Dear Mental Health Professionals:
I am a family lawyer. For the last 25 years, I have represented families in crisis. I have read reports, deposed and examined psychologists, psychiatrists, licensed clinical social workers and mental health professionals more times than I can count. The questions I get the most from folks in your field are, “How do I advocate effectively for my patient in a legal setting?” or “How do I defend my opinions when challenged?”
After so many years of preparing you as my witnesses, or challenging you because you are the witness for the other side, here are the tips I have for you.
- Always have your resume. Assume no one knows what your credentials are. Be prepared to tell us what your education and experience are, and what licenses you have.
- Always tell us all the facts you relied on – and what facts you chose not to rely on. Tell us why you relied on that fact. Also tell us where you received that information from – was it your patient? A lawyer? Google?
- Always tell us what methods you used, and why you used those methods rather than some other method. Make sure you can explain why mental health service providers rely on this method. Did you administer a test? Why? Did you just do “talk” therapy? Why?
- Always tell us what your opinion is, by applying the methods to the facts. The biggest mistake that mental health service providers make is assuming that we will understand how you reached your conclusions. We won’t. Connect the dots for us.
Here are the things you should not worry about:
- Don’t worry if you aren’t a PhD Psychologist with 30 years of experience. You are an expert if you have training, education or experience that a typical person on the street doesn’t have.
- Don’t worry if the facts are not “legally admissible” in court. That’s a legal standard, not a mental health professional’s standard. If it’s a fact you’d rely on as a provider, then it’s a fine fact to recite.
- Don’t worry if you only used one method, or if for some reason you didn’t do every possible test. Just be able to explain why you did what you did (or didn’t do).
- Don’t be scared to give your opinion. That’s why you are there. Give your opinion strongly and stick with it until someone gives you a really good reason to change it. Just be sure you are giving a professional opinion – not a personal opinion and certainly not a legal opinion.
And finally, please don’t give up. Don’t run away from the court system. Of course it is unpleasant at times – it’s an adversarial process, and mental health professionals like to resolve conflict, not engage in it. You know your patients better than the lawyers do. Family law is deeply personal and important. We lawyers need your help to advocate for our clients, and especially for children. Call us out if we are doing something destructive. Engage us.
Thank you for all your hard work. We actually are all in this together.
Margaret Held is the founding attorney at Held Law Firm.