Legal Psychology

My wife is a psychologist. A clinical psychologist. A clinical psychologist who is a tenured professor at York University. She is smarter than me. She has a lot of degrees.

She likes to send me psychology articles that are related to the law. Some I can digest, others make me go “huh?”. I took psychology in undergrad. I actually majored in it. But it was always an elusive topic for me.

I went into law thinking it was black and white – you are guilty/not guilty. You owe the money/you don’t. Over the years, it became obvious this is not the case.

And now, thanks to my wife, I can bring psych articles to your attention to show why. Lucky you.

She sent me a paper by Ian Weinstein, published in the Clinical Law Review called “Don’t Believe Everything You Think: Cognitive Bias in Legal Decision” (volume 9, no. 2 of the Spring of 2003 if you really need to look it up).

Cognitive bias? It is a persuasive error in decision making. Gamblers exhibit it when they believe that a slot is about to hit it big or when they play the same lotto numbers each week thinking that the numbers have to come up sometime. The error in decision making? They ignore or do not understand the laws of probability.

As lawyers, we need to recognize that clients come in with cognitive biases when they walk in the door. And that we have them ourselves.

Clients may have a misguided understanding of the legal system (I blame all those darn TV shows). Lawyers that have been in the system awhile may just take it for granted that the client has the same understanding. That is a bad way to start a lawyer/client relationship.

Here is a quote from page 787 of the article:

“Our clients should have the best predictions about the future and the best assessments of the relative merits of their choices before them when they apply their own personal preferences to make their decisions. Understanding bias will not yield perfect decisions but it can improve the process of decision making. If we understand the counseling process as, in part, guiding our client’s information processing along a well trod, but sometimes problematic path toward predictions and assessments of relative merit, we may be more patient and effective counselors …”

Some words to remember when you walk in the door and we shake hands.

Paul H. Voorn