What are the Differences Between Legal Psychology and Forensic Psychology?


Have you ever heard of legal psychology? What about forensic psychology? No? Well, you are not alone. In fact, most people have not heard of these two branches of psychology. Why is that? Well, maybe because they are not as “popular” as family psychology, sports psychology, clinical psychology, child psychology, and school psychology. And, although you may not have heard of these two branches, they are very important, and worth a serious look.

To give you a brief overview, legal psychology is study of issues that occur within the legal system (i.e. examination of jury selections, eye-witness testimonies, etc.). While forensic psychology is the study of criminal court issues (i.e. mental state of criminals, and the probability that they will commit other crimes, if released from the penal system).

If you are wondering what the difference is between legal and forensic psychology, you have come to the right place – this article will shed some light on the nuances that make up these two branches of psychology.

Core Differences

The main difference between legal psychology and forensic psychology is that legal psychology is the study of the thought processes, and behaviors of jurors, the court system, legal processes, etc., while forensic psychology mostly focuses on criminal cases (i.e. suspects, defendants, and convicted criminal/felons), and the psychological issues involved in them.

For instance, a forensic psychologist helps determine whether a defendant was sane when he or she committed a crime. A forensic psychologist also helps the judge and jurors determine if the suspect/criminal is more likely to commit the crime again in the future.

In many cases, a forensic psychologist will help determine if a felon will be released from jail or prison, or if probation or parole will be denied. Forensic psychologists typically work directly with suspects and defendants/criminals in the penal system.

The main functions of a forensic psychologist are: evaluating clients (i.e. criminals, felons, and defendants) to determine if they are legally sane or criminally insane, and predicting the risk level for repeating the same or similar crimes. Most forensic psychologists are asked to provide mental stability evaluations, testimonies, and assessments during trials.

Related: What is the Difference Between Criminal Psychology and Forensic Psychology?

Legal psychologists typically work with lawyers and police officers. They also conduct research studies to show patterns within the legal process and court system. This psychologist examines legal, court, and jury patterns, in an effort to improve the system – they are not concerned with criminals/defendants, per se.

The main functions of legal psychologists are to examine how jurors are chosen, ho juries make decisions, and the credibility of eyewitness testimonies. These psychologists also interview potential jurors to get a better understanding of their mental states, and thought processes.

These mental health professionals typically work at courthouses, law offices, police precincts, private practices, and colleges/universities. Legal psychologists tend to find eyewitness testimonies unreliable and invalid. They also tend to believe that preferences and biases (i.e. personalities of the jurors, knowledge of legal terminologies, and the introduction of evidence) significantly influence jury decisions and outcomes.

Legal and forensic psychologists tend to make the same average salary, and they are both considered “psychologists” in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Lastly, both legal and forensic psychologists must hold a doctorate, and licenses/certifications to be able to call themselves either a legal psychologist or forensic psychologist.

An individual, who earns a doctorate in legal psychology may in some cases, seek employment as a forensic psychologist, and a forensic psychologist may seek employment as a legal psychologist.


Legal Psychologist

Legal psychologists hold a doctorate in legal psychology, forensic psychology, or a related field. It is important to note that a psychologist must have a doctorate and licenses/certifications, before providing services to clients.

With a doctorate in legal psychology, an individual can work as a police psychologist, legal research psychologist, or correctional psychologist. On the other hand, an individual may work as a legal psychology assistant or legal technician, if he or she has a bachelor’s or master’s degree in legal psychology, forensic psychology, or a related field.

Forensic Psychologist

After an undergraduate degree, future forensic psychologists need to obtain a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree. Individual graduate schools set their own requirements for admission, but a “B” average in undergraduate work is usually the minimal undergraduate achievement acceptable for entrance.

A forensic psychologist must also hold a doctorate in forensic psychology, legal psychology, or a related field. In addition, he or she must have the appropriate licenses and certifications, before providing services to clients. A bachelor’s or master’s degree in forensic psychology may allow an individual to seek employment as a forensic psychology assistant (working under a forensic psychologist).

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