Part I: What should lawyers know about psychology?

Back in the day, one year of law school was sufficient to teach me that the law and our legal systems struggle mightily with issues of psychology: Too messy, too “subjective,” too touchy-feely. As a callow young man with a lot of growing up to do, I pretty much bought into that mindset.

But let’s fast-forward a bit: Over the past dozen years or so, I have come to regard psychology as one of the most important disciplines for understanding how our laws, legal systems, and the legal profession should operate. I have eagerly aligned myself with the therapeutic jurisprudence (“TJ”) movement, which encourages us to seek psychologically healthy outcomes in legal matters. As political writer and lawyer Mark Satin put it in a piece praising TJ, it’s “time for the U.S. justice system to become less mechanistic and more compassionate.”


Beyond that general embrace, however, what should lawyers know about psychology? I don’t think it’s necessary for lawyers to head back to school to pick up a psychology or counseling degree. But I do think some concentrated study, either independently or through some type of continuing education, would be helpful. Here are three specific examples:

Criminal law — As all too many recent tragedies have confirmed, our criminal justice system often must address mental health issues of defendants. The field of psychopathology — mental disorders and injuries — can lend valuable insights to prosecutors, defense counsel, and judges.

Employment law — The best employment lawyers combine legal expertise with a sound understanding of the dynamics of the workplace. The basics of organizational psychology can help employment lawyers provide legal counseling and advice grounded in the modern realities of employee relations.

Family law and trusts & estates law — Family lawyers and trusts & estates lawyers render assistance to clients during critical junctures of their lives. Understanding the psychology of lifespan development can make these attorneys more sensitive to their clients’ needs.

Client counseling, too

And there’s client counseling in general. These skills are much more likely to be emphasized in a social work program than in a law school, but after hearing endless stories from clients about lawyers’ poor “deskside manner,” I think that at least a dose of counseling psychology would benefit attorneys as well. The bulk of law school is spent on memorizing legal rules and principles and applying them to static sets of facts, and the human side of legal practice often is badly neglected.

Next up

In Part II, I’ll offer a short list of books that may prove helpful to lawyers and law students who want to incorporate psychological insights into their work.


Of possible interest

I’ve written two law review articles expressly built around ideas of therapeutic jurisprudence. They can be freely accessed here:

Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship (University of Memphis Law Review, 2010).

Employment Law as if People Mattered: Bringing Therapeutic Jurisprudence into the Workplace (Florida Coastal Law Review, 2010).


Follow-up post

For Part II of “What should lawyers know about psychology?,” a list of helpful books and other resources, go here.

3 responses

  1. One other place where the legal system MUST revisit their scope is domestic violence. Although the definition is broad enough to encompass psychological violence, only physical violence is an offense that produces any legal action. Physical wounds heal much sooner than the deeper more damaging psychological wounds. When will the legal system recognize this as a chargeable offense?

  2. I’m delighted to see this conversation, David. The Integrative Law Institute (ILI) just announced this week the launch of its new program to certify lawyers in integrative law. A substantial part of the continuing education involved in this certification translates emerging (and converging) areas of psychology into practical tools for practicing lawyers, mediators, and judicial officers: body/mind awareness practices, empathy, positive psychology, psycho-linguistics, behavioral neuro-economics, cognitive/behavioral/ social psychology and neuroscience, applied systems theory, reframing and other narrative approaches to conflict resolution, human needs theory, and more.

    One place where ILI is taking a leadership role is in teaching a systems-based self awareness about our work with colleagues and clients, focusing on how we ourselves as lawyers change the atmosphere and potentialities of every encounter simply by virtue of participating in it. The notion that we are purely rational actors who leave our own emotions, biases, and subjective selves out of the work we do can’t survive in the face of 21st century understandings of how the brain actually works, particularly under stress (which is the water we lawyers swim in every day).

    Much of the excellent work being done recently re bringing psychological awareness into legal practice focuses on the psychology of our clients, without addressing the elephant in the room: one of the strongest predictors of quality of process and outcome for our clients is the specific lawyer they happen to choose as counsel–not primarily because of intellectual capacities, but because of qualities of personality, behavior, and character that either calm or inflame conflict, and enhance or undermine possibilities for constructive resolution. ILI’s mission embraces educating both lawyers and the public to be far more knowledgeable about this aspect of the individual’s encounter with the legal system.

    I welcome inquiries about ILI’s continuing education and certification programs, and about joining our email list and subscribing to our blog.

  3. Pingback: Part I: What should lawyers know about psychology? « PerformanceVertical Perspectives

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