Friday, November 16, 2012

Jean Sternlight Digs into the Psychology of Lawyering

Being able to understand the mindset of clients, witnesses, and fellow lawyers can have a profound impact on legal proceedings.

Jean Sternlight, Director of the Saltman Center for Conflict Resolution and Michael and Sonja Saltman Professor of Law, has spent a sizable portion of her career helping drive that point home.

This semester, Sternlight is teaching a class on Psychology and Lawyering, which she said is based on her recently published book, Psychology for Lawyers:  Understanding the Human Factors in Negotiation, Litigation and Decision Making. She co-wrote the book with Jennifer Robbennolt, Professor of Law and Psychology at the University of Illinois College of Law.

Sternlight said this book was a long time in the making.

“I had the idea for this book as soon as I moved from practice to academia, but it took me a while to get around to it. For one thing, I had to find a good co-author,” she said. “So a couple of years ago, I hooked up with my co-author who teaches at the University of Illinois. She’s a Ph.D. psychologist; so I think between the two of us, we have a good skill set to try and address these issues.”

Sternlight added that this book should be beneficial to students and professionals alike.

“What the book is designed to do is teach both law students and lawyers a lot of cognitive and social psychology that we think would be useful to them as attorneys,” Sternlight said. “The first eight chapters of the book go into various types of psychology… and then the latter chapters take all those basic aspects of psychology and apply them to things like interviewing clients, counseling clients, negotiation, mediation, discovery, writing and ethics. Then the last chapter discusses lawyers’ productivity and success.”

Sternlight noted that while many applications of psychology in law are covered, the book avoids trial advocacy because that is what psychology is normally applied to in law.

“There’s been lots written about how you can use psychology in the courtroom, how you can use psychology with juries; and although that’s fairly important, it turns out that these days, hardly any cases even go to trial anyway, so lawyers spend a lot more time on the areas we chose to talk about,” she said.

One example she pointed to was a story of when she practiced law and realized that people’s memories were not as good as she thought, and that it was more suspicious if two people remembered the same traumatic event in the exact same way. She said that she gets this point across in her class by doing a social experiment.

“I did an exercise on the first day of class where my assistant came in to hand me an object, which was actually a rubber chicken, and she wore weird clothes like a backward baseball hat and an unusual purse,” she said, “and then I handed out a survey to see what [the students] remembered of the encounter. It turned out that they had very different memories of what had transpired.”

Besides teaching, Sternlight works as Director of the Saltman Center for Conflict Resolution. She will teach a course in Alternative Dispute Resolution in the spring semester.

For more information on the Saltman Center, click here. Click here for the latest issue of the Saltman Newsletter.

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