When you think of forensic psychology, what comes to mind? Criminal Minds? Silence of the Lambs? For some, forensic work is also synonymous with images of attorneys yelling at witnesses, drama, and a very uncomfortable vulnerability that comes with speaking before a judge. While this can sound scary, such situations make up only a minor part of a forensic clinician’s work. There are also many benefits to engaging in forensic work, even for the staunchly non-forensic clinician.
Broadly, forensic psychology is any time where psychology intersects with the law. However, forensic work needn’t be limited to psychology; there is forensic social work, forensic psychiatry, forensic accounting, and more.
All such forensic positions involve when normal job duties interface with the justice system in some way. In the mental health arena, forensic work can be assessment-focused, or treatment-focused, and based in the criminal judicial process, or civil judicial process. The number of training and practice opportunities available in the forensic realm are vast and worth trying out, even if you have no intention of following this line of work for a career. Here are four reasons why incorporating forensic experience into your training will ultimately make you a stronger clinician in the long run:
1. Forensic Work Makes You Careful and Conscientious
When your work tiptoes into (or on the periphery of) the legal process, it is subject to judicial scrutiny. This could look like attorneys reading your assessment reports, progress notes, or clinical case formulations, and potentially even calling you into court to testify.
If you are unfamiliar with the process of being an expert witness, it looks something like prosecution and defense attorneys asking you questions in court; with one side leaning into your opinion and the other side potentially trying to discredit (or argue against) your conclusions.
This means you will be required to justify your work in an adversarial environment. You need to always know why and how you reached the conclusions that you did, why you chose the words that you used when documenting something, why you did (or did not) administer psychological testing – the list goes on and on.
When lawyers have the potential to pick apart your work, you become acutely aware of why you are making the professional decisions that you are, and are always mindful of the alternatives.
While ethically, we should always be engaging in this kind of clinical decision making anyway, there is no better reminder, or way to start forming this habit early, than to engage in forensic work during your formative training years.
2. Forensic Work Keeps You Objective and Science-Based
Somewhat related, because forensic work is subject to scrutiny in adversarial contexts, you will want to make sure you are always engaging in best practice and considering alternatives to the work that you do. Objectivity does not mean you cannot advocate for your clients in therapy contexts, or that you should not consider the points of view of those you work with. Instead, it reminds you that there are always multiple sides to every story.
Being reminded of that objectivity in therapy and assessment contexts can help you draw conclusions you may have missed if, for example, you have only ever had to take the word of your patients as truth. When you spend time remaining objective, it also makes it easier for you to stay inquisitive and check back in with research as you engage in hypothesis testing. As we know, new publications come out every day on the efficacy of treatment modalities, appropriateness of using certain tests in a given context, cultural considerations, you name it.
As clinicians, we want to make sure we are always following best practice; and that becomes even more the case when you may have to answer for your decisions in court. It is arguably easier to keep one foot “in the literature” as a student or trainee, since coursework and the development of your clinical skills requires you to be comfortable reading and digesting journal articles; but, if you want an added layer of protection from professional slippage once you graduate, getting into the habit of routinely checking the elements of your practice with available research early in your training is invaluable.
3. Forensic Work Makes You a Stronger Writer
When conducting forensic work, especially assessment, your written work product is one of the most important reflections of your knowledge and expertise. You could be really comfortable with public speaking and testify like a pro, or have the clinical interviewing skills of a champion, but if the documents or reports seen by the Court are not written well, that could leave bad impressions on judges, attorneys, and maybe even a jury (eek!).
Whether it be an integrated report of some kind, or simple and short progress notes from a treatment provider, written documentation has the potential to have a big impact on you and on the people that you work with. Good writing within a forensic arena looks a lot like using jargon-free language, being explicit in showing your reasoning behind conclusions you draw, and emphasizing observable behavior without drawing assumptions about what a patient or client may be thinking.
For example, an attorney will not know what “euthymic” means, and if you put enough technical words or phrases into your written products, you may need to come into court to explain what it all means. If you are over-inclusive in your charting or clinical documentation, you could be unknowingly sharing unnecessary client information that could accidentally bias a court or jury against them.
Again, these are all skills that conscientious clinicians should strive to possess anyway, but the heightened awareness on the quality of your written products in forensic settings makes such training a great idea for a trainee, so you can start establishing and honing these skills early.
4. Forensic Work Can Make You Comfortable with Navigating Legal Issues
As part of many licensure applications in states throughout the country, you may be required to take a jurisprudence test. These tests require you to be familiar with the laws of mental health practice within the jurisdiction you plan on working in. Sometimes, fully appreciating these laws means understanding legal jargon, or knowing that legal cases were responsible for the formation of those codes and regulations.
Having some prior forensic experience as a trainee could give you an entrance into understanding the terminology you may encounter, or in knowing how to read and make sense of legal cases.
Even if you work in a state that does not require a jurisprudence test, forensic training can still benefit you. Oftentimes on professional listservs, clinicians who sit firmly within a non-forensic practice may be faced with unexpected psycholegal interactions: doing therapy with someone as a condition of probation, getting a subpoena, or interfacing with legal guardians.
While these moments can be pretty scary and leave practitioners feeling like deer in headlights, they do not have to be! Navigating these instances can be a standard part of training opportunities that are forensic or forensic-adjacent in nature, so being comfortable with this early on can do wonders for your anxiety and confidence when they come up in your career later on.
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