Psychologists and Lawyers See the World Differently

As I have stated in previous posts, I have had an interesting career, primarily because I have spent almost all of my professional life working with attorneys instead of with colleagues. Furthermore, my definition of “colleague” is narrow, in that I consider only other social psychologists as colleagues. The field of psychology is large, with most psychologists working in clinical practice and relatively few defining themselves as social psychologists or social/personality psychologists. Even larger than the profession of psychology is the legal profession. As a point of comparison, there are over 133,000 members of the American Psychological Association, while the American Bar Association has almost 200,000 members (with approximately 14% of lawyers belonging to the ABA). Most of my colleagues in social psychology work in academic settings, conducting research, publishing articles in professional journals, and teaching graduate and undergraduate students. Although some of us work in applied settings, such as in marketing research, with the military, and like me, as consultants in private industry, the vast majority of my colleagues have no “real world” experience. Lawyers, in contrast, have a more technically oriented and practical education that focuses on learning how to practice law. Just as there are many distinct types of psychologists, lawyers work in a variety of sub areas, such as probate, family, and like all of Magnus’ clients, trial law. The educational and career experiences of psychologists and attorneys are vastly different, with psychologists focusing more on science and lawyers making decisions based on legal precedents. As a result of this, we social psychologists see the world, and the people in it, in different, often conflicting, ways from the attorneys who become our clients. For example, when selecting a jury, many attorneys use “gut feelings,” past experiences, and a desire to please the judge by expediting the jury selection process. As a social psychologist, these concepts never cross my mind. Instead, I am focused on selecting a jury in a manner that is in opposition to many of my clients: I concentrate on de-selecting everyone I believe will be biased against my client’s side of the case, leaving in place the rest of the jurors. I am cognizant of the chess game that plays out when the attorneys exercise their challenges for cause and peremptory strikes, including who moves onto the jury when someone is excused. Fortunately for me, most of my clients accept my advice and understand that, although they are experts on the law, I am an expert on the human dynamics of litigation. When this happens, I am glad to have spent my career with people who are not my colleagues!

What a perfect day to write this post.  Melissa just had a call with a client who is heading to trial soon.  When it was over she couldn’t wait to let me know about one aspect of the call, which was the lawyer insisting on wrongly defining a social psychological concept.  As readers of these posts know well, Melissa doesn’t back down in such a situation to let him (wrongly) think he was right.  She tactfully told him he was wrong and, fortunately, he recognized that she, as a social psychologist, might know more about the subject that he did.  The situation worked out, as it usually does.  Yet, it is interesting to note the number of times over the past 30+ years of working with lawyers how often this situation arises.  Most of the time lawyers hire jury consultants, many of whom are psychologists, out of the understanding that the consultant/psychologists knows things the lawyer doesn’t.  However, sometimes the lawyer wants to be the expert, on whatever subject, especially if the discussion is in front of his/her client.  “Going along” with the wrong explanation/interpretation is harmful to the end client, to the end result.  This is one of the many challenges of working with powerful clients, who are trained to argue.  There is nothing wrong with having different perspectives, different knowledge bases, or different expertise.  Taking advantage of those differences and learning from them is the key to success in law, as in many other endeavors.

Comments are closed.

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes