An Advocate for the Data

Last week I had the pleasure of spending the day with our forensic psychology doctoral student, Lauren Farwell. (Both of us also had the pleasure of getting up at 4:00 a.m. to drive to Ft. Worth for a hearing, but that’s another matter.)

During our drive, we had a great conversation about why forensic psychologists have a much better quality of life than criminal defense lawyers. Specifically, in our differing roles as advocates.

As a criminal defense lawyer, I advocate for my clients. My work involves personal relationships, connection with my client, understanding what they want, and then developing multiple negotiation and litigation strategies to achieve their goal. If I am successful, I feel a personal sense of pride. If I am unsuccessful, I hold myself accountable for where my advocacy failed and should be improved. Like my clients, I do not know the outcome or what will happen in their case. I worry. I accept and ingest stress in exchange for attorney’s fees. And I could not have picked a better profession for my personality type and what I love to do.

In many respects, Lauren gets to know my clients far more intimately that I ever will. Many of the questions asked during the battery of tests in a psychological evaluation go to the core of a person, and Lauren’s skill in helping people open up and participate in the conversation allows her to have a far more intense relationship in 7 hours than I develop with some clients in 7 months. But although she deals with people’s emotions and thought-processes, she only cares about one thing: her data. Whereas I defend the person, she defends the validity of her data. She doesn’t worry about the ultimate outcome; she only worries about the integrity of the process in collecting and reporting data. While I stay away all night preparing for trial as an advocate, her only worry is that the judge or jury accurately understands her assessment and interpretation of the data. Suffice to say, she gets better sleep than I do because there are a thousand fewer variables to worry about. And like me, her personality is a beautiful fit for her profession.

In a perfect world, everybody in the criminal justice system – except for criminal defense lawyers – are like Lauren: advocates for the data. Police officers report the facts neutrally. Witnesses don’t shade their testimony as if they had a stake in the outcome. Judges and elected officials make evidence-based decisions instead of what might hurt their chances for re-election.

I’m sure many lawyers (criminal defense lawyers, in particular) see themselves as advocates for the data. (“I didn’t do the crime, so I’m not worried about doing the time.”) I may be a completely gullible, nonsensical, bleeding heart, naive advocate – but data can’t give you a hug or a high five; data doesn’t send you graduate invitations or thank you notes; data doesn’t drop off a blanket for your new baby. Last week was an emotionally exhausting week for me, but it was incredibly fulfilling.

For me, that’s all the data I need.

(image via flickr)

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