Legal Update

Bringing the law to psychology and psychology to the law: Dual-training at Nebraska since 1974

University Nebraska-Lincoln 40th anniversary conference and celebration

By Joshua A. Haby and Eve M. Brank, JD, PhD

Being a member of AP-LS usually means that you professionally straddle two worlds in one way or another. Some members spend most of their days on legal issues while others are more fully entrenched in the world of psychology.  Still others have been integrating the two areas for so long and so well it is impossible to tell where one discipline starts and the other ends. Although many point to Hugo Münsterberg’s 1908 On the Witness Stand: Essays on Psychology and Crime as the birth of the Law-Psychology discipline (Vaccaro & Hogan, 2004), it wasn’t until 1974 that the University of Nebraska-Lincoln established a way to fully integrate and dual-train students in both disciplines with a joint JD/PhD program. 

A newly hired assistant professor of psychology, Bruce Sales, JD, PhD, and a group of faculty from both the Department of Psychology and the College of Law led the way for the founding of a unique program at the University of Nebraska –a program focused on interdisciplinary training in psychology and law that was modeled after the Law and Social Sciences program at Northwestern University (Sales, 1973). Three main factors seemed to have contributed to the willingness of both the psychology department and the law college to embark on this new way of training students. First, the Nebraska psychology department has a “tradition of firsts” such as establishing the first U.S. psychological laboratories dedicated to training undergraduate students and one of the first for graduate studies (“History,” 2014). Second, the Nebraska College of Law has a long history of supporting social science approaches to the law; indeed, one of its first law college deans was Roscoe Pound who is a well-known early advocate for applying behavioral science knowledge to legal questions (Kolasa, 1972). Third, the general field of law and psychology was burgeoning with the establishment of the American Psychology-Law Society in 1969 (Grisso, 1991). 

As initially proposed, the Nebraska dual degree program sought to “produce lawyer-psychologists whose training will provide them with all the necessary skills to do basic and applied research and writing on issues and problems in our legal system” (Sales, 1973).  In a Lincoln newspaper article announcing the University’s consideration of the program, Sales was quoted as saying that graduates of the program “obviously are going to be in great demand” (Wall, 1974). The first admitted class of students enrolled in the first year of law school as traditional “1Ls”. The students’ remaining years at Nebraska were filled with both law and psychology courses while they conducted research that bridged the two disciplines. The organization of the original curriculum for the JD/PhD remains remarkably similar to the degree requirements today. In the early 1980s, the program had a new program director, Gary Melton, PhD, who advocated for an additional dual-degree option of the Master of Legal Studies (MLS). The MLS option is for psychology graduate students who are not interested in practicing law. Instead, MLS students are interested in obtaining a better understanding of the law and how the law affects their non-legal areas of interest.  Even without obtaining a either a JD or an MLS, psychology graduate students at Nebraska have the benefit of a law school very open and welcoming to psychology students so that their research and work can be informed by specific areas within the law.    

The year 2014 marked the 40th anniversary of the Nebraska Law-Psychology program. From Oct. 23 to the 25, alums, affiliates, faculty and current students gathered to celebrate the anniversary and look toward the future. Current faculty moderated alumni and affiliate panel discussions that tackled such topics as the difficulty inherent in working with vulnerable populations, employment experiences outside of academia, and empirical research within the psycholegal domain. The panelists provided a review of their current research, employment, and provided advice for current students. Even though they came from quite varied careers, the intersection and wide-reach of law- psychology was a consistent theme throughout the panels.  Those working within psychology and academia described using their legal knowledge to shape and drive their research interests.  Those working in more applied settings like public service cited their legal training as a means to better serve their clients and the public. In a similar fashion, those working within the legal field (e.g., law firms and trial consultants) spoke to how their psychological background provides the opportunity to facilitate communication across legal situations. Altogether, it was clear that the past 40 years of dual training at Nebraska has played an important role in the combined fields of law-psychology and the independent fields of psychology and law.

Professor Alan Tomkins moderated a panel of all four program directors – Bruce Sales (program director beginning in 1974), Gary Melton (program director beginning in 1982), Steve Penrod (program director beginning in 1995), and Richard Wiener (program director beginning in 2002). This session not only provided insight into their experiences as program directors, but also direction for the program in the next decade and beyond. These four program directors each put a mark on the direction of the program: Sales, the visionary ideologist, responsible for not only the beginning of the Law and Psychology program at UNL, but also credited as playing a large role in the state of the discipline as we recognize it today (Bornstein, Wiener, & Maeder, 2008). With the appointment of Melton, the faculty and breadth of the program grew to incorporate the role of mental health law policy and advocacy. He also focused on children and families and established the Center on Children, Families and the Law (Bornstein et al., 2008). A shift towards an emphasis on experimental research, along with the creation of an in-house trial consulting organization and the establishment of the Public Policy Center (led by Alan Tomkins) marked Steve Penrod’s tenure (Bornstein et al., 2008). Building upon Penrod’s experimental research emphasis, Richard Wiener’s era introduced social-cognitive theory and a social analytic jurisprudence approach to the program, with his own personal research focus on legal decision making (Bornstein et al., 2008). During the program directors’ panel, the directors’ commentary reflected their different perspectives on the current state of the discipline. Although each noted how far we have come as a discipline, each director’s praise was couched with critique and quickly transitioned into a vision for the future.

Bruce Sales encouraged researchers to avoid “research blinders” that keep us researching the same topics, as he noted that we haven’t even scratched the surface of the discipline. He further explained that we are not where we need to be in terms of influencing legal practioners, legal scholars, and the judiciary. In reflecting on his service as an editor of Child Abuse and Neglect, Melton addressed a persisting concern: while much scholarship focuses on the effects of child abuse and neglect, relatively few journal pages are dedicated to providing solutions. Melton implied a lack of focus on solutions is a pervasive issue across law-psychology and not only a problem within the child maltreatment area.  Penrod provided a review of the current state of the discipline, as illustrated by popular trends in peer review publications, and predicted one area in need of attention is plea bargaining. Wiener noted three areas within law and psychology requiring attention—the incorporation of psychological theory as the primary basis for our research, the application of psychology to the issues commonly discussed within criminal justice and psycholegal research as a means to improve policy. Sales summarized the program directors’ advice by saying that although we are nowhere near where we need to be as a discipline, our aim should be to conduct research so valid (externally and ecologically) that legal scholars are forced to take note.  

Current Nebraska graduate students participated in a poster session highlighting how legal training influences current research topics and interests. The posters included evaluations of the impact of age discrimination in the workplace, mental health and well-being in aspiring lawyers, attitudes towards child labor, the effect of pre-trial publicity in the Internet age, and risk propensity in plea-like decisions. One laboratory conducted a review of the past 40 years of law and psychology research by examining all articles published in Law and Human Behavior. Echoing commentary from the program directors’ panel, the authors found six (of 30) areas comprised 56% of published topics (Wylie, Hazen, Hoetger, Haby, & Brank, 2014). Although jury decision-making research accounted for the majority of publications (by area), the authors noted the decline in publications on this topic, from a peak observed from 1997-2006 (more than 60) to a low from 2007-2014 (less than 15). Alternatively across the same time periods, the authors observed positive trends in the areas of eyewitness memory, psychopathy, and risk assessment.

In sum, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s 40th anniversary conference and celebration provided an extensive review of not only the development of the program, the integration of law and psychology as a field, and the influence the program has had on the field. Although conference participants provided several examples of how the marriage between law and psychology can be diverse and beneficial, there was a consistent call to stretch the discipline even further.  As Grisso noted in his 1991 state of the discipline article, “we must hope that our maturity similarly provides us the capacity to continue to find ways to integrate our interests.”  


Bornstein, B. H., Wiener, R.W., & Maeder, E.M. (2008). Pioneers in interdisciplinary legal education: A history of the UNL Law and Psychology program In A.G. Gless (Ed.), The history of Nebraska law (pp. 174-194). Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

Grisso, T. (1991). A developmental history of the American Psychology-Law Society. Law and Human Behavior, 15, 213-231.

History. (2014). University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Department of Psychology: History. Retrieved Dec. 15, 2014, from

Kolasa, B. J. (1972). Psychology and law. American Psychologist27(5), 499-503.

Sales, B.D. (1973). Proposal for a joint J.D.–Ph.D. program in Law and Psychology.  On file with the authors.

Vaccaro, T.P., & Hogan, J.D. (2004). The origins of forensic psychology in America: Hugo Münsterberg on the Witness Stand. NYS Psychologist, 16 (3), 14-17.

Wall, M. (1974, March 12). Regents to consider law-psychology plan. The Lincoln Star, p. 16.

Wylie, L.E., Hazen, K. Hoetger, L., Haby, J. & Brank, E.M. (2014). Four decades of psychology and law: An empirical review. Poster presented at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln Law Psychology Program’s 40th Anniversary.