Teaching Tips

Teaching and researching at the intersection of law and psychology: Insights on how three seemingly divergent training roads can converge

The training and career paths of three people in the field of law and psychology.

By Jaymes Fairfax-Columbo, David S. DeMatteo, JD, PhD, and Kirk Heilbrun

Jaymes Fairfax-Columbo, AP-LS Student Committee Law Liaison

Aside from my birth (because that is literally the most formative moment of anyone's life), my rejection from the Drexel University JD/PhD program in the spring of 2010 was perhaps the most formative moment of my admittedly young academic career. The rejection was a major blow to my pride — after all, I had never truly failed at anything before. But it was also a chance to take inventory of myself, and to examine my motivations for wanting to study in law and psychology at the graduate level. Was I really invested in a career at the intersection of law and psychology? Had I merely convinced myself of that since every undergraduate psychology paper I had written had legal implications and because I had interned in my home county's District Attorney's Office? Worse yet, was wanting a JD/PhD simply a case of vanity, of me wanting to claim as many letters after my name as possible?

While I'm still not entirely sure about that last question, the two years that I worked at Philadelphia's Treatment Research Institute (TRI) in between my undergraduate and graduate studies provided crystal-clear answers to my other questions. TRI provided me opportunities to work on projects where I observed firsthand the intersection of law and psychology in a number of domains, exposing me to such topics as addiction and recidivism; diversionary courts; misconceptions about the dangerousness of people with serious mental illness and using technology in a pediatrician's office to screen for early indications of delinquency and substance abuse risk. I began to develop a mindset that research was only as useful as it was translatable and implementable, and began to take note of the numerous practical limitations of translating and implementing psychological research into the legal system. It set my resolve to obtain both degrees, the psychology degree so that I had a background in research, and the law degree so that I had both a background in policy as well as an insider's understanding of the structure my research interests were supposed to impact.

However, when it came time to reapply to graduate programs, I was dismayed to learn that only a handful of schools in the country offer joint-degree programs in law and psychology, and even fewer that provide a joint-degree program with a truly integrated curriculum. If I limited my choices to those schools only, my odds of getting into a graduate program decreased drastically. Not wanting to take that chance, I expanded my school search, targeting PhD programs with strong forensic or addictions-related backgrounds, as well as searching for law schools containing professors with psycholegal interests. I also consulted a good friend of my mentor (David DeMatteo, JD, PhD) and one of my superiors at TRI, David Festinger, PhD. Knowing his reputation in the field of drug diversion and appreciating his status as the head of TRI's law and ethics division, I asked him what the difference between himself and DeMatteo was. His reply? There was no difference — save the fact that he had to go out and acquire the legal knowledge he needed for his career on his own instead of getting it the traditional (and significantly more expensive) way.

This was my first exposure to the idea that individuals who work at the intersection of law and psychology can come from different training backgrounds yet still have equally influential and successful careers. The joint-degree was not a trump card — it was simply a different road. This became all the more clear to me when I started my studies and shelled out large quantities of money for law-psychology texts in both my psychology classes and my law classes that were not written exclusively by JD/PhDs, but rather co-written by lawyers and psychologists in tandem. Today, my appreciation for the different but vital skill sets that lawyers and psychologists bring to the table has grown exponentially.

One of my major goals as Law Liaison for the Student Committee is to increase the attention that AP-LS pays to these different backgrounds, and to highlight how different training roads can converge and lead to the same endpoint (in this case, successful careers as psycholegal researchers and practitioners). The rest of this piece will seek to do just that by providing training and career reflections from three well-respected and successful psycholegal academics at Drexel University who come from different training backgrounds: Adam Benforado (a lawyer by training); David DeMatteo (a lawyer and a psychologist by training); and Kirk Heilbrun (a psychologist by training).

Prof. Adam Benforado, JD

I didn't love law school at first — or even really like it. There was a moment almost every day in the early months when I'd be sitting with my casebook or in class and I'd think: What have I done?

A big part of my disillusionment came from this nagging feeling that what I was learning didn't matter, that what I was being taught was a façade, intricate but false. Was the law really consistent and logical, subject to deduction, and guided by reason? Were legal actors really the rational agents that they were depicted to be in cases and statutes? I became increasingly skeptical.

Thankfully, rather than continuing to go through the motions or drop out, I began working with Jon Hanson — my torts professor — helping him on a new project aimed at introducing insights from the mind sciences to law and legal theory. Reading the psychological literature, I found the confirmation that I was looking for: our rules, processes and procedures were not built upon a realistic model of human behavior. They were largely based on untested myths — common-sense assumptions that didn't align with the best scientific evidence.

I spent the summer of my first-year co-authoring a law review article with Jon — looking at the psychological origins of the obesity epidemic in the United States — and I found myself suddenly loving law school. In my remaining two years at Harvard, I spent most of my time researching and writing at the intersection of law and psychology, and upon graduation I was awarded a Knox Fellowship, which took me to the Cambridge Faculty of Law.

I knew at this point that I wanted to become a law professor as soon as possible and I went into my clerkship on the D.C. Circuit and my job as an associate in the D.C. office of Jenner & Block committed to making that a reality. Some of my former professors advised me to wait to go on the teaching market — I was only 28, after all, and my published work to date was all co-authored. What was the rush? Given that I was doing interdisciplinary work, maybe I should go get a PhD.

In some respects, they were right — some committees did seem to worry that my scholarly productivity would dip once I was out on my own and, at my UCLA interview, the chair of the committee did ask me, point blank, how I could do my work without a graduate degree in psychology. But I got call backs and that summer I moved up to Philadelphia to become a newly-minted assistant professor at Drexel.

Moreover, the questions that had been raised about me in the hiring processes proved to be very useful as I plotted out the beginning of my career. I decided that I needed to focus my attention on two things: (1) writing some papers independently and (2) doing empirical research collaborating with psychologists. With respect to the latter aim, my previous published work had all involved applying existing findings to legal topics, and I was very interested in starting to shape the questions that were being asked. I had a fairly rigorous scientific background (indeed, I'd worked at the Smithsonian Institute's Invertebrate Zoology Laboratory and co-authored a couple of papers on copepod morphology when I was still a teenager) so I felt confident in my understanding of the psychological literature I'd been devouring since law school, but I didn't have any training in designing and running experiments. I needed help for that. And I was very lucky to connect with a handful of psychologists who were interested in similar topics and keen to collaborate.

I met Geoff Goodwin, the University of Pennsylvania cognitive psychologist I would end up working with the most, at a party and our first interactions were actually focused on sports (we both supported the same infuriatingly inconsistent soccer team, Liverpool). But informal conversations about the premiership soon turned to chatting about why people are driven to punish and eventually to organizing experiments, an NSF grant, presentations, and a first paper.

I've learned an immense amount working with Geoff and my other psychologist co-PIs and I've come to realize that my formal training in law (but not psychology) brings both benefits and costs. The good thing is that the costs are largely neutralized through collaboration: in a research team, not everyone has to be equally adept at every facet of a project. I know my weaknesses (complex statistical analysis) and strengths, and one of my strengths is that I bring a different perspective to the table. I haven't been drilled in the same way as those who have gone through a PhD program and that means that I can make mistakes that they don't make, yes, but it also means that I don't have the same blind spots. I can see problems and solutions that aren't intuitive to my colleagues.

Of course, there are serious challenges to collaborations between law professors and psychologists. In moral psychology, sometimes studies that are very interesting to the legal community are not interesting to the psychological community and vice versa, and so a choice must be made that doesn't serve everyone's interests. In addition, as a law professor, I am far more inclined to move outside the laboratory and to think about how findings may implicate real world problems than are my psychologist friends.

One of the topics that I've thought a lot about over the years is whether law and psychology ought to have the same standards when it comes to assessing scientific evidence and I've become convinced that they shouldn't. It makes sense to me that the psychological community would set the bar much higher because the costs of delay in adopting findings as settled are minimal when compared to the costs entailed in sticking with the status quo in law.

In my new book, “Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice” (Crown, 2015), I argue that we need to work towards an evidence-based system of criminal law and I suggest an array of changes to how we conduct interrogations, handle eyewitnesses, use expert witnesses and screen jurors, among other reforms. Some of the research upon which I base my suggestions is not robust enough to be considered firmly established within psychology, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be used to change legal protocols. The reason is simple: in many cases, existing police, prosecutorial, judicial and other practices are based on nothing more than intuition and anecdote. With the law, a choice has to be made — stick with approaches that have no empirical validity at all and are known to have led to wrongful convictions and abuse or institute new practices that are based on studies that are solid and respected but have not yet reached the level of dogma. With so many people suffering injustice today, I think we need to take the calculated risk that we'll revise our system based on science that, in some cases, doesn't hold up in the long run.

When I teach criminal law, my students and I spend a lot of the course gazing back. We read cases from 1884 and 1972 and 1996. We parse statutes written in the 1960's and provisions of the constitution drafted centuries earlier. That makes it very easy to fall into a mindset of deference. The shared assumption is that our legal forebears were wiser and more pure of heart than we are today. The path of prudence, then, is to stay the course, making no more than minor tweaks to our legal rules. Even as I give them explicit permission to criticize and reimagine, the class tends to be reluctant to consider what should be. They expect to receive the catalogued wisdom of the past, so that they can go out in the world and apply it. Who are they to question the status quo?

That worries me, both as a professor and as an American. Desperate to ensure justice for all time, we have stymied progress by etching our law into stone, binding it with leather covers and preserving it behind glass at the National Archives. While fields like medicine and transportation have made enormous leaps in recent decades and centuries, our legal system has been largely stuck in place. But our legal system is just as suited for innovation as any other area.

I see my role as a professor working at the junction of law and psychology to help facilitate that process. I chose a trade press for “Unfair” because I wanted to get the message out to a mass audience and I've been writing articles in major newspapers and magazines, appearing on television and radio programs, and giving talks to groups of judges, lawyers, and the general public because I feel that we have a rare moment to change things for the better. In my courses, I bring research from the mind sciences into our regular discussions because I know that will make my students better lawyers and better citizens.

I went to law school because I wanted to fight against injustice. I thought that the future would find me standing in a courtroom beside those who had no voice. Instead, I find myself behind a computer most of the day, broken up by brief spells in classrooms and lecture halls. And that's just fine by me. I have what I was hoping for: a chance to make a difference and help people who desperately need it.

Prof. David DeMatteo, JD, PhD, ABPP (forensic)

Throughout college, I was initially drawn to the law-psychology field because of its utility, broad scope and the many opportunities it affords in the areas of research and practice. As my thinking about the law-psychology field matured during my undergraduate training, I became interested in conducting methodologically rigorous research aimed at helping legal decision-makers and policy-makers make better informed decisions, performing forensic mental health assessments of criminal offenders and civil litigants, and training the next generation of law-psychology researchers, scholars and practitioners.

Given that my professional interests were squarely at the intersection of psychology and law, I pursued formal graduate training in both law and psychology. I had no desire to practice law, but I wanted to be able to think like a lawyer and have the analytical skills of a lawyer because I believed those skill sets would enhance my work in the law-psychology field. After completing my graduate training in a joint-degree (JD/PhD) program at MCP-Hahnemann University and Villanova Law School, I spent four years as a Research Scientist at the Treatment Research Institute (TRI), which is a nonprofit research institute that works closely with the University of Pennsylvania. I spent those years conducting empirical drug-policy research focusing on the effectiveness of drug courts, the ethics of consenting individuals to drug abuse research, and the development of criminal justice interventions for offenders with less severe substance use problems. However, because I had little opportunity to teach, consult, mentor students or conduct forensic mental health assessments, I decided to enter academics. In 2006, I was hired as a faculty member at Drexel University.

Over the past nine years in academics, I've spent my time conducting research aimed at influencing policy and practice in several areas; teaching courses to undergraduate students, graduate students and law students; mentoring undergraduate and graduate students; conducting forensic mental health assessments of juveniles and adults; consulting with attorneys, courts, and other agencies; sitting on various committees and editorial boards; and publishing and presenting my research. Moreover, as Director of Drexel's JD/PhD program, I helped develop a law-psychology training curriculum and serve as a mentor to the next generation of law-psychology professionals.

My approach to conducting research has been heavily influenced by my graduate training and professional experiences. Given my joint-degree training and research interests, I primarily conduct empirical social science research that has clear practice and/or policy implications. Although I initially believed that having a law degree would be most beneficial in terms of my forensic assessment work, which requires interacting with attorneys and having some degree of legal knowledge, having a law degree has proved more beneficial in my research. Some of my research is conducted with justice-involved individuals, and having a law degree has enhanced my credibility with those from whom we need permission to conduct such research (e.g., judges, court administrators).

Similarly, my approach to teaching has been influenced by my training and experiences. Rather than simply conveying knowledge, which is an important but insufficient goal in teaching, I seek to stimulate critical thinking skills and inspire students to continue learning after the course ends. To those ends, I motivate students to learn in a supportive, nurturing, challenging and stimulating environment. I also incorporate the Socratic method, which has been traditionally limited to use in legal education, into my psychology teaching.

My joint-degree training and practical experiences have clearly shaped my approach to research and teaching. The driving philosophy behind my research and teaching is to give back and make it count. Because of my training and beliefs, I think that my time is best spent conducting research that has practice and/or policy implications, assisting legal decision-makers to make better informed decisions, and mentoring students who will be the next generation of law-psychology professionals. At base, my measure of success is whether I've made things a little better than they were before I got there, and I believe that I've been able to accomplish that goal through my research and teaching.

Prof. Kirk Heilbrun, PhD, ABPP (clinical and forensic)

I became interested in the field of law and psychology when I was an undergraduate. Of course, at that time (around 1973) the field really was emerging. I read about some of the work that people like Bruce Sales, John Monahan, Hank Steadman, Stephen Morse and Stan Brodsky were doing, and was fascinated.

When I sought to pursue graduate training in law and psychology, there weren't many options. Nebraska was just getting started, but didn't accept an incoming student for the fall of 1975. There were no other law-psychology programs available, and very few doctoral programs in clinical psychology had even a single faculty member working in what would eventually become forensic psychology. The best options at the time for someone interested in this area involved doctoral training in psychology with the expectation that much of the learning would happen through collaboration and selected reading.

A doctoral degree in clinical psychology, which is what I pursued at the University of Texas at Austin, laid the groundwork for licensure and board certification (which came about in 1978 through the American Board of Forensic Psychology, which subsequently became a specialty board within the American Board of Professional Psychology). It also provided fundamental training in research, which could then be applied to various law-psychology questions. The major advantages to this path were foundational. It provided training in research, scholarship, assessment and treatment. It gave me the tools I needed to specialize. But it didn't provide specialized training in the contemporary sense. I had to pursue even limited exposure to law through a course taught in the law school at UT, and additional courses taught in law school at Florida State University (where I did a postdoctoral fellowship following receipt of my degree — one of the very few fellowships available in this area at the time). The exposure to interdisciplinary thinking and work, which is at the heart of current training in law-psychology, would have given me specific tools (e.g., research designs, scholarship priorities) and formal legal training (if I had attended law school), both of which would have been helpful.

In order to obtain the specialized training that I sought, I would need to do some extra work. To this end, I accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at Florida State University in 1981-82 under Ned Megargee. His work focused on assessment in correctional populations.  Both were subsequently important in my career. The fellowship also exposed me to professional work being done in a federal prison and in a state forensic unit. These provided my earliest professional models for the applied work being done at the time.

Reflecting on how my training background and work history influence how I think about law and psychology, both gave me an appreciation for what can be accomplished through motivation and hard work. My first post-fellowship job was at the Forensic Service at Florida State Hospital, which gave me a wonderful opportunity to apply the limited tools but great interest I had to questions that were important in the law. It also taught me how important collaboration and mentorship can be. We developed a speaker series in the 1980s at the hospital, and were able to convince people like Stan Brodsky, Saleem Shah, Loren Roth, Tom Grisso, Dick Rogers and Norman Poythress to visit and talk about their work.  It was a great opportunity to ask them about things relevant to a career in this area.

These experiences and the lessons I learned still play an integral role in my career today. I have a practical component to what I teach and research that was shaped by my experience in applied settings. They also engendered in me an interest in policy — an interest that has continued to this day.