What is an Expert Witness?
While many people think it takes an advanced degree to become an expert witness, the law says you can be an expert witness through training, education, or experience. It’s not necessary that you have all three. Many experts come from the medical and engineering fields, but it’s entirely possible to be an expert car mechanic or plumber. In fact, there are experts in hundreds of different specialties.
Making a living as an Expert Witness, on the other hand, requires clients. While there are thousands of medical malpractice cases requiring medical experts, the number of cases involving plumbers are few and far between. Your success in getting projects will depend on the amount of litigation in your field and the number of expert witnesses available. Other variables that may impact your success will be your geographic location and ability to travel.
Skills and attributes. While your most important qualifications are your training and experience, you will also need to have superior analytical and communication skills. As an Expert Witness, you will need to analyze large amounts of information and come up with intelligent conclusions. Most importantly, you will need to communicate your findings both verbally and in writing. In most cases, an attorney will choose you as an expert witness based on a telephone or in-person interview. To make the decision, an attorney will want to determine if you understand the key elements of the case, and are able to communicate your opinion effectively.
References, recommendations, and integrity. Recommendations and references are not as important as your resume, and your ability to communicate effectively. Ethics violations or criminal activity, however, will make it difficult, if not impossible, to obtain work as an Expert Witness. Attorneys are good researchers and will be able to ferret out any negative information in your background. As you begin your career as an Expert Witness, the decisions you make starting on your first day will impact your career in the long run. To avoid preventable mistakes, take the time to understand your new profession by investing in books and preparation classes.
Testifying and cross-examinations. A small percentage of the work of an Expert Witness is testifying in court. The largest number of consultations will involve giving expert opinions to lawyers. The next largest number of engagements will be writing reports. An even smaller number will involve going to court to give a deposition. By the time you get down to testifying in court in front of a judge and jury, you’re looking at less than 5 percent of all Expert Witness assignments. Once you get to the point of testifying in court, you should not underestimate the power of an attorney to shake your confidence. If you are the type of person that has a difficult time with confrontation, this is not the line of work for you.
Consulting rates. Hourly rates vary substantially, depending on your field and level of expertise. A civil engineer may make $100 to $150 an hour, while a high powered medical expert may make $400 to $500 an hour. While you would expect that lower rates would yield more work, it doesn’t work that way. If you are perceived as “too cheap” many lawyers will feel your expertise is substandard.
Expenses. In most cases, travel and other related out-of-pocket expenses are paid by the attorney. Usually, experts have some kind of written retainer agreement or written contract that details how expenses are handled.
Marketing. To get started in the business, most experts develop a web page focusing on a particular niche. Once they’ve established their web presence, they can have their services listed on one of the major expert network directories. Another alternative is to sign-up with an Expert Witness Service that not only handles the marketing aspects of becoming an expert witness, but takes care of scheduling, project management, billing, and collections. This can be an attractive alternative, especially for those experts whose full-time commitments don’t allow time for all of the administrative activities involved. For a list of Expert Witness Services, see our Expert Directory.
If you are intellectually curious, comfortable with confrontation, and enjoy solving complex problems, a career as an Expert Witness might be for you. Before you begin, take the time to study the field by purchasing a few books or taking a course. The investment you make today will pay dividends in the future.