You have many years of experience in your field and you have heard rumors about the potentially lucrative consulting opportunities in litigation. How do you become an expert witness?
The hardest part — which you may already have done — is becoming an expert in your field. Acquire the knowledge and experience that will give you special insight into a small part of the world that you care about. The same knowledge you accumulate by pursuing your vocation will also make you useful in a court of law when your field is involved. When that happens, the degrees, certifications, and accolades you’ve earned along the way will help make it clear that you’re qualified to be an expert witness.
After that, there are many paths to becoming an expert witness. A few of the more well-worn ones include:
The first path, working with an established expert witness, is common among academics, economists, and some trades (such as construction management). Dr. Kantha Shelke recalls her first gig as an expert, which was as a cash-strapped post-doc:
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.
There are several different ways that expert witness work may be an extension of your job. For Louis Fey it took the shape of connections he made at work turned around a hired him once he retired:
I was called by a plaintiff attorney that I retained when I was working at Travelers as a major case director. I was handling a major fire up in Virginia and there was a builder’s risk carrier involved for one of the buildings and they denied coverage. So, I retained a plaintiff attorney to pursue the builder’s risk insurer so they would cover the loss. I researched it and he is one of the premier plaintiff’s property insurance attorneys. There are not too many of them around, but he is the property specialist. We worked together on that case and then the minute I left Travelers, he called me up and said, hey, can you serve as an expert for me on a case? I am like ‘What do I need to do? Can you walk me through it?’ Then, I said, ‘Great, yeah, sure I will do it for you’ and I have been doing it since 2007.
One of the more common stories we hear is where an expert is referred by a colleague. For Dr. Eli Seggev, this was a colleague reaching out to expand the areas of marketing his nascent firm could address:
A friend and faculty colleague at New York’s Pace University and Baruch College opened an office with his son, an attorney who did not want to practice law. He started consulting with attorneys on marketing issues for their clients and doing marketing research. He was a Professor of International Marketing and had no idea of consumer behavior. He called me, and that is how I got into doing litigation research.
For Dr. Russell Froman, the referral was more direct:
A colleague reached out to me. They knew my work as a K12 principal, and they knew I had transitioned into the role of Assistant Vice President and Title 9 coordinator at the University of Florida. There was a case from another higher-education institution that my colleague thought might be a good fit. She reached out and asked if I would be interested. Ironically, I was in the process of moving in that direction. I had a mentor who was a professor when I was getting my doctorate in higher ed, who had his firm in that regard, and he had reached out to me to say I would be excellent at this work. He was retiring and said, ‘If I have any clients come my way. Do you mind if I refer them to you?’ I said, ‘No. That sounds great.’ I started doing the research and discovered my fit was compliance, K12 education, and higher education law. It worked out for this particular case and the interview went well. They liked what I had to say, my background, and the rest, they say, is history.
As a firm dedicated to finding the right expert for our clients, we are well aware that many experts get their start when a firm such as ours reaches out. Steve Haas found his start through a similar service:
I was connected through some consulting platforms looking for industry experts to plug into people in the investment community, who are looking for quick hits on industry experts. They were doing research and they developed a legal wing. I was established on their platform and had a deep bio that matched up the first time. I realized several different platforms connect experts with counselors and provide matchmaking services. That is how I receive the bulk of my work.
Lastly, there are also experts who are called on out of the blue by attorneys. Professor David Rockstraw’s start in the field was a version of this outreach:
I did not realize that the world of expert witnessing existed. I was in my second year as an assistant professor at New Mexico State University when I started. The expectations of a tenure-track faculty member are demanding. I spent time at the office and then the lab. The thing I liked about it is I went home every evening. I saw my family and was not sequestered in a hotel somewhere. It was early evening, around 6:00 P.M. I was working on lectures, writing proposals, and trying to get things done in my office, and an older gentleman walked in and invited himself into my office. He said, ‘Do you have a moment?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ He sat down and started asking me about an explosion in a chemical plant in northern New Mexico. With my background at DuPont, I understood something about chemical processing and answered his questions. He spent an hour explaining and going through a question and answer, and I focused on what I was trying to do. I guess I was thinking, when is this guy going to leave? I have things I need to get done. After our conversation, he said, ‘Would you be willing to say these things in a court of law?’ That took me off guard because, as I noted, I did not know what expert witnessing was at the time. I first thought this was a community service request and that my wife would want me to do this community service. I said, ‘Sure, I guess I will.’ We parted ways at that point. I went home, and I explained to my wife. She said, ‘Well, you did a good thing. You are doing community service, and that is great.’ A few days later, he contacted me and asked me how much I charge and that was the point where I had a clue that this was a job. […] I thought it was community service. I called my brother-in-law, who was a lawyer in California to get his input on it. He explained to me what it was I had committed to doing. That was 1997 and it has been a few years now since I got started.
As you might see from these stories, every expert has his or her own unique path to becoming an expert witness, but by pursuing a few of these strategies yourself you can improve the odds of getting your first expert witness opportunity.
If you are interested in being considered for expert witness gigs, consider signing up with Round Table Group. For nearly 30 years, we have helped litigators locate, evaluate, and employ the best and most qualified expert witnesses, starting with those we already know. Contact us at 202-908-4500 for more information or sign up as an expert.