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What is Psychology-Law?

Guide to understanding psychology law and the role it plays in the legal system.

Psychology, psychology law, and forensic psychology. These are all terms you may have heard of and may even have used interchangeably to describe how psychology plays a role in the legal system. If this describes you, then you’re not alone. Millions of Americans have a general misunderstanding of legal psychology and even millions more have probably never heard of the term. But what exactly is psychology law (or legal psychology), how does it differ from forensic psychology, and what role does it play in our communities? Let’s take a look. 

Psychology Law vs. Forensic Psychology

Psychology law can sometimes be misunderstood as forensic psychology, however, the two are quite different from one another. The term legal psychology is used to describe a broad overview of how the law and psychological concepts are intertwined. Any issues that exist in the legal system are typically areas of concern and interest for legal psychologists. 

Forensic psychology on the other hand is the actual implementation of that knowledge in a court of law. Forensic psychology is another branch within the study of psychology and it’s used to describe the practice of implementing psychological concepts with the law. 

Individuals who work in forensic psychology take their experience of psychology and apply it as needed to the law and legal system. If an attorney is claiming an insanity defense, attacking competency, describing mental illness, or otherwise providing testimony of an individual in a court of law regarding their psychological state is an example of forensic psychology at play. Forensic psychology deals with a great deal of research that is then used in the court system whether be on the defense or prosecuting side to help strengthen an argument.

Educational Training  

There is a great deal of training and education involved for individuals who pursue careers in legal psychology. An overwhelming majority of legal psychologists go on to obtain a PhD or specialization in a specific type of psychological study. Some of the most common fields include clinical psychology, cognitive psychology, child psychology, and social psychology.

Training is required for certification in order to practice a career that deals with legal psychology. Legal psychology will typically need to be licensed psychologists in their state as well. This licensing typically requires passing the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology

As the awareness of mental illness and behavioral disorders continue to increase, so does the demand for researchers to understand this growing behavioral trend. Because of this, many universities are beginning to offer specialized programs in legal psychology. The American Psychology Law Society offers a comprehensive list of the different universities throughout America that offer programs of study specific to legal psychology. 

Not all individuals who follow a course of study in legal psychology obtain graduate degrees in legal studies. However, individuals who also pursue legal studies such as a Juris Doctor degree (JD) or a Master of Legal Studies degree, will greatly benefit in their legal psychology studies. 

Legal Psychologist Journals 

Because legal psychologists are so specialized in how psychology plays a role in the legal system, there are several noteworthy publications that are specifically geared towards understanding legal psychology and sharing the information that legal psychologists have compiled. Some of the most prominent and respected legal psychology journals include the following: 

  • Law and Human Behavior
  • Psychology
  • Public Policy and Law 
  • Journal of Psychiatry
  • Psychology and Law 

All of these journals cover a wide variety of concepts that fall under the scope of psychology, but will often tie in aspects of the legal system and criminology. 

Roles of a Legal Psychologist

Once an individual has obtained the proper training needed and they go on to apply that knowledge to the legal system in one way or another. 

Provide Research

One of the main career paths that legal psychologists follow is research and publication by researching how psychology is tied into the law and providing generalized data about their specialties. Many legal psychologists go on to work in university psychology departments as professors and or researchers. Many law schools will also have professors who are dedicated to the concept of legal psychology. Many of these legal psychology professors have typically gone on to obtain a JD or a Masters in Legal Studies. 

Typically, legal psychology professors contribute to academic journals and conduct research in a specific aspect of psychology law. Through their writing and research, legal psychology professors well give their take on the legal aspects of the information they have examined. This information then becomes available to the public, authorities, the court system, and any other aspect of society that can benefit from the research. 

Provide Support for the Court System

In some cases, legal psychologists are used as expert witnesses in court cases. As expert witnesses, they provide insight and testimony on different psychological factors that the general public may not have a clear understanding of. Legal psychologists also give insight into why a criminal defendant may have behaved the way they have.

Legal psychologists can also provide support for the court system in the form of trial consulting. Legal firms and defense or prosecuting teams can hire legal psychologists as trial consultants in order to prepare for an upcoming trial. These trial consultants can give attorneys insight into the different factors that may impact a trial. From helping lawyers select jurors to help a team prepare for trial by establishing a mock trial, to preparing witnesses, legal psychologists can work as trial consultants and help give a defense or prosecuting team an edge as far as how different psychological factors will play into the unfolding of a case.

legal psychologists can also hold advisory roles with the court system. An advisory role brings with it the responsibility of providing the court system with information regarding judges, legal decision makers, and any other elements of the court system that are related to psychology in one form or another. 

Provide Legislative Guidance

Legal psychologists will usually give legal guidance that is broad and overarching. This legal guidance is typically provided in the form of academic journals or private consultation. Through their research, legal psychologists can contribute to public policy through the legislative process. By providing input on different public policies, legal psychologists have the ability to form legislation so that it best needs the needs of a community. 


The roles of legal psychologists continue to evolve and expand as the court system and understanding of the human psyche does. Because of this, the demand for legal psychologists and those interested in working in a field related to phycology law will continue to grow.


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