Forensic Psychology

The field of psychology and law involves the application of scientific and professional aspects of psychology to questions and issues relating to law and the legal system. There are a number of specialties that psychologists may pursue within the larger area of psychology and law. This field encompasses contributions made in a number of different areas–research, clinical practice, public policy, and teaching/training among them–from a variety of orientations within the field of psychology, such as developmental, social, cognitive, and clinical.

While mental health professionals and behavioral scientists have been involved with the legal system in a variety of ways for many years, the decade of the 1970s witnessed the beginning of more formalized interactions. These interactions included the establishment of the first psychology-law program at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, the formation of the American Psychology-Law Society (now Division 41 of the American Psychological Association), the initiation of an interdisciplinary journal (Law and Human Behavior) and a book series (Perspectives in Law & Psychology). Additionally, the American Board of Forensic Psychology was established in 1978 for the credentialing of psychologists specializing in forensic issues.

Since that time the field has grown steadily, with an increased number of pre-doctoral and post-doctoral training programs, more journals and books devoted to psychology and law, the development of a specialized set of ethical guidelines for forensic psychologists, a regular conference held every March in addition to the annual summer meeting at the American Psychological Association convention, the involvement of psychologists in filing amicus briefs before the U.S. Supreme Court on issues relevant to psychology and law, and the presentation of a regular workshop series in clinical-forensic psychology by the American Academy of Forensic Psychology.




Clinical-Forensic Psychology

Clinical-forensic psychologists who are primarily interested in forensic practice may work in secure forensic units, community mental health centers providing specialized services, jails, prisons, court services units, specialized agencies, or in private practice conducting forensic assessment and treatment relevant to legal decision-making. They may also be involved in teaching, training, or supervision in a department of psychology, a medical school, a hospital, an interdisciplinary institute, or a clinic. Such professionals may also be involved in conducting research and scholarship in areas such as violence risk assessment, treatment needs and response, and decision-making strategies.

More information on the clinical-forensic psychology subspecialty.

Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive psychologists are trained primarily as researchers and teachers in the areas of human perception and memory, and tend to focus their research and consultation on such legally-relevant questions as eyewitness identification, the accuracy of memory, and the detection of deception. Their employment settings are typically university-based. Their research can be extremely important when courts must weigh testimony about events that may have occurred months or even years ago. Providing the results of such research to courts and legislators by summarizing the “state of science” on a given question is a task of some cognitive psychologists. Recently, cognitive psychologists have begun to work with law enforcement agencies to develop investigative procedures to enhance the likelihood of accurate memory and testimony about crimes and accidents.

More information on the cognitive psychology subspecialty.

Community Psychology

Community psychologists are likely to work in academia as well as out in the community. Community positions include working in government agencies, non-profit agencies, foundations, and community-based advocacy and service settings. For community psychologists who conduct law-related research, activities can span the range of policy and law formulation, implementation, evaluation, and change. For example, they might design and evaluate juvenile delinquency prevention and treatment programs, research adolescents’ competence to participate in legal proceedings, investigate the impact of court involvement on the functioning of crime victims, or evaluate the effects of health care and welfare reform.

More information on the community psychology subspecialty.


Developmental Psychology

Developmental psychologists also tend to work in academic, medical, and professional school settings. They often become involved in legally relevant research and consultation with children and adolescents. There are important questions regarding the testimony of children (accuracy and influences, for example), the knowledge and decision-making of adolescents involved in the juvenile justice system, and the needs of children and families involved in divorce or separation that are among the areas addressed by the research and consultation of developmental psychologists. In addition, such psychologists may become active in attempting to develop policy regarding children and families in the forms of federal and state legislation, or the implementation of such law on the community level.

More information on the developmental psychology subspecialty.

Social Psychology

Social psychologists are more likely to work in academic positions, such as psychology departments, medical schools, schools of criminal justice, or research and policy institutes. Frequently such individuals are very active in research, graduate training, and undergraduate teaching. They may also be involved in consulting with attorneys, courts, and agencies on issues relevant to their research in legal areas; examples include witness credibility, jury selection, and decision-making influences. Some non-university-based social psychologists work as consultants on a full-time basis, providing services to trial attorneys, while others may be employed by state or federal agencies (e.g. corrections, mental health) to conduct relevant research.

More information on the social psychology subspecialty.

Dual Degrees

Some psychologists receive more extensive training in law and obtain a J.D. (Juris Doctorate) or M.L.S. (Master of Legal Studies) in addition to their training in psychology. Such individuals may become involved in legal scholarship in areas of law relevant to the behavioral sciences, and may work in law schools as well as in other academic or applied settings described above. In addition to law teaching and scholarship, such individuals may become involved in psychological research or practice (depending on their specialization within psychology), or legal practice as an attorney.

Licensure and Certification

For psychologists who are primarily researchers, educators, consultants to courts, and policy-makers, licensure or certification is usually not necessary. While such licensure might occasionally enhance the credibility of a psychologist before an individual court, many psychological scientists do not need to obtain licensure or certification status as a psychologist. It is accurate to describe them as experts on the empirical evidence relevant to a specific question. It is not accurate to describe them as delivering a diagnostic or forensic assessment service on a given individual, which is more closely related to the kind of “health care” service for which a license would be important. However, psychological scientists need to be well trained in their basic area of specialization, as well as familiar with the law (particularly the applicable statutes, case law, rules of evidence, and general expectations in the legal context) in order to be effective in consultation and testimony. They must also be knowledgeable about the law when conducting their research, so they can design studies and use variables to address questions that are particularly important and relevant to the law.

For psychologists whose practice involves the delivery of forensic assessment or treatment services, several levels of training and licensure/certification are important. First, it is important that such individuals be trained in the delivery of applied services (e.g., clinical, counseling, or school psychology) to individuals, groups, and families. Second, it is necessary to be trained specifically in the delivery of forensic services; such training should involve supervised experience and didactic work, and should also incorporate information about the legal system, applicable law and procedures, and standards and guidelines for forensic practice. Third, such psychologists should become licensed in the jurisdictions in which they practice. Finally, for psychologists wishing to specialize in the area of clinical-forensic practice, especially those who did not receive specialized training in graduate school, it is helpful to become board certified by the American Board of Forensic Psychology, a specialty board of the American Board of Professional Psychology.

Salaries and Compensation

Salaries for psychologists can vary according to the setting and nature of the work. In academic settings, the salary for a beginning assistant professor in 2011 might initially be in the $50,000-$68,000 range in Departments of Psychology. Why the wide range? There are many complicating factors, including whether institutions are private or public, whether they offer doctoral degrees, masters degrees, or only bachelors degrees, whether they are located in states with strong economies, etc. But generally, salaries will be somewhat higher at large research-intensive universities as compared with smaller teaching-oriented colleges. Salaries in medical school settings are typically somewhat higher, as they are established in comparison with medical professionals. Medical school positions, however, are very often limited in terms of the “hard money” they pay, meaning that an individual joining a Department of Psychiatry as an assistant professor might be expected to “earn” between 50-100% of his or her salary by obtaining grants, contracts, or through clinical services income. Even in university and other interdisciplinary settings, however, there is growing pressure on psychologists to generate sources of salary support to repay the department or school. Note that many academic psychologists are on an institution’s payroll for only the academic year (9 or 10 months), and some supplement their income by paying themselves additional summer salary from research grants, private consulting, etc.

Salaries also vary in applied settings. Psychologists entering correctional settings will find striking differences between different systems. The median annual salary in the Federal prison system is about $50,900 for a masters-level position and about $85,000 for a doctoral-level psychologist. Salaries are likely to be slightly lower in a state correctional facility or local jail, although there can be a wide range of salary levels.

There is variability as well in starting salaries in hospitals and community agencies. Currently, a starting salary for a doctoral-level psychologist will be between $55,000 and $70,000 in most settings. Occasionally it may be less, particularly in more rural settings, and salaries may be greater in some states and urban settings. Some psychologists should expect to see their salaries increase at a rate roughly consistent with inflation (i.e., 3% a year), although this may not occur in universities or organizations experiencing financial difficulties. Generally a good rule of thumb is to determine the cost of living adjustments paid to staff of a particular organization during the last five years, in assessing the prospects for the next five.

Psychologists also have the advantage of being able to establish a part-time practice or consulting business in addition to working with an organization or at a university. For example, clinical psychologists might see patients or do evaluations for courts. Experimental cognitive or social psychologists might occasionally consult on legal cases and/or give expert testimony in court cases. Some organizations and most universities have rules governing this, so it is important to know whether this is permissible. Part-time private practice does allow a psychologist to earn income at an hourly rate consistent with that charged by others in the field and geographic area. Such rates may vary a good deal (e.g., between $150/hour and $400/hour). Obtaining work at private rates is typically dependent on the psychologist’s reputation, as well as the amount of private forensic work that is available in a given area.

For more information on salaries.


Employment Opportunities – Demand for Forensic Psychology

Forensic psychology, and the larger area of psychology and law, have both enjoyed steady growth during the last three decades. The field has not been affected by the changes in our health care system to nearly the same extent as the “fee for service” delivery of psychological services in other areas. Research, consultation, and practice in areas of psychology relevant to the law should continue to expand over the next ten years. It is important to note, however, that while the need for services has remained constant or expanded, there is increased effort within psychology to provide relevant training, important research, and guidelines for the practice that should mean that those specializing in this area will be among the highest in demand for the delivery of services to courts, attorneys, and law-makers.

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