In this episode…
In this episode of our podcast Discussions at the Round Table, host Michelle Loux connects with Dr. Kantha Shelke to explore what she wishes she had known when entering the expert witness consulting space. These lessons include the importance of having clarity on the breadth of materials provided to her as an expert and how to be concise and precise as a communicator. Dr. Shelke also discusses the culinary and manufacturing knowledge required to succeed as a food science expert witness and a number of pieces of advice she has for anyone pursuing a successful career as an expert.
Note: Transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Host: Michelle Loux, Assistant Project Manager, Round Table Group
Guest: Dr. Kantha Shelke, Ph.D., CFS, Principal, Corvus Blue
Introduction: Welcome to Discussions at the Round Table, the podcast that goes behind the scenes with influential experts. Our guests will describe their practice and expertise. Then, we will go deep on various topics related to effectively using expert witnesses.
Michelle Loux: Hello, welcome to another show of Discussions at the Round Table. My name is Michelle Loux. I am your host today. My guest is Dr. Kantha Shelke. Dr. Shelke is a principal Corvus Blue LLC, a Chicago-based food science and research firm specializing in food and ingredient development, competitive intelligence, and expert witness services. Thank you so much for joining us today and welcome.
Dr. Kantha Shelke: Thank you, Michelle. It is a pleasure to be here.
Michelle Loux: Let’s start with question, what do you wish you knew when you started as an expert witness that you know now? If you could apply what you know now . . . back then.
Dr. Kantha Shelke: Suddenly, I wish I knew 30 years ago that it is the expert witness who is the expert and not the law firm that is managing you, so, I would not feel nervous about asking for the information I asked for. Instead, I would try and see if I could fit in the information that was provided to me and try to make that thread. There are two things there. The law firm was trying to fit me into their case, and I was trying to fit the materials they gave me, hoping to make it fit. I now know that as an expert, it is our reputation that is very important, not only for our career, but also for the case. Learning how to ask for the complete material, clarifying every step of the way, being concise and precise in the areas we will testify on is important.
Michelle Loux: Communication is key. Where did you pick that up along the way? Was it something where you reflected maybe on that first testimony or the deposition and then you decided to change direction? Did you have a mentor that kind of showed you the ropes later on?
Dr. Kantha Shelke: Great question. One of the attorneys who engaged me and who came through your system was a brilliant chap who could not spell and started the conversation with me saying, “Being able to spell is not a sign of intelligence.” I listened to him, but then he coached me on how exactly one goes about preparing for the case, getting the point across, developing the plot. Then making sure that every element that I am discussing fits in properly and is not any way out. The comment that he made that I will always remember is like a house built on sand and an expert witness’s opinion is no better than the facts upon which it is based. I later found out that is the statement, or it is a coach from a 1982 California case, and this is a certificate warning to any expert witness to be prepared to be thorough and to be very careful about what is stated. I apply that across my life so you will not see me on any of the social media platforms or even jokingly sitting with friends saying anything that could come back to bite me.
Michelle Loux: That is good advice, especially in today’s age. I feel that a lot of times it is very loose sometimes, or it is not thought out and so there has to be a level of respect, professionalism that is applied especially in social media. That is great advice. Now, how did you start as an expert witness? How did you land that? Was it something where you were approached or was there interest on your end?
Dr. Kantha Shelke: Funny story, this goes back to 1988. I was an assistant professor at the university and a professor at another university who had seen me at conferences and had asked me to let him know when I graduated, happened to see me at another conference. He said, “Aren’t you done yet?” and I said, “I am done, and I have a good job now” and he goes, “No, you do not. You do not have a good job unless you are working with me.” He convinced me to leave a very well-paying position to go work with him as a post-doctorate. I went from an assistant professor down to a post-doc. My parents wondered if they needed to start a fund to support me. They said nobody goes in the other direction, but once I went in there, I realized that the funds that I got as a postdoc would not support me. I went to his office on a Monday and asked, “Is there anything I can do to support my case?” He put me on a case that was quite difficult for him. It is still the largest food industry litigation in the history of the food industry. It was a case about a cookie that has a dual texture, and three major brands were involved. One brand is accusing the other two of infringing upon its intellectual property. My job was to try and figure out how the three cookies were different. I was so involved in this matter, so concerned that I was walking home that day from work when I saw concrete being laid out on a test concrete platform, and I noticed the engineers using an instrument checking something. I stopped to ask what they were doing, and they explained they were looking if this instrument could help determine the texture. That was my answer. I came back the next day and asked if he had such an instrument. We found one and I worked on it, and I was paid. I still remember $30.00 an hour, which is very big for me then. I was trying to make ends meet, but when I came back to him, and gave him the results, showed him how each cookie was distinctly different, and they were not infringing it on each other. He thanked me and I said “No, I will take this to the three different attorneys.” When I presented it then I got $90.00 an hour because each one of them paid $30. He then realized that I also had an eye for business, and I knew how to position it strategically. The net result was the law firm engaged me and ever since 1988 I have been doing consulting, expert witnessing, and a testifying expert witness.
Michelle Loux: Wow, that is one of the most fascinating intro stories I have ever heard. The fact that the answer came to you simply because you were pondering it, trying to figure out how you can make this happen and how you can make it work.
Your background is in chemistry and food science as well, and with that piece of it, do you find that the cases that you take now rely on the science piece of it? Also, you have a diverse background and experience that you are applying to these cases, correct?
Dr. Kantha Shelke: One of the things that I have come to realize is that in food science, one needs to know not only the formulation but also understand the manufacturing piece. There are very few people like me who know the formula part of the culinary part. What ingredient goes into what? But also, what needs to happen to them to give you that crunch or shelf life, or to make it safe, etc. So that is one part of it. The other part of it is the ability to digestively present that information to a layperson without getting them lost in the minutiae but helping them understand what happens. It is a way of telling a story in such a way that they get it and being able to say it with clarity is critical, or that your side gets hurt.
This comes out in rebuttal reports because they have already got an expert. The opposing side has already got an expert to say something, and they have taken a stand. The way to do that is to first read that and put it down the mountain. First, understand the other side. You seek to understand what they are saying and then dig a little deeper to understand why they are saying it. If you are lucky, and of course, luck comes to those who work hard. If you work hard, you also find out they have tripped somewhere. You find that an assumption they made was incorrect and agree with them as they act. I would think that too, but when you use the methodology that one is supposed to use, this is the answer you come to, so you are not attacking the expert, but you are attacking the position. The food science and the food technology sector is pretty small all over the world, by the way, and I have worked on all five continents, so I want to be able to go to conferences without having somebody being very hostile towards me. I have testified against a lot of my colleagues, and we are still very good friends.
Michelle Loux: That itself is the power of understanding and has a lot to say about you respecting the career and respecting the whole system. That is wonderful. Now you did talk about being in five different [continents] with the conferences, but have you been an expert witness in international courts?
Dr. Kantha Shelke: Yes, I have worked on five different continents, and I have not testified on all five continents, but I have worked with the legal systems on all 5 continents. The most fun was working in the court system in France, working for an ice cream company that had launched a product there. Because the owner of the ice cream company had put a sticker on the ice cream that addressed something that France was doing that this pacifist ice cream company did not agree with. The government figured out that there was something wrong with this ice cream and so I had to spend about four weeks in that court without speaking French. I learned how to understand, explain, buy some time, and we got out of it. Now Ben and Jerry’s ice cream is also sold in France.
Michelle Loux: Is there a language barrier when you are [testifying in] other courts? How do you work around that? Are you giving your thoughts and your words to the attorney that has a translator? Then they are then presenting testimony on your behalf . . . how does that work?
Dr. Kantha Shelke: The good part of working in other courts is if you are respectful, the court is respectful. The science of language does not require English for the language if you are talking about a very simple system. That is what it comes down to. If you can take a complex matter and bring it down to simple basics that anybody can understand we do not need an interpreter. That is the key thing and that is to take any case, bring it down to its fundamentals and very simply explain what happened. What is the reasonable course, and therefore what matters most that requires a certain amount of respect and due diligence? It is a lot of hard work to figure everything out and then take a step back and be able to state this in such a way, as they say, even your grandma can understand it, or a four-year-old can understand it. That is it. That is the key.
Michelle Loux: That is wonderful to understand and great advice to experts. Is there anything you would like to end with or share? Something else that you have learned along the way or an experience you have had as an expert witness?
Dr. Kantha Shelke: The one thing I will tell you is that when you are an expert witness, you are on the stand for several reasons. The future of your client may depend on your testimony and the work that you have done, This is not about you. It is about your client and their future, so take your job very seriously. Do your homework and be very organized. When I am taking a case, I am super organized, I make sure I understand the regulations. You talked about working in different countries. Different states have different regulations. Some states do not have materials that can be discoverable. So, learn the rules first and then figure out how you are going to go about doing what you are doing and keep a very clean and clear mind.
I have learned how they say if you tell the truth, you never have to wonder about it. It is only when you tell a lie that you figure out what you said. It is the same with expert witnesses. If you are clean and clear about your position and how to go about it. It is an easy job if you keep it simple. Keep it organized and make sure you do your homework. Make sure you do it in such a way that you are only talking about the material that is under dispute and not about the two parties, because at the end of the day you should be able to walk out and have a drink with the other person and still be okay. The funny thing is in two cases, even though I testified against the CEO of a company about a food safety matter when I was walking out in each case, the CEO walked up to me and said, “So, how long do I have to wait before I can hire you as our expert?” I knew that I was okay.
Michelle Loux: Kantha, I love all the stories and the insights. Thank you so much for sharing it with me today and you have an excellent rest of your day.
Dr. Kantha Shelke: My pleasure, Michelle. Thank you.
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.
Kantha Shelke, Ph.D., CFS, founded Corvus Blue LLC, a Chicago-based food science and research firm, to assist progressive companies with strategic industry competitive intelligence, innovative new product/technology development and rapid commercialization of honestly healthful foods and food ingredients. She writes and lectures extensively with engagingly candid insights in the health, wellness and business aspects of the food and beverage sector.
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