Depending on the facts of a case, the potential of a multi-million dollar verdict and case law, the deposition or testimony of a credible expert can make or break a verdict and subsequent judgment. Two Columbus lawyers, Stephen E. Chappelear and Thomas Wyatt Palmer have retained the services of more than 50 expert witnesses each in their legal careers of 38 and 15 years, respectively.
According to Chappelear, a partner with Frost Brown Todd, there’s more to finding the right expert than merely checking their credentials. “Those are nice but thorough knowledge of subject matter trumps that.”
Factors to Consider
In addition to a solid grasp of the subject matter at the heart of a case, there are other factors to consider. Chappelear says he also gauges the expert’s ability to effectively communicate information to lay individuals. “That’s one reason why college professors are often hired as experts,” he says, adding that professors tend to be able to “communicate and teach in a relatable and non-condescending manner.”
Another important characteristic Chappelear seeks in an expert is the ability to withstand “intense interrogation to defend their opinion.” Maintaining composure under pressure is key.
Palmer adds that he also weighs the expert’s experience testifying using electronic media, such as Power Point and PDFs. Most courtrooms today are equipped with projectors, smart boards or media carts that assist attorneys in presenting their cases in a visually captivating matter. A viable expert needs to be able to do that too, says Palmer, a partner with Thompson Hine LLP.
Tapping Into Experts-R-Us
There are several avenues legal eagles can take to search for a viable expert. For example, Palmer relies on word-of-mouth referrals and recommendations from attorneys at his firm as well as comments from trusted colleagues outside of Thompson Hine. Ideally, he tries to develop a relationship with experts he hires so he can confidently rehire them in the future.
When pressed, Palmer will also consult with third-party services expert at providing experts. Chappelear has his own strategies for finding experts.
While he’ll seek referrals from other lawyers, he will also ask experts he has worked with in the past if they know of an expert versed in the subject matter he needs. He also searches the ranks of universities and colleges for educators, peruses verdict reporters of similar cases where experts are identified and even checks Westlaw for information about experts.
According to Dr. Beverly Browning, a longtime expert on all matters relating to grant writers and grant writing, attorneys have found her in a variety of ways. For example, the various websites she maintains to promote things like her book “Grant Writing for Dummies,” give her exposure. As Director of Grant Writing Training Foundation and vice president of eCivis, a grant writing consultancy, Browning has gained years of experience and name recognition in the field.
In addition to being hired as an expert based on business referrals, Browning used to be listed on Experts.com, an online repository of experts in a myriad of topics and professions.
Tips From an Expert on Finding an Expert
Browning has numerous suggestions for trial lawyers when they’re searching for the right expert to bolster a case. For example, Browning suggests the expert be:
- Someone considered a leader in their industry
- A candidate with longevity in their field of expertise
- Scandal-free, both in public and on the Internet
- Completely credible
“Do you due diligence,” Browning urges.
One way Browning likes to establish her credibility is that she likes to be interviewed by the client prior to being retained as an expert. It is imperative the client is confident the expert can “really support them in their cause,” says Browning.
Palmer refers to that as a “collaborative effort” between the expert, the attorney and the party paying the expert. The lawyer who hired the expert must be able to effectively partner with him or her to ensure the testimony provided will advance the case. “I work with experts to present a reliable opinion persuasively and credibly,” sums Palmer.
Never lose sight of the expert’s role in litigation, urges Palmer. The purpose of an expert is to “assist the trier of fact to understand specialized facts or evidence,” he says.
Tami Kamin Meyer is an Ohio attorney and writer.