The Lawyer Is IN

Family law attorney John Karanian was once a shrink for the CIA        

Published in 2008 Virginia Super Lawyers magazine

By Erin Gulden on June 26, 2008


During the discovery phase of a recent custody dispute, opposition counsel accused John K. Karanian’s client of child abuse.

“They had an art therapist,” Karanian says. “They were going to use art therapy”—that is, psychoanalysis of a child’s artwork—”and daily interactions with the child to walk into court and say the child was abused.”

So Karanian wrote up a list of questions for his co-counsel to debunk the therapist’s methods and call into question the scientific validity of the testimony. In the end, the judge didn’t even allow the therapist to testify.

“It was a great experience,” the Barnes & Diehl associate says. “My goal is to raise the standards in mental health assessment and procedure. We want the highest standards out of our experts.”

Karanian is well versed in those standards. He can’t tell you much about the work he did in the 1990s evaluating the psychological state of prisoners. He definitely can’t tell you about similar work he did for the CIA. But he can and will wax philosophic about the reasons his background as a clinical and forensic psychologist fits perfectly with his current practice in family law.

“As a psychologist I had one piece and the lawyers had the other pieces,” Karanian says. “I thought the psychology know-how would be a great fit with the legal know-how.”

Karanian earned his doctorate of psychology at the University of Hartford and worked in various prisons at the state and federal level in North Carolina and Virginia before going to the CIA. There, the thought of switching to the law began brewing inside him. He liked the similarities between disciplines: analysis, interviewing collateral sources, trying to figure out if someone is ill or faking it, guilty or not guilty.

Because of his background working with criminals, Karanian assumed he would leave T.C. Williams School of Law and enter the criminal law field. But a class in family law changed all that.

“[Family law] brought in so many of my skills as a psychologist,” Karanian says. “I really have an understanding of what motivates people. And I have a better understanding of mental health issues like alcoholism, and issues of violence and aggression that tend to come up in these types of cases.”

Karanian says he is his client’s lawyer—not his or her psychologist—but understanding the feelings people have during stressful times, such as divorce, can help during the settlement stage.

“[Clients] go through weeks where they are angry and want to take everything away, or give everything away,” Karanian says. “I can tell a judge, ‘This is the right time to negotiate.'”

Now Karanian, who maintains his clinical psychology license, is involved with the Virginia Child Custody Evaluation Workshop, which works with lawyers to recognize what constitutes a good expert and how to work with the opposition toward the best solution for the child. And unlike his past work, this is an area he is happy to talk about.        


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