Taking flight as a legal eagle

Craig Ward on his move from a psychology degree into the law

Maslow taught that individuals strive to become everything that they are capable of becoming – to achieve what is attainable. If you complete a psychology degree you should possess particular knowledge, skills and techniques that will open up a huge variety of possibilities and opportunities. My choice among all these was to become a lawyer.

How lawyers operate
The life of a lawyer has some echoes of a psychologist’s. They both work with clients, many of whom only require assistance during the most stressful times in their lives. They extrapolate from the information clients give them, sifting out what is relevant and trying to understand the clients’ expectations.

Both have to know current good practice in ‘case law’, and be able to evaluate evidence objectively, understanding why there are differences in evidence and opinions. Based on this knowledge and analysis they advise clients, in an intelligible way, on the range of options available.

Becoming a solicitor involves a law conversion course, followed by a legal practice course; both are one year full-time or two years’ part-time courses. These are followed by two years of on-the-job training. The route to becoming a barrister is similar, but involves less on-the-job training.

Much of a lawyer’s life is spent balancing clients’ needs and expectations with legal principles and case law. I find the following skills, attitudes and approaches I gained through studying psychology essentially useful in my work as a solicitor.

Critical evaluation
As a lawyer you need to understand how the aspects of a case affect people. Lawyers are supposed to assess and advise dispassionately, without prejudice, but I have found that practising law is often more emotive.

For instance, take the case of Mrs Smith. She is an 80-year-old widow, with carers coming daily. She has two adult children, one of whom, her disabled son, lives at home. She has recently started spending time with one of her carers socially. A recent social services assessment says she needs to go into a care home. She retains sufficient mental capacity to make decisions.

The lawyer’s notes might include:
I    Moving home is very upsetting and disruptive. Mrs Smith does not necessarily have to move, as more care might be provided for her at home; that way she could also continue caring for her son.
I    She has mental capacity and should consider making a Lasting Power of Attorney (this grants authority to someone to make financial and care decisions if she loses mental capacity). This would allow her to have control over her life, and she could choose the person that would make decisions for her if she became unable.
I    Abuse is always a possibility, so a check should be made to ensure everything is well.
The lawyer is still dispassionate, but can see her social and emotional needs, particularly where and with whom she may want to spend her time. A knowledge of the dynamics of relationships, and of how numerous variables interact, can often be useful.

I have found that being called to a police station to advise an alleged robber sharply focuses the mind. Most crimes occur within a socialframework, perhaps because of pressure, desires, status or emotions. Seeing how these affect each other allows greater insight to providing advice, in quite a stressful situation.

Psychological study is invaluable here. Sitting in a police station taking instructions from someone about a significant life event, which needs resolving fairly quickly, requires patience, understanding of their emotions, a perception behind what happened and the events leading up to this, and the ability to draw out hidden issues or agendas in order to provide advice.

Does all this sound a little like counselling? Open and closed questions, exploring, recognising patterns and themes, confronting discrepancies and goal setting – skills lawyers need, albeit without the counselling qualification.

Problem solving
Lawyers are often faced with cases which, like jigsaws, have missing pieces. It’s not always obvious how what’s missing affects everything else. Inserting this missing piece allows effective advice to be given.

Getting there is about problem solving. Psychology students who spend their days challenging why things happen, and how variables can be altered to affect outcomes, become very good at problem solving and seeing what is missing. This is a particularly useful ability when advising in civil litigation cases, in which people are allowed to claim confidentiality on documents. The ability to see what is missing and why allows links to be made between evidence in order to advance and challenge a case.

Higher-order analysis
Lawyers are often faced with piles of documents that need to be read, quickly mastered and advised on. Success in this is the ability to see connections between ideas, especially obscure ones. Psychological study teaches ways of seeing relationships between ranges of information. Being able to see these links, and how they affect each other, allows for more effective choices for the client. This is helpful for advocates attending court, as cross-examination requires you to quickly jump between what the witness has just said, and what is recorded in the documentary evidence. The better you become at seeing the links, the better you are at challenging someone in cross-examination.

Information gathering
The law changes constantly, and being able to sift, analyse and prioritise what is relevant is an essential legal skill. Psychological research skills teaches how time can be saved, whilst helping both the lawyer and the client stay on top of what is happening.

People are the key
Lawyers are more people-oriented than they’re usually portrayed. Most law is practised with an individual in front of you – a client – seeking reliable advice about what may happen next in their life. It’s almost like a counselling session.

Just like psychologists, some lawyers spend their time resolving life’s social issues – working in criminal law, mental health or community care law, as I have. Lawyers can work in high street firms, for charities, social services departments, health authorities, central government or as a mediator.

Psychological study involves learning how to form hypotheses. These require testing before a conclusion can be reached. Lawyers work in the same way: forming a legal idea that is evaluated against the evidence. This leads to client advice on how best to proceed.

Psychology underpins society. I believe it underpins law in the same way as any other activity, though you wouldn’t always think so given the way we are often viewed!

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber