Legal Psychologist Career Guide

What is Legal Psychology?

Legal psychology is one of a number of disciplines that applies the psychological insights of human behavior to matters regarding the law. Developmental psychology, community psychology, social psychology, and cognitive psychology are all subspecialties within the realm of psychology and the law. However, likely the closest field of work to legal psychology is forensic psychology. This is the case because legal and forensic psychology share a number of characteristics, not the least of which are similar job duties in similar work settings.

This specialty of psychology is not only concerned with criminal behavior. Legal psychology is also committed to protecting victims of crime, devising more appropriate treatments for offenders, and helping judicial bodies make more informed decisions. At its core, legal psychology seeks to make legal processes run smoothly while also making them less impactful on those involved.

What Does a Legal Psychologist Do?

The job duties of a legal psychologist will depend largely on their employment setting. In some instances, legal psychologists are employed by the district attorney’s office or private defense attorneys to serve as jury consultants. In this capacity, the primary function of a legal psychologist is to work with attorneys to construct juries that are fair and balanced. This might involve developing questions to ask potential jurors during the vetting process in order to eliminate those that do not fit the ideal profile while helping retain potential jurors that do.

Some legal psychologists work in an administrative capacity, such as developing legal policies that address social ills. For example, a legal psychologist might work with a city’s mayor, city council, and other officials to devise language in a city ordinance to address an issue of concern, such as underage drinking. As part of this role, legal psychologists may consult with the city’s decision-makers to offer both legal counsel as well as offer insight into the psychological concerns related to the issue at hand. In this case, legal psychologists might present information to a city council about the deleterious effects that underage drinking can have on brain development, as well as the most efficacious treatment for minors that have developed a drinking problem.

A primary function of legal psychologists is to evaluate and assess individuals for various court systems and legal bodies. In this context, a legal psychologist may evaluate a wide variety of people, from a parent seeking custody of a minor child to an inmate scheduled to go to trial for murder. Regardless of the individual being evaluated, legal psychologists rely on their training in human behavior to offer an unbiased assessment of the individual. To carry out this function, legal psychologists might conduct interviews or administer psychological tests to individuals facing criminal or civil charges. They may also work with witnesses to help them recall information or serve as consultants in law enforcement investigations.

Where Does a Legal Psychologist Work?

A legal psychologist can work in a variety of settings involving the criminal justice system, or civil court system. They are more research-oriented than the related, but more clinically oriented forensic psychologist. They may work out of an office, providing consultation to other professionals, such as attorneys in private practice, state/county prosecutors, or public defenders. They may work with a civil or probate court.

Other venues are correctional facilities, or juvenile detention centers. They may have to appear in court, and travel throughout their state or nationwide if they are licensed for practice in multiple states. They may do consulting work which entails travel, such as providing trainings to other professionals, or jury selection. They may do research for a federal law enforcement agency or a state or large municipal police force.

Legal psychologists may also teach psychology and criminology courses at colleges and universities. Some legal psychologists also hold the JD (Juris Doctor) degree and have sat for the Bar exam, so they are qualified to practice law, and will do so in the venues which other attorney’s do.

What is the Career Outlook for Legal Psychologists?

The job outlook for legal psychologists appears to be strong. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that psychology jobs, in general, will grow at a rate barely above average over the next 6-8 years. However, some psychology specialties are expected to experience enormous growth. According to the American Psychological Association, jobs where law and psychology intersect are among those to experience the highest growth, and as a result they are in very high demand.

Driving the demand for workers that can apply psychological principles to legal happenings is the increase in the need for input regarding mental health issues in the criminal justice system. As the scope of mental health input in the legal arena continues to expand, so too do the opportunities for trained workers. In fact, the number of psychology and law jobs exceeds the number of workers, therefore, job opportunities are much more prevalent in this specialty area than for other specialties of psychology.

What is the Salary for a Legal Psychologist?

Individuals employed as a legal psychologist can expect an average yearly wage in the $60,000-$70,000 range. According to the BLS, psychologists earn approximately $69,280 per year, on average. However, the pay band for specialists in psychology is quite substantial. For example, forensic psychologists, whose specialization is closely related to legal psychology, can earn as little as $36,000 according to PayScale. Conversely, forensic psychologists can also make far above the median wage, upwards of $100,000 per year.

Like most occupations, a worker’s level of experience in the field heavily influences the amount of money they make. Entry-level workers in psychology and law can expect to earn in the mid-$30,000 range for their first few years on the job, but after 5-10 years of experience, the median wage jumps to $72,000 per year. After 20 or more years, psychologists working in the field of law may earn close to $120,000 per year. These figures are all influenced by other factors as well, including the setting in which one works and one’s level of education.

What are Education Requirements to Become a Legal Psychologist?

Because of the nature of the work involved in legal psychology, it is advantageous for individuals who seek to work in this field to have some education in both the law and psychology. A good place to start is with an undergraduate degree in psychology. These programs generally include 120 semester credit hours, which, if attending school full-time, can be completed in four years. Additional coursework in criminal justice at the undergraduate level would be beneficial as well.

Graduate school is an absolute must in order to break into the legal psychology field. Graduate work in psychology, criminology, criminal justice, or the law would be excellent choices. There are even some programs that combine graduate studies in psychology with those in the law, resulting in a master’s degree in a specific discipline in psychology, such as clinical psychology, as well as a Juris Doctor (J.D.). These programs typically include at least 30 semester credits in psychology, in addition to the three or more years required to obtain a J.D.

Licensure for psychologists is handled by individual states, and requirements can vary significantly. Typically, a doctoral degree in psychology is required to officially become a “psychologist’, along with a passing score on a written exam and several thousand hours of supervised practice. Legal psychologists that also have a J.D. must pursue licensure in their state if legal practice will be undertaken. The state’s Bar Association oversees licensure for attorneys. Passing the Bar Exam is a requirement as well.

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