So you’re picking an expert witness for your case. What kind of person do you want? Someone with the highest credentials from the best institutions? Someone with a lot of on-the-ground experience in this area? Someone who is able to teach effectively? Someone who just comes across as an approachable person who you’d want to have a beer with? The answer to all these questions is, of course, yes. Particularly on a complex case, an expert carries a heavy load and you ideally want someone with all of these qualities. If you had to choose one, or if you’re looking for a tiebreaker, focus on the ability to teach. But the more we learn about expert testimony, the more the research tends to show that all of these features matter.
A number of years ago, for example, researchers (Ivkovic & Hans, 2003) conducted in-person interviews with jurors who had just completed service on a civil trial. In part, they wanted to know what was important in their evaluation of the strength and the usefulness of expert witness testimony. As a result of that research, they constructed a model of all the factors that matter, with twenty specific qualities arranged in five general categories. In this post, I will share a simple illustration of this model (developed by our graphic designers), and include a textual checklist of the factors. This checklist should be useful for the attorneys who are hiring and preparing experts, as well as for the experts themselves.
Make It Complete. Your testimony should cover everything in your scope, and more importantly, should address every question jurors are likely to ask when considering your role in the case.
Limit the Complexity to What Is Necessary. You’re an expert because you know things beyond the general understanding, but your explanations should be simple. Don’t add technical terms just to sound like an “expert,” just share what is needed.
Maintain Internal Consistency. Make sure that you know your main message for the jury and make sure each of your conclusions, methods, and data points lead back to that message with overall consistency.
Emphasize External Consistency. Be able to explain how your own perspectives, methods, and conclusions jibe with the knowledge of your chosen field. Part of your expertise, after all, lies in the cumulative experience of your discipline.
Make It Clear. Your goal shouldn’t be just to present the testimony. Instead, your goals should center on your audience and what they are able to understand and use from the testimony. Teach, don’t just testify.
Use Technical Aids. Think creatively about anything and everything, beyond spoken words alone, that will help you convey your message. Graphics, flip charts, animations, and models all have potential to make the information stickier and easier to understand.
Keep It Slow. Pace is often the jury’s greatest frustration. The key takeaways for the jury need to be delivered slowly and clearly. And for the truly important pieces of information, once is often not enough. Cover the same information repeatedly, but in different ways.
Be Concise. While you want it to be clear and complete, you also want it to take no more time than is necessary. Jurors want to know you respect their time, so get to the point quickly.
Show Interest and Enthusiasm. To be interesting to an audience, the information first needs to be interesting to you. Show your own engagement with the information and convey why it is important, unique, even fascinating.
Focus on Function. It is the reason for the credentials and not the credentials themselves that matter to jurors. So the only use for your educational institution, your title, your professional awards and activities is that these (hopefully) put you in the position to be useful in explaining your conclusions to the jurors.
Emphasize Experience. What matters more than your static training and knowledge is what you have done with it. So remember that your best qualifications relate to experience. Make this a story about how you came to be prepared to deliver this testimony.
Stay in Your Lane. Your expertise is an asset so long as you are able to stick within the boundaries of that expertise. So don’t stray beyond your work, your conclusions, and your field of expertise.
Justify Your Pay. The perception of being a “hired gun” can be a factor. So, when you’re asked about it, be sure to clarify that you are paid for your time, not for your opinions. If you’re effective in all the other categories, jurors will tend to think the pay is worth it.
Keep Your Interactions Professional. Your relationship with your clients and the legal team should be a professional one. You’re not friends, you’re not sympathetic to their case. You are their expert, not their advocate.
Your Overall Impression
Look and Act Professional. When jurors see you, you want them to see someone who is comparable in authority to the judge or the attorneys. So in your dress and demeanor, be professional.
Show Personality. While looking and acting professional, you can still show some of your humanity and your personality. If it is relevant, share information about yourself. If an opportunity for some mild humor presents itself, go ahead and take it.
Show a Positive and Helpful Attitude. You aren’t here to be an unassailable pillar of knowledge, you are here to help jurors make a tough decision. So keep that helpful attitude in mind at all times, and be pleasant to everyone, opposing counsel in particular.
Ivković, S. K., & Hans, V. P. (2003). Jurors’ evaluations of expert testimony: Judging the messenger and the message. Law & Social Inquiry, 28(2), 441-482.
Image credit: 123rf.com (head image), Pamela Miller, Persuasion Strategies (model of research findings)