from my Master’s research on this subject soon.


Applying this in practice

Next time you call ahead to cancel that informal chat with a staff member, put back a meeting date (again!) or rush from the office to another appointment without asking how your team have fared that day, spare a thought for that hidden and fragile contract. It’s often the seemingly small daily interactions that strengthen or damage it.


Pauline Freegard MBA, Verdigris Consulting


Verdigris Consulting is led by Pauline Freegard MBA, a business and technology consultant with 20 years of experience working with UK law firms. Pauline offers a unique knowledge base in legal technology (PMS/CMS/DMS and HR systems, IT hosting) combined with management of large technical, training and project teams, an extensive sales and marketing track record, and experience from holding several broad-remit board-level roles.

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