Background: The increasing complexity of psychiatric research, including recent attempts to evaluate mental health legislation, suggests legal advice may be valuable in a wide range of research contexts. Aims: We aim to illustrate both the legal pitfalls of research in psychiatry and the potential for solutions if the methods are carefully chosen. Method: Two examples of research are subject to legal analysis, one involving advance directives, the other the random discharge of compulsory out-patients. Results: This analysis illustrates that participation in research may expose clinicians to additional forms of liability, but the legal risks can be minimised through changes in the methods or additional safeguards. Conclusions: Collaboration between academic law and psychiatry can enrich research agendas and avoid serious legal pitfalls. We argue that sound legal advice should be sought at the planning stage of research in psychiatry, but the fear of liability should not lead to overly defensive research practices. The aim should be to strike the right balance between avoiding unacceptable exposure to liability and stifling innovative research. Declaration of interest: The clinical trial of advance directives is funded by the NHS Research and Development Executive, London.