Professional organizations in forensic psychiatry offer unique opportunities for career development. They also keep professionals abreast of the constant changes at the interface of psychiatry and the law. This is crucial because the complexities of psychiatry and law require more than the usual attunement to scholarly advances. Law advances as rapidly as psychiatry, with constant legislative changes and precedent-setting court decisions affecting the field. Each change requires new directions in forensic expertise as experts move into new areas of scholarship and practice. Professional organizations consequently monitor these changes and direct professionals along burgeoning career paths.
The American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law (AAPL), for example, draws practitioners to its annual meetings from across the globe. This group was founded in 1969 as a professional resource for a small group of individuals working to “continue our exchange of information” and “further forensic psychiatry” (1). It grew in size and influence during the 1970s and 1980s, adding chapters in New York, Northern California, and the Midwest. In 1977, the organization established its growing archive at Cornell’s History of Medicine department.
In 1985, the AAPL introduced the Rappeport Fellowship for psychiatry residents who show promise as forensic psychiatrists. Named for AAPL charter member and cofounder Jonas Rappeport, it provided a launching pad for trainees who would contribute significantly to the field. As forensic psychiatry grew and achieved formal recognition as a subspecialty by the American Board of Medical Specialties in the 1990s, AAPL came to represent over 1,900 North American subspecialists. AAPL now includes experts in fields as diverse as corrections, cross-cultural evaluation, juvenile sex offenders, psychopharmacology, malingering, and competence assessment. Its members have testified in some of the most influential legal cases of our time, including landmark cases in civil commitment, prisoners’ rights, and criminal law.
An annual meeting of the AAPL is held at a site in the United States or Canada, providing a wealth of educational and social interactions for forensic psychiatrists. In addition, a smaller semiannual meeting is held in conjunction with the annual APA meeting.
The AAPL’s breadth of expertise offers important opportunities for junior faculty. The annual meetings are a case in point. Presentations by established practitioners expose fellows and early career forensic psychiatrists to broad-based expertise; AAPL meetings provide opportunities to meet senior members at informal breakfasts and luncheons. Collaborations originate from panel discussions and poster sessions alike, as audience members establish contacts that grow into collegial relationships.
AAPL committees, in particular, are a powerful source of collaboration and career development. Committees examine issues in ethics in forensic psychiatry, encourage better forensic psychiatric training in general psychiatry residency programs, seek to improve correctional psychiatry, and assist in career development of forensic practitioners. The Association of Directors of Forensic Psychiatry Fellowships, which meets as a committee of AAPL, is an important resource and catalyst for such advances. AAPL committees, in general, present annual panels and workshops, introducing members to one another’s interests. New members can begin as observers, develop a particular interest, and, through mentorship and collaboration, become panel and committee chairs. These interactions were particularly useful for one of us early in the years of assessing sex offenders: the best available consultants were colleagues on AAPL committees.
Development of specific expertise often translates into broader responsibility as members become involved in the development of practice guidelines or representation in the broader interactions with APA and other professional organizations. AAPL has published a series of important practice guidelines and position statements on issues as diverse as the proper conduct of insanity defense evaluations to a call for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty.
Mentorship is a particular strength of the organization, as founders and senior leadership take a particular interest in encouraging new practitioners. Casual reception meetings with fellowship directors at the annual conference are as important to many of us as discussions of forensic research with independently funded researchers. Workshops in developing an independent practice have been an important starting point for many current practitioners.
Regional caucuses of the AAPL provide members with an opportunity to discuss issues of forensic psychiatric practice specific to areas of the country; many regions have annual meetings, which allow forensic psychiatrists to get better acquainted with their neighboring fellow professionals.
The AAPL has made a specific effort to bolster forensic research and education by establishing a foundation for research and development. The foundation, incorporated in 2003, issued Requests for Proposals in late 2005 for educational products and research that specifically benefit forensic psychiatry. The intent is to encourage developing scholars to turn their interests to the specific issues at the crossroads of law and psychiatry.
Continuing medical education by the AAPL is likewise an important element of professional development. The organization’s annual review course spans 3 days before the annual meeting and draws hundreds of practitioners who are preparing for board certification or otherwise updating their skills. Workshops and symposia at the annual meeting are CME accredited, and coursework for international physicians is also accredited by the American Medical Association. The 2005 annual conference in Montreal, Quebec, was specifically designed to be a part of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology’s comprehensive Lifelong Learning Program.
The AAPL provides a collegial, welcoming atmosphere for the professional development of forensic psychiatrists. Membership is open to members of APA, the Canadian Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and their foreign counterparts.
We are grateful to Jacquelyn Coleman, CAE, executive director of the AAPL, for her review of an early version of the manuscript.