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Lawyer Psychology

To be better negotiators, attorneys have to get into the minds of clients and witnesses. Professor's new book delves into the psychological principles that lawyers (and laypeople) need to know as well as legal statutes.

People  |  Nov 26, 2012  |  By Sean Jaramillo

Jean Sternlight, law professor and director of the Saltman Center for Conflict Resolution (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Photo Services)

Jean Sternlight goes to extremes to make a point to her Boyd Law School students. To illustrate the tricks our brain can play in remembering an incident — and the impact that can have on legal proceedings — she asks an assistant to don a crazy costume.

“My assistant came (into class) 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,” Sternlight 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.”

As a practicing attorney, Sternlight was struck by why witnesses remembered things differently. She learned to be cautious when two people remember the same traumatic event in the same way. Attorneys, she said, will do well to remember that the mindset of clients, witnesses, and fellow lawyers can have a profound impact on legal proceedings.

Sternlight is the Michael and Sonja Saltman Professor of Law at the Boyd School of Law. She is also the director of the school’s Saltman Center for Conflict Resolution. 

Knowledge of psychology can be helpful to negotiators in other ways, too. For example, negotiators who understand the psychology of loss aversion will word their offer in such a way as to convince their opponent that they may well lose something of value if they do not accept the offer. Similarly, those who are familiar with the psychology of social proof can use it to convince a negotiation counterpart that the proposed settlement is consistent with generally accepted practices and therefore ought to be accepted.

This semester, she is teaching “Psychology and Lawyering,” a class based on her new 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.

“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 book delves into basic principles of social and cognitive psychology and applies them to aspects of legal practice, such as client interviews and counseling, negotiation, mediation, discovery, legal writing, and ethics. The last chapter discusses lawyers’ productivity and success.

One area she avoids in the new book is trial psychology.

“There’s been a lot 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.