Robert Handfield is a Professor of Supply Chain Management at North Carolina State University and Executive Director and Founder of the Supply Chain Resource Cooperative. He has studied and worked in supply chains for over 30 years and has been an expert witness since 2010.
In this episode . . .
Robert discusses the uptick of supply chain cases he’s been involved in since COVID, specifically around buyer-seller contracts. He has learned many things from his expert witness experience and his “sweet spot” is educating the jury, explaining things in a “simple, direct way.” He shares there are a couple basic principles to stand by as an expert, “One, always tells the truth. Number two is to stick to your lane. Do not try to speculate or guess something you do not feel comfortable about. It is okay to say, ‘I do not know,’ which is acceptable.”
Note: Transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Host: Michelle Loux, Assistant Project Manager, Round Table Group
Guest: Robert Handfield, Professor of Supply Chain Management, NC State University and Executive Director and founder of the Supply Chain Resource Cooperative
Michelle Loux: Thank you for joining us today at Discussions at the Round Table. Today, my guest is Rob Handfield. He is the Bank of America University Distinguished Professor of Supply Chain Management at North Carolina State University. He is also the Executive Director and Founder of the Supply Chain Resource Cooperative and an expert witness in supply chain management. Please share your background and how you first became an expert witness.
Robert Handfield: I have studied and worked in supply chains for over 30 years. I enjoy publishing in academic journals and working with business in general. I have enjoyed working with companies and learning about what they are doing, and about 20 years ago, I founded something called the Supply Chain Resource Cooperative. It was a way for students and faculty to work with businesses and create innovation and thought leadership in supply chain management. We have done over 700 projects with companies as part of our MBA in the undergraduate curriculum at NC State. I am interested in what is going on, and what is fascinating is this field is constantly changing. New developments, technology, and issues that arise have led to many exciting engagements, which I will be happy to share with you during the podcast today.
Michelle Loux: How did you first become an expert witness?
Robert Handfield: I have been busy recently, especially since the COVID pandemic. A large pharmaceutical company approached me and asked me to testify in a suit concerning their capacity and ability to manufacture products to meet market demand. There has been a real uptick in supply chain problems. It was during the 1st H1N1 pandemic that occurred around 2010. I do work with contracts and managing relationships between buyers and sellers. I have observed strained relationships, leading to more lawsuits involving patent law around supply chain software, disagreements or problems in production related to contracts, and contract breaches. As a result, this has increased the demand for my expertise concerning these buyer-seller relationships in supply chains.
Michelle Loux: COVID has changed the global economy and supply chain platform in the last few years. Has there been anything that has shifted your approach as an expert witness in this field?
Robert Handfield: During COVID, a contract acquisition officer colleague in the Air Force country invited me to join the Joint Acquisition Task Force, which began in March 2020. They were helping find sources of PPE that were in short supply. My colleague said, “Look, we can’t pay you anything, but we want you to come and help us.” I said, “Sure, I can help.” I did not know I would be on the phone from 8:00 a.m. to late at night with FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security about the national stockpile. I was recommending them, and we had graduate students research to identify PPE sources for healthcare. Working with this task force opened my eyes to the fact that we were unprepared for this pandemic. Ironically, in 2010 I had written a report for IBM on planning for the inevitable. How do we prepare for the next pandemic? I do not think anyone read it because we were unprepared. The report allowed me to understand how outsourcing to places like China and India makes us vulnerable and dependent on these countries for our drugs, PPE, healthcare supplies, and semiconductors. I think it is driving a significant shift. We wrote a book called Flow: How the Best Supply Chains Thrive. It talks about how some of those changes have occurred. The book came out this past year.
Michelle Loux: Could you talk to me about your expert witness experience? What do you know now that you wish you had known the first time you were an expert witness? Do you wish you had put things in place on organization, networking, or questions to ask an attorney in that first interview? What would you do differently now?
Robert Handfield: I have learned many things from my expert witness experience around supply chains. I am first looking for whether I feel good about this position. Do I feel good about taking a stance and putting my stake in the ground defending this client on this issue? It is not a good fit if I do not feel good about it. You must tell the truth and stand by your principles as an expert witness. You have to know when to say no. You must know when to stand back and say, “I have a conflict of interest and do not agree.” Standing by your principles is essential.
Michelle Loux: Are there questions on your first phone calls with attorneys before being retained about the case details you want to know? How do you organize that information to see if you are the right fit?
Robert Handfield: An essential part of the question is how I can help in this case. What would you want me to testify on? If it is outside what I know or feels comfortable, then you know it is not a good fit. Many people approach me as an educator and say, “We want you to help educate the jury.” That is my sweet spot. I love to teach and educate. I am good at it, and I have written several textbooks. I know how to explain things in a simple, direct way. So, if it makes people aware, what do you want me to do? Is it to educate the jury? Is it to frame this issue? Please describe what you would like me to testify to in my report.
Michelle Loux: Is there a particular flow when you write your reports? Do you write most of it or have a team behind you to help organize, collect the data, and present it? How do you approach writing your expert witness reports?
Robert Handfield: I think data is always essential. I like to frame the report by saying, “Okay, what questions am I to answer? Let’s be clear on the scope of what you want me to answer.” Getting those questions right is essential. Once you get those questions, you can say, “Okay, well, I need to start with some basics.” I need to start with what is the supply chain. Why are supply chains crucial? Where does your stuff come from? Supplying an overview of what is happening in the big picture and then focusing on “Let’s look at this particular supply chain and this particular issue. How do these principles apply to these general?” Then, if there is data available, I will look at that data and do an analysis. I have done that in opioid cases. We have some brilliant Ph.D. students at NC State who are good with large datasets, statistical analysis, and modeling. I rely on them to help me with some of those cases. They are much better at it than I am. I am a good writer and understand data, but I am not good at manipulating it. It is a team effort.
Michelle Loux: Any advice you have received over the years that you have taken to heart and utilized on the stand?
Robert Handfield: There are two types that I have done. I do many depositions and testimony in some cases, and I think the one principle I enjoy is the attorney’s coaching sessions. They are good at coaching people for depositions. I always pay attention and listen to what they have to say so that we can prepare ourselves better. There are a few basic principles. One always tells the truth. Number two is to stick to your lane. Do not try to speculate or guess something you do not feel comfortable about. It is okay to say, “I do not know,” which is acceptable. That was a big aha moment for me. They asked me, and I did not know the answer. And I said, “I do not know.” It is okay to be able to say that, especially in the deposition.
Michelle Loux: Have you been prepared for that cross-examination?
Robert Handfield: Understanding the types of questions, the attorneys you work with often are made. They will advise you ahead of time that they will ask these questions. And here are your responses. You need to stick to the details. Your safe spot is always your report. If you have any doubts, go back to it. The attorneys have combed over it. Anything in there is safe. That is good to know. You do not want to get too far outside those boundaries. Where you get into trouble is when you go outside those boundaries.
Michelle Loux: Have you been an expert outside the United States in a different country?
Robert Handfield: I was an expert witness in a case in Australia. It was the first case I was involved with, and the rules for expert witnesses differ. There are many exciting areas in that case. For instance, in some countries, attorney discussions are not privileged. You can share them with the other party: written communications, especially ours, may be protected. I have worked on several reports but have never been asked to testify outside the United States.
Michelle Loux: You’ve done many expert witness reports. Have you found things run differently in California courts than in North Carolina or Florida courts? Do you have to be certified as an expert witness in the industry that you are in before you can go to another state? What are some things you must overcome to get that expert witness classification?
Robert Handfield: I have not had any experience of having to be certified. I will say that I have been involved in cases in California involving the high-tech industry. Many of those cases involve patent laws and patent infringement. Those cases involve how to import these products; they call them accused products into the United States. The United States is the only country with patent laws enforced to this extent. It can be challenging because most electronics imported to the United States come from Asia. They come from China, Taiwan, Japan, or Malaysia. Different circumstances exist around how these imported products enter the United States from these faraway places. It is not easy to show how these products enter the United States. The idea of these global distribution networks is particularly important to these California tech companies. Are people aware they infringe on patents as they enter the United States?
Michelle Loux: You mentioned imports from foreign countries. Is there a translator involved during discovery when deciding if that is something you have seen before?
Robert Handfield: I have had to work with a couple of global companies and was involved in one case involving a sizeable Korean manufacturer. There had to be some translation of Korean depositions and documents into English. The translation does not always carry over. Sometimes the translations are good, some are better, so, you must work around those areas and be careful in how you interpret those documents.
Michelle Loux: Is there anything about your journey as an expert witness that you would like to end with, and what are you looking forward to as your next steps?
Robert Handfield: I am enjoying this journey of discovery. The broad area of supply chain management has much to learn about warehouse management, transportation management, and contracting patent law. I am fortunate to have fallen into this area 30 years ago. I get involved in different cases that revolve around supply chains. I have had fun and enjoyed learning from my involvement in each case.
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