February 26, 2014

Inaugural "Psychology and Lawyering: Coalescing the Field" Conference

I was thrilled to have been part of the "first inaugural" Psychology and Lawyering: Coalescing the Field conference in Las Vegas. This two-day event was co-sponsored by the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, University of Illinois College of Law, and UC Davis School of Law. Over 100 lawyers, law scholars, judges and psychologists attended the energizing presentations. Unlike other law and psychology conferences, this one focused on how to use psychology to improve all aspects of lawyering - from managing juror expectations about the emotions of child witnesses (which featured research from the laboratory of Dr. Gail Goodman from UC Davis Psychology) to how to teach emotional intelligence concepts to law students so that they can increase client satisfaction.

We hosted the keynote address and reception, which featured a thought-provoking talk by Tom Tyler from Yale Law School. He discussed his compelling research on how perceptions of procedural justice shape the perceived legitimacy of the legal system. He persuasively argued that punitive sanctions for disobeying the law have less influence on people's willingness to abide by the law compared to measures that are geared towards making the legal system more subjectively appealing to its constituents.  This "better" approach - supported by significant psychological research - entails shaping the legal system so that people regard it as a procedurally fair one. Many studies link legitimacy to the exercise of authority through legal procedures that laypeople subjectively view as fair. When people perceive the system as fair, even if the outcomes of legal proceedings do not go their way, or they come across rules now and again that they do not favor, they are more apt to respect the legal system enough to willingly comply with the law.  Insofar as public order flows from a shared commitment to the law and the legitimacy of legal authorities, society is better off with such voluntary compliance. But creating legitimate systems is no easy task. And it requires understanding how everyday people make fairness judgments - something that fits squarely within the purview of psychological research.  By reminding us of this, Tom Tyler's inspiring words set the tone for the future work of this new group and those who will join it in the future.

During one of the "working lunches," we gathered in small groups to brainstorm future projects that could better marry psychology and lawyering.  We left with eager volunteers who would moderate the new listserv on the topic of psychology and lawyering, and others still who would host the next several conferences (get ready for SUNY Buffalo Law School in 2015!).   If you would like to learn more, feel free to join us on the listserv: http://mail.law.unlv.edu/mailman/listinfo/lawyeringpsych.

Thanks to Jean Sternlight (UNLV) for coming up with the idea for this fine event and making it a reality.  And special thanks to Dean Kevin R. Johnson and the Dean's Office for so generously supporting this innovative bridge between academic research and the practice of law.