Attorney or Psychologist? When Legal Matters and Mental Health Issues Overlap

Woman testifying in front of courtroom judge

When legal matters overlap with mental health issues, things can get a bit muddy, and it can be difficult to know where to turn first. Do you seek legal counsel or find a psychologist to conduct an assessment? Do you get a psychological evaluation for some clinical support? Each professional serves a specific purpose and brings about different outcomes.

Attorneys advocate

Attorneys are equipped to go to battle for their clients and advocate for them in court, school, work or anywhere in the public specter.

Psychologists evaluate

Psychologists are trained to evaluate and make conclusions and recommendations regarding mental health, risk, and injury. Psychologists make use of available testing and data to explain behavior, mental health, and to answer specific questions.

The truth is that legal matters involving mental health can be tricky. In many situations, you will need both an advocate and an expert opinion. Especially when it comes to high risk situations, experts recommend working with an attorney AND a forensic psychologist. These two professionals are comfortable working together and tend to collaborate frequently on high risk situations. Having different perspectives and specific areas of expertise will ensure the best results for such a complex situation.

A few examples of high risk situations include:

  • During a divorce, your spouse asserts you are not fit to parent, and there may be a mental health or risk component in these allegations.
  • Your employer thinks you are not safe to be at your job.
  • Your minor child’s school thinks your child is a risk to other students.
  • Your 18-year-old child was recently charged with a crime for which mental health is a mitigating factor.

The Role of the Attorney

Attorneys are highly trained in legal affairs, and have many roles in supporting the clients they represent. They play a part in educating their clients about legal matters, they speak out on behalf of their client in court, and they negotiate on their clients’ behalf. Throughout all of this, they are looking for the best results that will benefit the client.

The American Bar Association notes that “As a negotiator, a lawyer seeks a result advantageous to the client…” Attorneys advocate for their clients’ needs and defend them through what can be a grueling court process.

“Ensuring that a child’s best interests are protected during high-conflict child-custody cases is a challenge for the U.S. court system, but attorneys and psychologists are working together to better promote the well-being of children embroiled in these battles.” The American Psychological Association

The Role of the Forensic Psychologist

Forensic psychologists are not “advocates” or “hired guns” of the individuals they evaluate during legal proceedings. In fact, they are trained to be and adhere to ethical standards that guide them to seek impartiality.

According to the American Psychological Association’s (APA) guidelines for forensic psychologists, “When conducting forensic examinations, forensic practitioners strive to be unbiased and impartial, and avoid partisan presentation of unrepresentative, incomplete, or inaccurate evidence that might mislead finders of fact.” This means that when psychologists are evaluating a client, they are required to the standards of practice for psychological and forensic evaluations and report those findings in an accurate way. They do not alter their information to appease a client or advocate for some desired outcome.

“One should always seek professional legal counsel in court-involved matters,” suggests Dr. Daniel Post, lead forensic psychologist at Pine Rest Forensic Psychiatric and Psychological Services. “When a forensic specialist is needed, an attorney is often best able to clearly identify pertinent legal questions that other professionals can be called in to answer.”

Similarly, when called to court, psychologists must report accurate and unbiased information. Forensic psychologists are trained to assess, observe, collect data, and apply their evaluation directly to legal questions.

Who is a Better Fit for Your Needs?

So which do you need? It depends on what your primary needs are.

You might seek out an attorney if:

  • You are seeking specific legal advice
  • You need information or support through the court process
  • You are unsure of how to best protect your own or a loved one’s assets
  • You need information about protecting your children’s interests
  • You need information surrounding the disability claim process
  • You are exploring alternative options for guardianship

A forensic psychologist may be of help if:

  • You are seeking out a court-ordered psychological assessment
  • Your employer requires a psychological assessment
  • An aging parent needs to be evaluated for competency/guardianship
  • You need to establish the degree of a mental injury from a previous trauma/relationship
  • You believe your child is a threat to him/herself or others

By Pine Rest staff. Reviewed by Daniel Post, PsyD

Looking for a forensic psychiatrist, psychologist and/or neuropsychologist? 

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