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American Psychology-Law Society. (2020, August 7). Careers in psychology and law. American Psychological Association.

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 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 psychologists also tend to be based 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.

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.

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 tends to be with individuals, and 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, 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 2005 might initially be in the $40,000-$58,000 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 percent 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 was $40,900 in 2002. 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. Privately owned facilities compensate at much lower rates (e.g., in 2002, the median annual salary was $21,390). There may also be discrepancies according to the level of training; some correctional facilities will seek to hire masters-level psychologists at salaries that may begin between $25,000 - $30,000 rather than doctoral-level psychologists, to whom they might be expected to pay about $10,000 more.

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 $35,000 and $40,000 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 percent 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 $100/hour and $300/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, please go to the Bureau of Labor Statistics website.

Employment Opportunities and Demand for the Specialty

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.

Psychology and law has also grown steadily within academic areas. Although some programs are specifically devoted to this specialty, it is more common to find faculties with one or two members who are interested in some aspect of psychology and law (see Graduate Programs in Psychology and Law for a listing of specialty programs). It is likely that the availability of these kinds of positions will be subject to other influences (such as the availability of faculty positions generally), but such availability should compare favorably with most other specialties.

Clinical and Forensic Psychology

Broadly conceived, clinical psychology is concerned with the assessment and treatment of persons with mental disorders. Clinical psychologists assess and treat persons with a variety of mental disorders, ranging from less severe problems (e.g., marital difficulties, adjustment problems) to more severe disorders (e.g., psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia or mood disorders such as major depression or bipolar disorder). Clinical-forensic psychologists are clinical psychologists who specialize in the assessment and/or treatment of persons who, in some way, are involved in the legal process or legal system.

Clinical-forensic psychologists are employed in a variety of settings including state forensic hospitals, court clinics, mental health centers, jails, prisons, and juvenile treatment centers. Clinical-forensic psychologists can also work independently in private practice, although it is rare that a psychologist in private practice solely does forensic work. Finally, some clinical-forensic psychologists are employed primarily as researchers in university or mental health settings, conducting research in this interesting area.

Clinical-forensic psychologists are perhaps best known for their assessment of persons involved with the legal system. Because of their knowledge of human behavior, abnormal psychology, and psychological assessment, psychologists are sometimes asked by the courts to evaluate a person and provide the court with an "expert opinion," either in the form of a report or testimony. For example, clinical-forensic psychologists frequently evaluate adult criminal defendants or children involved in the juvenile justice system, offering the court information that might be relevant to determining (1) whether the defendant has a mental disorder that prevents him or her from going to trial, (2) what the defendant's mental state may have been like at the time of the criminal offense, or (3) what treatment might be indicated for a particular defendant who has been convicted of a crime or juvenile offense. Increasingly, clinical-forensic psychologists are being called upon to evaluate defendants who have gone to trial and who have been found guilty and for whom one of the sentencing options is the death penalty. In this case, psychologists are asked to evaluate the mitigating circumstances of the case and to testify about these as they relate to the particular defendant.

Clinical-forensic psychologists also evaluate persons in civil (i.e., non-criminal) cases. These psychologists may evaluate persons who are undergoing guardianship proceedings, to assist the court in determining whether the person has a mental disorder that affects his or her ability to make important life decisions (e.g., managing money, making health care decisions, making legal decisions). Clinical-forensic psychologists also evaluate persons who are plaintiffs in lawsuits, who allege that they were emotionally harmed as a result of someone's wrongdoing or negligence. Clinical-forensic psychologists may evaluate children and their parents in cases of divorce, when parents cannot agree about the custody of their children and what is best for them. Clinical-forensic psychologists are sometimes called on to evaluate children to determine whether they have been abused or neglected and the effects of such abuse or neglect, and offer the court recommendations regarding the placement of such children.

In addition to forensic assessment, clinical-forensic psychologists are also involved in treating persons who are involved with the legal system in some capacity. Jails, prisons, and juvenile facilities employ clinical psychologists to assess and treat adults and juveniles who are either awaiting trial, or who have been adjudicated and are serving a sentence of some type. Treatment in these settings is focused both on mental disorders and providing these persons with skills and behaviors that will decrease the likelihood that they will re-offend in the future. Clinical-forensic psychologists employed in mental health centers or in private practice may also treat persons involved in the legal system, providing either general or specialized treatment (e.g., treatment of sex offenders, treatment of violent or abusive persons, treatment of abuse victims).

Researchers in this area are involved in a variety of activities. Some devote their energy to developing and examining the utility of specialized tests that are designed to assist in assessment of persons in legal settings (e.g., instruments designed to assess criminal defendants' capacity to participate in the criminal justice process). Others examine the effectiveness of various treatments with different kinds of populations (e.g., efficacy of specialized treatment for sex offenders or batterers). Still others study the impact of abuse or victimization, or the factors that put people at risk for violent behavior, criminal behavior or victimization.

Educational and Training Requirements
As is the case with clinical psychology more generally, a doctoral degree (i.e., PhD/PsyD) in clinical psychology and licensure as a psychologist is typically considered necessary for independent practice of clinical-forensic psychology. Persons with masters (MA or MS) degrees in clinical psychology are typically able to obtain employment in institutions, where they work under the supervision of a PhD or PsyD psychologist. Students wishing to practice independently should consider a PhD or PsyD in clinical psychology necessary, which typically involves 4 years of graduate study, followed by a 1 year internship.

Few PhD or PsyD programs offer specialty training in clinical-forensic psychology. Indeed, most clinical-forensic psychologists are graduates of general clinical psychology programs who developed their specialty later in their training, either on internship, by way of completing a forensic fellowship, or by independent and continuing education study. Students interested in becoming clinical-forensic psychologists should consider a clinical PhD or PsyD program which offers a forensic specialization (see APLS Predoctoral Internship Guide) or enter a clinical doctoral program which houses a faculty member whose research and clinical interests are in the clinical-forensic area. Additional and more specialized training will occur at the internship and fellowship levels. As is the case with all graduate programs, admissions are competitive, and students are likely to maximize their chances of admission by obtaining high scores, good grades, research experience, and a sound foundation in psychology and the scientific method. Students who are leaning towards clinical practice should consider PsyD programs while those who might like to conduct research should focus on PhD programs.

A Note About Criminal Profiling
Due to depictions in popular media (e.g., Silence of the Lambs, Profiler, CSI), many students express an interest in and ask questions about criminal profiling, which may be described as a criminal investigative technique based, in part, on psychological expertise and knowledge. In reality, few law enforcement agencies employ such techniques and there is little call for such professionals. Those interested in such work would probably do better to consider a career in law enforcement than clinical-forensic psychology.

The Behavioral Sciences Unit of the FBI, does employ a few FBI agents who engage in this activity. The FBI makes a distinction between mental health and law enforcement: FBI agents are law enforcement professionals, not mental health professionals. In order to work as a profiler, or with the FBI in any other role, it is necessary to become an FBI agent. Experience in criminal investigation is needed before an agent can even be considered for a profiling position, but only a small number of agents ever become profilers. Since this would be a difficult goal to achieve, the FBI encourages prospective applicants who are interested in being special agents to do so because they are interested in the range of opportunities available with the FBI, not because they want to be a profiler. Further information is available from their office in Washington, D.C. or through their website.

Developmental Psychology

Developmental psychology focuses on the psychological issues involved in human development across the lifespan. The psychological processes of interest to developmental psychologists include social, personality, cognitive, and neuropsychological development. Some developmental psychologists are interested in understanding developmental processes in young children whereas others work in the area of adolescent or adult development.

Many developmental psychologists are interested in the law and the legal process and a significant body of psychological knowledge with direct relevance to juvenile, family, and elder law issues now exists. Most developmental psychologists interested in the law are employed in colleges and universities where they teach and conduct research. Others are employed by governmental agencies, private foundations, or non-profit organizations. These settings typically involve some combination of advocacy and policy formulation and analysis. Still others work as independent consultants or less frequently, in private practices. On occasion, developmental psychologists may be asked to offer expert opinions in court but typically this testimony will concern general issues related to development and will not focus on assessment of a given individual. Developmental psychologists in the law differ from clinical-forensic psychologists in that the former are more likely to conduct research and formulate and evaluate policy, whereas the latter are more likely to assess and treat people who are involved in the legal system.

The range of activities in developmental psychology and law is broad. Traditional areas of inquiry have involved the welfare of children in a variety of legally relevant situations involving child maltreatment, divorce and custody, medical and mental health treatment, child welfare, juvenile delinquency, and education, among others. Rather than assess and treat individual children, however, developmental psychologists may formulate and test theories about the effects of divorce and joint custody on children, the effects of restrictive environments on adolescent development, or long-term effects of physical, sexual, or emotional child abuse on adult functioning.

An important issue in both children's law and elder law is competence. Trial judges, appellate courts, legislators and policy writers make assumptions about the competence of children, adolescents and older individuals that are amenable to scrutiny by scientific research. For example, a thorny question in many cases involving children and adolescents is the degree to which they should be permitted to make binding decisions on matters involving their own welfare (e.g., to seek guidance counseling, to seek an abortion, to refuse or accept medical treatment, to state which parent they prefer for custody, to choose not to attend school) and the psychological capacities required for these decisions. A question of concern in juvenile and criminal cases involving juvenile offenders is the extent to which they understand the legal proceedings, the Constitutional protections to which they are entitled, and the implications of various resolutions of their cases. A difficult issue in many cases involving elderly individuals is the extent to which they are capable of conducting their own financial and personal affairs and whether a guardian should be appointed to assume these duties. The notions of consent and related capacities--the issues at the heart of all of these examples--have long been of interest to developmental psychologists and a great deal of research now exists on these topics.

Another area of intense interest to developmental psychologists involves children in court--either as witnesses or victims of crime. Here, two concerns typically surface. The first is the child's right not to be traumatized or abused by the legal system. A significant barrier to prosecuting defendants in child sexual abuse cases is posed by the concern about causing the child further distress. Some states now allow a child's testimony to be videotaped for later display in the courtroom. Recent research has been undertaken to understand the effects on children of testifying. A second concern focuses on the accuracy of children as witnesses in court. Can children distinguish fact from fantasy? At what age do children understand what it means to tell the truth? Do children make things up? Despite some widely publicized cases involving false accusations, a number of studies suggest that children only rarely make up detailed memories of completely non-existent events. On the other hand, young children can be highly suggestible, especially in response to leading or repetitive questioning. A long history of research on memory development, suggestibility, semantics, and social demand characteristics is relevant to this issue.

Many developmental psychologists are interested in studying the juvenile justice system and, in particular, some of the nontraditional methods for dealing with delinquent adolescents known as diversion programs. Developmental psychologists have also developed, implemented, and evaluated interventions designed to prevent or treat delinquent behavior. Although most states have revised and tightened their juvenile codes in the recent past to emphasize more punitive responses to juvenile crime, meta-analytic research demonstrates that some rehabilitative interventions can reduce recidivism, even among violent youth.

Educational and Training Requirements

Developmental psychologists who work on legally-relevant topics have typically been trained in traditional developmental psychology graduate programs, although some have attended formal psychology and law graduate programs that offer a developmental emphasis. During the course of graduate school they have worked with a faculty member with interests in the law or have developed those interests independently. Some students work with state or local courts, policymakers, or advocacy organizations on research and policy issues. On occasion, they may acquire a law-related interest during post-doctoral training, although such specialized training is not required for employment. There is no internship or licensure requirement.

Developmental psychologists who work in the legal arena may or may not have formal legal training. Although some knowledge of the law will result in more legally sophisticated research and advocacy, formal legal training is certainly not a requirement. In fact, many of these professionals tend to learn about the law by immersing themselves in psychological work that is related to law and legal processes or collaborating with legal or public policy scholars. Employment at colleges and universities and high-level administrative positions in various agencies and organizations require a PhD degree but individuals with masters' level degrees (MA or MS) can also work in the private and public sectors, although job opportunities may be limited.

Social and Cognitive Psychology

Social psychology concerns the impact of social influences on human behavior. Social psychologists typically explain behavior in terms of situational factors, rather than dispositional factors. Cognitive psychology focuses on how humans think, reason, and remember. Cognitive psychologists are interested in understanding the influences on thoughts and thought processes. Although these fields are distinct sub-disciplines of psychology, and students are traditionally trained in one or another, we combine them in this description because there is considerable overlap in their application to the law. For example, one legal topic that has interested both social and cognitive psychologists is the psychology of the jury. This institution can be analyzed by a social psychologist as a collection of individuals who must listen to, persuade, discuss, and perhaps compromise with each other. That same institution can be examined by a cognitive psychologist as a medium for understanding both individual and group memory processes, decision making abilities, and problem solving skills.

Like developmental psychologists, most social and cognitive psychologists with legal interests are employed by colleges and universities where they teach and conduct research. Less frequently, they are employed by governmental agencies, private foundations, or non-profit organizations doing some combination of advocacy and policy formulation and analysis. Still other social and cognitive psychologists may be involved with the law as independent consultants. Some individuals who offer trial consulting services have been trained in traditional programs in social or cognitive psychology, for example. Any of these psychologists may be asked on occasion to offer expert opinions in court on issues related to social behaviors or thought processes.

Many social and cognitive psychologists have become increasingly interested in conducting scientific research. One setting--the courtroom--has captured the attention of both social and cognitive psychologists because it provides a rich laboratory for psychological inquiry. In addition to questions related to jury decision making, a myriad of other issues related to the adversary system can be addressed by careful psychological research: judges' decision making capacities and the determinants of their sentences; criminal defendants' willingness to accept plea bargains, civil litigants' attempts at negotiation and settlement; the effectiveness of alternatives to trial (e.g., mediation, arbitration); litigants' beliefs about the justness and correctness of the legal proceedings; individuals' propensity to sue; and the specter of litigation affecting professional and personal relationships. Psychologists who work on these topics apply social and/or cognitive psychological theorizing to these complex legal questions. Not only has this work helped to refine psychological theory, it has also opened (if only a little) the historically closed doors of the courthouse and the state house to scientific scrutiny.

Although psychologists' interest in the veracity of testimony can be traced back to early in the 20th century, much recent work has concerned the memory capabilities of victims and witnesses to crimes and accidents. Research on these questions has its foundation in basic theorizing about human perception and memory, and psychologists who work on these issues typically have a firm grounding in those theoretical realms. Recent studies have focused on factors that influence the reliability of human memories for complex, fast-moving, and fear-arousing incidents. A related topic that has generated both a great deal of interest and considerable contentiousness is the reliability of repressed memories. Cognitive psychologists occasionally testify about the results of these studies as expert witnesses in trials that involve eyewitness testimony or repressed memories. The contentiousness often concerns the extent to which research findings can be applied to real-world situations.

A number of other issues have captured the attention of social psychologists who apply their knowledge of psychology to the law. Among these topics are regulatory compliance, discrimination, race and ethnicity, and sexual harassment and sexual assault. Other topics of interest to cognitive psychologists include investigative interviewing, psycholinguistic analysis of judicial language, and probabilistic reasoning and decision making about complex scientific and statistical information. Data on these topics and similar others are generated by scientific methodologies and are then disseminated to the legal community by way of advocacy, expert testimony, description in appellate briefs, or via publication or presentation to legal audiences.

Educational and Training Requirements
Social and cognitive psychologists who work on law-related topics are typically trained in traditional social or cognitive psychology graduate programs that may or may not have a special focus on the law. These students often work with a faculty member who has law-related interests. Some recently-developed programs offer psychology and law as a minor and a few others elevate the program to a status comparable to more traditional areas of psychology. On occasion, a student who has received traditional graduate training in social or cognitive psychology and who wishes to move in the direction of psychology and law can do so during post-doctoral training, although such training is not necessary. Social and cognitive psychologists are not required to complete an internship and are not licensed.

Social and cognitive psychologists who work in the legal arena may or may not have formal legal training. Although some knowledge of the law will result in more legally sophisticated research and advocacy, formal legal training is certainly not a requirement. In fact, many of these professionals tend to learn about the law by immersing themselves in psychological work that is related to law and legal processes. The PhD degree is required for employment at most colleges and universities and for some administrative positions in agencies. Students who opt for a master's degree may have some difficulty finding a research position although they may have more luck in the advocacy and policy realms.

Community Psychology

Community psychology focuses on the processes that link social systems and contexts with individual behavior with explicit attention to promoting health and empowerment and preventing problems in communities, groups, and individuals. Although community and social psychology share interest in the person and environment, community psychology orients more toward the social forces in the outside world and how they affect individuals, families, and communities. For some community psychologists interested in social change, the law represents the social institution that reflects and promotes the values and norms of a community, serving as both facilitator and barrier to social change efforts.

Like other psychologists, many community psychologists interested in psychology and law teach and conduct research in higher education settings. Unlike other areas of psychology, however, a number of community psychologists work outside academia in governmental agencies (e.g., General Accounting Office, state health and human services agencies), non-profit organizations (e.g., domestic violence shelter, child advocacy group), foundations, or other community-based advocacy and service settings.


The community psychology approach uses an ecological perspective to examine issues at the individual, social system, societal and global levels. For example, a psychologist interested in juvenile delinquency prevention could investigate individual characteristics and circumstances (e.g., mental health problems), family dynamics (e.g., conflict and parenting skills), neighborhood parameters (e.g., social support systems), economic influences (e.g., stresses of poverty) and larger societal norms (e.g., emphasis on materialism). For community psychologists in academic and applied settings, activities 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.

Educational and Training Requirements

Community psychologists working in law-related areas are typically trained in community psychology graduate programs, several of which have special emphasis on law or policy. During graduate school, students usually work with a faculty member on research projects relevant to psychology and law. A number of community psychology programs emphasize field placements that integrate research and action, so students often obtain experience in state or local government, non-profit, or advocacy settings on research, policy, or intervention issues. Some graduate students develop additional expertise in other areas of psychology such as developmental, social, and quantitative. A few obtain law or policy degrees, but they are not required. The PhD is required for employment at a college or university, and for some jobs in other settings. Students who obtain a master’s degree may be able to find employment in advocacy, policy, service, or community action settings.

The field of psychology and law involves the application of psychological principles to legal concerns, and the interaction of psychology and law for individuals involved in the legal process. Psychologists trained in psychology and law provide psycho-legal research in a variety of areas, develop mental health legal and public policies, and work as both lawyers and psychologists within legal and clinical arenas.

The American Psychology-Law Society, Division 41 of the APA, is actively involved in the training and career development of psychologists within the field of psychology and law. Information on academic training programs is an important component for the continued growth of the field. We also have a listing and brief description of academic programs (Graduate Programs in Psychology and Law) that provide psychology and law training. This includes joint PhD/JD programs, PhD programs with an emphasis on psychology and law, and MA programs with psychology and law course work.

As the field of psychology and law has grown in recent decades, a variety of training programs have been developed to meet the needs of students interested in interdisciplinary study and work. Detailed information about admission requirements, curricula, internships and practice opportunities and job opportunities for graduates can be obtained by contacting the individual programs.

Postgraduate training opportunities

Many psychologists who work in the law obtained their training only after they completed their PhD or PsyD (or perhaps after they completed their coursework prior to completing a dissertation). This is especially true for clinical-forensic psychologists. Typically, during the course of graduate training in another sub discipline of psychology, these students have become interested in some aspect of the law. They then conduct research or seek an internship in a setting that allows them to pursue that interest. Several post-doctoral training opportunities are now available in psychology and law and most do not require previous experience or training in the law. These experiences give the student an opportunity to develop high-level clinical and/or research skills that will assist them in understanding the legal contexts in which they will work. See current postdoctoral listings. Post-graduate training opportunities in other sub-disciplines of psychology and law are arranged informally.

Publications in Psychology and Law Training

Below is a list of publications describing the training opportunities available to the student interested in psychology and law.

Bersoff, D. (1999). Preparing for two cultures: Education and training in law and psychology. In Roesch, R., Hart, S., & Ogloff, J. (Eds.). Psychology and law: The state of the discipline. New York: Kluwer/Plenum.

Bersoff, D., Goodman-Delahunty, J., Grisso, T., Hans, V., Poythress, N., & Roesch, R. (1997). Training in law and psychology: Models from the Villanova conference. American Psychologist, 52, 1301-1310.

Freeman, R. & Roesch, R. (1992). Psycholegal education: Training for forum and function. In D.K. Kagehiro & W.S. Laufer (Eds.) Handbook of psychology and law. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Kuther, T. L. (2003). Your career in psychology: Psychology and law. Wadsworth.

Melton, G., Huss, M., and Tomkins, A. (1999). Training in forensic psychology and the law. In Hess, A. and Weiner, I. (Eds), The handbook of forensic psychology (2nd ed.). NY: Wiley.

Ogloff, J.R., Tomkins, A.J., & Bersoff, D.N., (1996). Education and training in psychology and law/criminal justice: Historical foundations, present structures, and future developments. Criminal Justice and Behavior23, 200-235.

Last updated: August 2020Date created: September 2013