When a legal team looks to retain an expert witness, they are seeking an individual with deep experience and an ability to compellingly demonstrate knowledge of a specific topic. However, the search for the ideal expert may be complicated by the fact that the legal team must also work under strict budget restrictions without impeding the expert’s ability to conduct work effectively.
Working with legal teams and expert witnesses every day for the past 26 years has highlighted several budgeting best practices that we at Round Table Group are delighted to share with our clients.
Budgeting for an expert witness commonly results in certain missteps. If legal teams and their clients enter the collaboration with a finite budget for their retained expert, it can limit the expert’s ability to carry out their work effectively. Additionally, expert expenses can balloon in a short period of time if the groups are not in sync, resulting in cost overruns due to a misunderstanding of restrictions or expectations.
Practicing mindfulness throughout the collaboration with an expert helps ensure that original budgets are not exceeded. Being adaptable to budget tweaks along the way can help ensure the expert has the ability to perform the work diligently. Moreover, if attorneys remain mindful of budgets and keep their experts informed of expectations, no surprises will arise and experts will feel empowered to confidently conduct their work.
It is useful to think about budgets in terms of time spent instead of monetary terms. This shift in perspective establishes clear expectations and helps an expert estimate the cost of each task, as they often have a more accurate sense of the amount of time a project should take. Thus, attorneys have greater predictability and experts have a more immediate handle on whether they are staying within expected constraints, or if they need to reach out to the attorney team.
Collaboration can become contentious should budgeting estimates prove inaccurate. Attorneys tend to request estimates from experts early in the retention process. At this stage there is often a loose understanding of the scope of the work being conducted. It is extremely challenging to predict the amount of time required to complete a task without reviewing the related documents or knowing the degree to which the expert will be involved.
In our experience, attorneys often discuss a project in terms of “stacks” or “boxes” of documents. While an expert can be told that there are three boxes of documents that require review, the size and contents of those boxes remains a mystery and can dramatically impact the accuracy of an estimate. What is in each box? What needs to be read? Will those documents lead to other materials that also need to be reviewed? These variables can only be addressed after retention, when an expert becomes familiar with the actual materials.
There are certain documents whose content size is traditionally easier to estimate. For example, many doctors are familiar enough with standard medical records, and can postulate the amount of time that reviewing an inch of documents would take them. While this method of estimation may have some value, it is still imprecise.
As a general best practice, Round Table Group recommends legal teams initially establish a specific number of hours to conduct a preliminary review. This cost-conscious approach allows the expert to take a set amount of time to begin reviewing documents, after which the expert can provide a progress report and informed estimate of the time to complete the rest of the project before moving on. This provides a much more informed estimate prior to the authorization of more work.
At the root of most budgeting issues is a communication gap. Issues may arise on either side, and often neither the attorney nor the expert expresses concern until it becomes a problem. All legal teams should conduct regular conversations with their expert(s)and prioritize discussions related to time spent on specific projects. This is the best way to proactively control the budget.
Communication is a two-way street, and accountability is expected from the expert witness as well. Experts should keep the attorneys updated on their progress and how many hours they spend on specific tasks. If an expert anticipates additional hours beyond those already budgeted are necessary, the expert must notify the legal team.
Attorneys who regularly check in with their experts collaborate more effectively and avoid surprises.
As an expert witness search firm, Round Table Group understands the importance of accurate budgeting and the repercussions of miscalculations. By following these four best practices, attorneys can avoid unexpected missteps throughout the process.