The Teaching, Training, and Careers Committee of the American Psychology – Law Society (AP-LS: Division 41 of the American Psychological Association) has compiled information about the types of careers that are available to those interested in psychology and law. This article summarizes the types of subspecialties available to those interested in careers in psychology and law.
Overview of Psychology and Law
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, including 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). Since then 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 Convention of the American Psychological Association, 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.
Subspecialties in Psychology and Law
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.
Developmental psychologistsalso tend to be based in academic, medical, and pro
fessional 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.
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.
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.
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.
Finally, some psychologists receive more extensive training in law and obtain a JD (Juris Doctorate) or MLS (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.
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