In this episode…
On this episode of our podcast Discussions at the Round Table, host Michelle Loux connects with Dr. B.J. Hawkins to discuss what she wished she knew when she started her career as an expert witness. Dr. Hawkins explains how her gained experience of working with attorneys as colleagues informed her perspective on the importance of establishing a rapport and communication directly with the attorney responsible for the case. She also goes into detail on her experience with expert report writing, and how to transform from a competent report writer to an extremely good report writer.
Note: Transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Host: Michelle Loux, Assistant Project Manager, Round Table Group
Guest: Dr. B.J. Hawkins, PhD CLPF, Licensed Professional Fiduciary, Trustee and Conservator, Managing Principal, One Source Fiduciary Solutions
Announcer: This episode is brought to you by Round Table Group, the Experts on Experts®. We’ve been connecting attorneys with experts for over 25 years. Find out more at roundtablegroup.com.
Michelle Loux: Welcome to another edition of Discussions at the Round Table. I am your host Michelle Loux with our guest Dr. B. J. Hawkins. She is a licensed professional fiduciary and Founder and CEO of One Source Fiduciary Solutions. Welcome and thank you Dr. Hawkins for joining me today.
Dr. B.J. Hawkins: Good morning, thank you for having me on this program.
Michelle Loux: As part of our discussion, what do you wish you knew when you started as an expert witness that you know today?
Dr. B.J. Hawkins: I think the topic of what I should have known when I began being my testifying expert witness career is excellent and I would like to start with that as opposed to giving my background first as a former Fortune 100 corporate executive. I had a lot of experience being under pressure while answering questions similar to opposing counsel. What I had not had experience in was the whole notion of attorneys as colleagues and questioning an attorney once an engagement had been contracted. As I became more mature in my expert witness experience, I understood the importance of communicating directly either with the attorney who is responsible for the case and the attorney that you would be working with at deposition or during a trial. It is important to establish communication and a rapport with the attorney that you will be working with when you are in the limelight. Oftentimes, especially in the larger law firms, you work with, associates or a newly minted attorney who does not understand some of the questions that you ask. They will not understand a particular perspective as a more senior attorney will.
Michelle Loux: You started as an upper-level senior executive in Fortune 500 companies. How did you get your start in fiduciary services today?
Dr. B.J. Hawkins: I testify in the area of breach of fiduciary duty, which encompasses corporate governance, breach of duty of corporate officers, especially C level suite. But I also do breach of fiduciary duty because of my licensed professional fiduciary experience concerning trustees, conservators, breach of spousal duty, and marital disillusion or divorce cases. Often, in the past, breach of fiduciary duty was only considered from a legal perspective, but now, in terms of corporate complexities since high profile divorces and recently, I think everyone has been aware of the Free Britney Movement and that talks about the complexities with conservatorships and trusteeships. I testify in all of the areas and my experience as a corporate executive, a turn-around executive, and dealing with troubled and crisis management situations has been extraordinarily helpful in all of the areas of my fiduciary expertise.
Michelle Loux: Regarding expert report writing, have you learned certain techniques to improve them?
Dr. B.J. Hawkins: That is an excellent question because there is no best way. There are best procedures and processes, but first of all, you want to be truthful and you want to remember that you are always neutral. You are not an advocate. If you take those basic underlying premises then what you want to do is to write, succinctly, and not make stupid errors like typos or misplaced sentences. I think that all of us use technology, but sometimes the technology can substitute a word or give it a different meaning. Check your work, make sure you have enough time to review it, and if you have a staff, have them do a final edit check. I have found it extremely helpful. I was involved in a professional organization of expert witnesses, and I continue to obtain continuing education credits, attend seminars and webinars. That is extremely helpful in changing from what I call evolving from a competent report writer to an extremely good report writer. Most of the attorneys that I work with are always pleased and pleasantly surprised at the detailed content and the readability of my reports. I would suggest for someone coming into the field that it is not like in the movies. What you say on the witness stand or doing deposition is how you convey your thoughts and expertise. It is extremely important for those from the more technical fields. As the former President of the Greater Los Angeles chapter of the Forensic Expert Witness Association, I often would suggest to newcomers to the field that they brush up on grammar, sentence structure, and understanding that if an attorney, judge or opposing counsel must read run-on sentences and grammatical errors that will reduce your credibility. I think the adage that you have to work hard and work smart is appropriate for an expert witness.
Michelle Loux: With Forensics Expert Witness Association, what else do they do for credentials? Do they offer mock trials or prepare experts in other ways for testimony?
Dr. B.J. Hawkins: We do all those things. I have not been extremely active over the last couple of years, but for 10 to 12 years of expert testimony and as an expert consultant, I worked with the organization on what colors to wear to trials. How to present yourself. What do you do in a hostile environment? Even how you speak correctly to your Honor, the judge. Oftentimes it is not the big glaring issues, but the small important factors that distinguish you as an experienced, competent, and capable expert witness. I think that no matter the professional organization, whatever continuing education credits that you have in your field and the field of the expert witness are important What you learned 10 years ago is no longer relevant. It provides a core or base, but you have to keep up with what has changed in the last couple of years. Anyone who is providing expert services must keep up with what is happening in their field of expertise.
Also, if we look at COVID, the whole notion of how you appear online is important. What is your background? What is the background on a Zoom or in a court connect call? I have seen attorneys who are on a court connect call, and their background lighting is so bad you cannot even see their faces. That is extraordinarily distracting for both the judge and the other council involved. If you cannot see their lips moving, you cannot see their eyes or their faces. You cannot see whether a person is making a joke or whether they are deadly serious when they are making a statement. So yes, Michelle, that is extremely important for areas beyond your area of expertise, how you present yourself as knowledgeable expert witness.
Michelle Loux: Do you often testify as an expert outside California or international courts?
Dr. B.J. Hawkins: I have done international, national, local, and regional cases. During COVID, I decided that I would not take cases internationally or cases where I had to do extensive airline travel. That was a personal decision. It was not only the level of comfort it was just that international travel was problematic getting to some places. Then you had different standards in different States. I think it is important that you realize that even though you are engaged as an expert. It is not common sense. It is your comfort level because I believe that impacts your ability to provide excellent testimony. If I could just give you a short story that sort of summarizes why I think that attorney communication is important, but also considering the whole person. I had a case and the attorney repeatedly said we would talk soon and the soon became the day before the trial. Even though I had a record that I had emailed, made telephone calls; texted, and had not been able to get the attorney’s attention. In the briefing the day before I realized that it was an inexperienced attorney number one. Number two, the staff had not taken care of my hotel reservations properly. I did not have a room when I arrived, and it took me 3 or 4 hours to get in a room. I was exhausted after the plane trip. and during the briefing session, which turned out to be late in the evening because the attorney kept pushing it back, I was sleepy, tired, irritable, hungry, and the trial started at 8:00 o’clock the next morning. What I think was important is that it was unfortunate for the clients, but it was also unfortunate in terms of how I presented myself as a professional. I learned the lesson that if the attorney could not make time to communicate with me in sufficient time, then I needed to draw the line. If an attorney would not communicate with them, some experts would say no, I do not want to annoy or get on the bad side of counsel, and I would say is that you have to look at your reputation realizing that what you say is part of a permanent record. You have an obligation to yourself as a professional, to professional ethics, and to the field to sometimes draw the line.
Michelle Loux: You must be an advocate for yourself too, and it is your professional name on the line as well. All good, interesting facts, and helpful tips. Thank you for sharing that. Any last stories that you would like to share with me.
Dr. B.J. Hawkins: I want to say something about the whole Free Britney Movement and conservatorships in general. It is a topic that I think as the country ages and people live longer, there are sometimes situations where conservatorships are invaluable in terms of making sure that the person is not taken advantage of. It is invaluable in terms of the family, especially if you are talking about intergenerational wealth and just the health and well-being of the individual, As an expert in that field, I would caution my colleagues as well as the individuals involved that it is so important for an organization like the Round Table Group do screening of experts, so, you have credible individuals whose credentials have been checked, and have gone through screening because some of the individuals commenting on the case had no clue about the field. They did not have specific expertise and they were communicating a lot of information that was just wrong, it was in error. For example, in California, before any person is conserved or enters into a conservatorship, they are represented by independent counsel that listens only to them, and that was something that unfortunately the media never talked about, an expert witness or someone who had specific expertise. They spoke to attorneys who knew the legal aspects of it. They talked to people from the Free Britney Movement. But no one ever contacted a testifying expert witness, on breach of fiduciary duty or expertise in the conservatorship field. Someone like myself would have been able to clarify certain points known as neutral. We were not trying to become the next council for Britney Spears. I would just like to end by saying I have found the area of the expert witness, especially as a testifying expert witness to be fascinating, Invigorating, always an opportunity to learn, and certainly the opportunity to have significant experience in meeting outstanding individuals
Michelle Loux: Thank you, I appreciate that. There is something you were mentioning for the news media. There are multiple sides and different viewpoints, but to your point, the neutral party and understanding of what is at play would be useful to know on the grander scale of everything. But thank you for your time, Dr. Hawkins, I appreciate it and we will talk soon and hopefully, get you connected to some more cases shortly.
Dr. B.J. Hawkins: Thank you, Michelle, and good luck as you continue with this effort, I think it is an extraordinarily good idea and hopefully, will allow the whole field to get greater visibility, and to help individuals enter the field. I am especially interested in having individuals from underrepresented groups understand that becoming an expert witness is a possibility and having a better understanding of how to present themselves, and how to prepare to become an excellent expert.
After a quarter century helping litigators find the right expert witnesses, Round Table Group’s network contains some of the world’s greatest experts. On the Discussions at the Round Table podcast, we talk to some of them about what’s new in their field of study and their experience as expert witnesses.
Dr. B.J. Hawkins has more than 30 years experience as a business executive in a variety of corporate structures. She held profit and loss executive management positions with two Fortune 100 Corporations and C Suite positions in mid cap, closely held, family owned, and small businesses. Dr. Hawkins is a Licensed Professional Fiduciary with Court appointments as a Trustee, Special Needs Trustee, Estate Administrator and Conservator. She has been retained as an expert in trustee malfeasance, breach of fiduciary duty, elder financial abuse and other related matters.
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