Creating a forensic subspecialty

By Eric G. Mart, Ph.D., ABPP
February 22, 2015 - Last updated: February 6, 2015

Creating a forensic subspecialtyThere are many reasons to add a forensic subspecialty in your practice. Maybe you are becoming burned out by the demands of HIPAA and managed care; who wouldn’t be? Perhaps you have excellent assessment skills and would like to use them in a different and more challenging arena. Maybe you could use a new revenue stream.

In any case, you have been thinking about trying forensics but are unsure how to go about preparing yourself and then marketing your skills once you are ready. It can be done, but let’s be clear; it will take considerable effort and it is not for everyone.

How can you know if forensic practice is for you? Based on my experience, there are a number of prerequisites:

  • You need a solid basis in psychological assessment. Not only do you need excellent testing and interviewing skills, you have to know some of the science behind the tests. You don’t need to be Wechsler, Catell or Reynolds, but you will need to be able to field questions about what the tests measure and how.
  • You should be comfortable speaking in public in an adversarial setting. Unlike case conferences and presentations, there is likely to be a highly trained attorney asking questions designed to raise questions about your training, your methodology and your conclusions. Forensic psychology is no place for the thin-skinned.
  • You have to be willing to put in the hours of preparation to allow you to do your assessments knowledgably, professionally and ethically. This includes reading the authoritative text, articles (on an ongoing basis) and attending high quality workshops. You’ll need some supervision as well.

Assuming you have these qualities and you have prepared properly, your first forays into forensic work should be closely related to the kind of psychology practice you already know. For example, child clinicians can start with child custody, parenting assessments and educational due process cases. Geropsychologists might consider assessments for guardianship and testamentary capacity. Those in correctional settings may want to start with sentencing evaluations and competency to stand trial.

Again, be very sure you are properly prepared. Lack of knowledge and slipshod methods will quickly be discovered in the courtroom. The importance of receiving guidance and consultation from an experienced forensic psychologist initially cannot be overstated.

Perhaps the biggest problem for those trying to enter this area of practice is letting the people who might hire you know that you do this kind of work. In my experience and my research with my colleagues, a number of methods of breaking into the forensic field seem to be the most effective:

1. Present some papers and publish some articles. You may not be in a position to do hard research, but your reading and preparation are bound to get you thinking about some of the issues in the field. Topics for review articles and “think pieces” are bound to occur to you. You can start by presenting at regional conferences and publishing in the local bar newsletter. You already wrote a dissertation; 10 pages on a topic of forensic interest shouldn’t be too difficult.

2. Speak to local bar sections (matrimonial, elder law, early career etc.) child protection agencies, probation and parole departments and schools. They all need training hours and are all looking for speakers. Speak to any group however small that might be a potential market for your services. Word of mouth works best of any marketing strategy.

3. Get a web page and provide content of interest to your market such as links to important new articles and other sites. A word of caution; if you are not very good at designing web pages, have it done professionally. An amateurish webpage is off-putting to prospective clients.

If you research your market carefully, you will probably find that there are areas in which agencies and other organizations are having difficulty finding clinicians to do certain types of assessments. This is usually because the work is less desirable or underpaid.

For example, in some of the jurisdictions in which I practice, courts and child protection agencies are having difficulty finding psychologists to evaluate court-referred juveniles, because the reimbursement is so low. You might want to consider taking some of these cases. The benefits include the fact that you will meet potential referral sources for other types of cases, you will have a high volume of cases on which to hone your skills and you will begin to establish your bona fides.

Less effective methods of marketing are print ads in bar journals, elaborate listings in phone books and mass mailings. They are expensive and don’t seem to garner much attention.

All of this is easier to write about than to accomplish. I cannot emphasize too strongly that it is absolutely essential to be sure you have developed the requisite skills. Slipshod work will be quickly discovered and revealed very publicly. An in-depth knowledge of the ethical standards of forensic psychology is the base on which a successful practice is built.

Important issues are informed by forensic assessments and the work must be taken very seriously. But if you are willing to work hard, research your market and do quality work, you are bound to have some degree of success in forensic practice.

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