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An Expert Balancing Act: Work and Life

June 6, 2024
Disorganized vs. Organized office worker

By Noah Bolmer

The uncertainties inherent in expert witnessing can make balancing work and life difficult. Cases may settle unexpectedly, or delay for weeks, months, or even years. Between staying current in your field, preparing for depositions and trials, and potentially managing a full-time job, it can be easy to feel stretched thin. Conversely, it can be equally frustrating when, despite your best efforts, there are wide gaps in your schedule that could be better spent on engagements. 

Achieving a sense of equilibrium between your professional obligations and personal well-being isn’t just desirable; it’s essential for long-term success and avoiding burnout.  

Accepting Engagements 

When facing an empty calendar, it can be tempting to accept every engagement that presents itself. Beyond making sure the engagement is appropriate to your expertise and experience, you must have sufficient time available to dedicate. While it is impossible to see into the future, the engaging attorney should be able to reasonably estimate the potential time commitment. Setting these expectations is critical, according to Dr. Douglas Kalman: 

[O]ne of the things that you look to do [in] regular life is managing expectations. In this way, when you are working with law firms on complex (or even easy) cases, you have to manage the expectations of what date the report is due. [. . .] We like to manage those types of expectations and get a clear-cut calendar timeline of when everything needs to be pristine. That helps, because once you have good communication it is easier to be successful in what you are doing.  

Some attorneys prefer to bring experts in early, which may result in a longer engagement, but at a more relaxed pace, while others have more demanding deadlines. While some experts prefer tight, predictable deadlines, Dr. Laura Miele prefers the former: 

You have some attorneys who want everything from the beginning. They want you to help you with discovery, which is fabulous because you can provide them with questions for assisted suggested discovery. Then you have attorneys who are like, “I need a report done last week” and they throw a stack of papers on your lap. If that happens and I am too busy, I have to turn it down. I cannot handle a case that I cannot fully work it up properly. Again, that talks about credibility. You have to be able to be prepared and put together a report and render opinions. I cannot be given something and have an attorney say, “You have a 48-hour turnover” but I have 1000 pages to read. It is not going to happen. 

Similarly, Dr. Istvan Jonyer notes, “[I]t really just comes down to the fact that if I don’t feel I have enough time, I don’t take the case. I have had to refuse a couple of cases where it was within a week or two, and there was no way for me to come up to speed and write a report in that timeframe. Some attorneys are really forward-looking, and I have been retained even before litigation. I have been retained with over a year remaining before the initial report was due.” 

Setting Expectations 

When accepting a case with tight deadlines, a huge amount of paperwork to sift through, or both; it is critical that you and your engaging attorney clearly define what is expected and when. For the expert, this allows you to schedule your personal life around the increased workload, and for the attorney, they will understand what work product is practical within the compact timeframe. Expert Dean Barron explains:  

[When] on a deadline, I did learn it’s a really good idea to talk about hours that are expected to be put in. If someone gives me a case which probably should have given—I should have had about, let’s say, 200 hours to prepare, and I have a week and a half—I don’t expect complaints about putting in every available hour that [I possibly] can, but sometimes there can be a misunderstanding. So, if it’s very late, I’ve learned [to] make sure that they understand that the compressed time still may require a lot of hours, [so] they’re not surprised and to clear that up when it’s late in the process. Thankfully, usually it’s worked out okay, but half the time it’s very compressed. 

Remain Flexible 

Expert witnessing can be an exciting, fast-paced career or side-job. Even when your schedule is balanced, it is important to remain flexible, as it is often hardest to prepare for the unknown. Giving yourself sufficient time to handle any unforeseen eventualities best prepares you, even when you are unaware of what you are preparing for.  

Expert John Lauhoff describes a situation to which many expert witnesses can relate:

Most of the time I’ve got a lot of time [. . .] but there are times when things come up last-minute. About three weeks ago I was contacted by an attorney on a Thursday and he wanted an affidavit on Friday—the next day. And he sent me probably a half a dozen depositions to go through. He said, “You don’t have to have anything real detailed or real specific or real long, but I need it tomorrow.” It took me seven hours to put it together for him. Then I got it to him on time.

Even when cases overlap, Professor David Rockstraw manages by giving up some of his personal time: 

I [want] the court scheduling order to know when reports are due, when depositions must be done and when the trial is supposed to start, so I can add those things to my calendar. [. . .] Not all cases work at full speed all the time. Fortunately, with all the cases I am juggling, when one case needs my time, the other seems to hibernate for a while. I still hope they do not all start hitting me simultaneously, but when they do, I get up early, work late, and give up riding my bike. 

On the other hand, engagements may end when they have only just begun, or get extended when you least expect it. Dr. W. Richard Laton recalls both experiences: 

I am sitting there in the waiting room waiting to go in for my deposition, and the opposing lawyer comes out. He comes over and says, “Who are you?” I said, “I am Doctor Laton. I am waiting for my deposition.” He shakes my hand and walks over and picks up a phone call. Somebody walks back into the room, and two minutes later they come out and say, “Okay, you are done.” It was settled right then and there as I am waiting in the waiting room to go in for my deposition. Now in a deposition this last January where I am in the middle of the deposition. Finally, someone breaks into the Zoom call, because now we are doing them on Zoom, which is great, and goes “Okay, we are done. We settled.” Then, I had one a while back where ten minutes into the deposition, someone comes on and said, “Okay, the judge has ruled on something that moved the deadline for deposition. So, we are going to postpone your deposition.”

Time Management

First, you must realize that being an expert witness is different from doing a regular project, and you must make sure that you are organized. –Dr. David Williams 

Organization and working efficiently will give you more free time, and flexibility when the need arises. Maintaining a schedule with a lot of moving parts takes discipline. Expert Kevin Quinley follows a proactive schema with regular revisions, as deadlines can be moving targets:  

[Something] I wish I had known is the importance of project management, separate and apart from the subject matter. Whether it is metallurgy, medicine or insurance claims; I have found personally much of this job is project management—especially when you get several cases and hope to reach a stage where you have many cases with different deadlines [. . .] You are juggling a lot, and I think [experts] need to—at least weekly—have a discipline of taking a broad-spectrum view of all of your commitments, deadlines, and sort of rearranging the chess pieces on the board, or the pieces of the Jenga puzzle to triage and prioritize. Mapping out and planning your workweek, month, year. Make sure that you have captured all significant dates. 

[. . .] the expert needs to make sure that they are assertive in scheduling one or more deposition prep sessions with retaining counsel before game day. Some attorneys are very busy. I get it, but I will not talk with them in the parking lot or meet in the conference room an hour before the deposition. That doesn’t work for me at least. I am sort of compulsive and there are always issues that I want to address or kick around with council and so I will schedule—whether it is by phone or Zoom—a few [time slots].  

Expert Robert Sherwood uses a color-coded system to manage his time: 

[Your] calendar might have the report date, the draft report date, and any important dates you must produce something. I use a method that Intel used in Silicon Valley: the red, yellow, and green method. So, if the report is due February 4th, I will put it on my calendar in red, which means it is due on the 4th. A date in yellow needs research. If discovery is needed, I will put it in green. Now, I have three colors when I look at my calendar. Red means I must meet those dates and cannot delay. Green dates are those that I want to meet, but I could probably miss them and not be in trouble. Those in yellow are discovery dates.  

Stay Focused 

Staying on task can be difficult, but modern research suggests that multitasking is ineffective at worst, and inefficient at best. Professor Daniel Spulber optimizes his time by setting goals and completing them one at a time, explaining:

I tend to focus on one thing at a time. If I am writing something, I tend to be very focused on that thing. When writing a consulting report, preparing for a deposition, or preparing for testimony, I find it essential to work on that in depth. Don’t try to do ten or even five things in one day. I try to do one thing at a time. Take a few days and focus on that thing rather than jumping around. It is the same for academics, which helps me stay focused on one thing.

Attorney Stanley Gibson uses a variety of experts to focus on their specific area, making for more efficient engagements: 

You want to be efficient because experts get expensive for the clients. You want to make sure they are each doing their role. We will divide up those specific roles, which is easy when you have a damage expert and a technical expert. That is simple when dealing with an IP case. The damages expert will summarize the case, do damage analysis, and do calculations that keep them in their role. We will engage forensic people who do accounting work with the damage expert. You want to distinguish who is doing what. It is important to have group calls. I do not have problems having the experts on a single call talking so they do not overlap except where they need to. That is an important part. 

Balance your work life with your personal life by accepting engagements that you have time for, carefully managing your schedule, and setting expectations. Even well-prepared and organized experts are occasionally confronted with the unexpected, but remaining flexible, asking for extensions where needed, and working efficiently will buffer against the unforeseen.  

Check out Round Table Group for expert witness opportunities suitable for your expertise. For nearly 30 years, we have helped litigators locate, evaluate, and employ the best and most qualified expert witnesses. Contact us at 202-908-4500 for more information or sign up now! 

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