Expert witnesses are responsible for explaining complex subject matters to juries. Their goal is to give the jury specialized knowledge that helps them effectively contextualize the facts at issue. Without an expert’s technical know-how, attorneys can’t prove their case theories or win over their juries. With so much riding on an expert’s testimony, it’s no wonder that attorneys seek out exceptionally qualified industry professionals to serve as their expert witnesses. But what makes an expert witness great? What separates good experts from stellar ones? And what are attorneys looking for when trying to connect with that ideal expert?
Although there is no magic formula as to what makes a potential expert witness exceptional, here are a few traits attorneys look for when hiring exceptional experts.
1) Knowledge Without Pride
Of course, experts should have specialty-specific, technical knowledge. This goes without saying. But humility is equally as important as knowledge.
Attorneys generally prefer to work with expert witnesses who come from academic pedigrees and have terminal degrees in their field. Experts should also have relevant training and career experience that can hold up to any scrutiny or challenge. However, experts should never allow pride, ego, or arrogance to come across while giving their testimony.
“I have an M.D. from Harvard, I am board certified in cardio-thoracic medicine and trauma surgery, I have been awarded citations from seven different medical boards in New England, and I am never, ever sick at sea.… You ask me if I have a God complex. Let me tell you something: I am God.”—Dr. Hill, Malice
The point is, juries can sense narcissism in experts with even the best knowledge and background. An expert’s attitude can lead a jury to disavow credible information they receive due to a distaste for the expert’s personality. The best expert witnesses educate the members of the jury without condescending them.
2) Effective Speaking Ability
An expert witness may be the most knowledgeable person in their field. However, if they are not comfortable speaking in public, their knowledge won’t go very far in a courtroom.
The most effective experts can clearly articulate their knowledge to the jury. Experts should be calm and poised while delivering testimony and during both the direct and cross-examination phases.
It’s not just about what an expert says, but how they say it to a jury. They need to convey their message in a manner that is direct and easily understood. They also need to be consistent in their findings on a particular subject matter.
3) Objectivity Without Speculation
Great expert witnesses are able to give honest, unbiased opinions. Those opinions should stem from a combination of the expert’s knowledge and experience and their review of the evidence given to them for review.
Experts should never offer expert opinions solely based on what an attorney wants the jury to hear. Nor should an expert’s testimony endorse any projects the expert may be pursuing in their field. Such kinds of expert opinions constitute hired gun testimony—opinions that aren’t necessarily the truth but reflect ulterior (usually financial) motives.
Attorneys vet prospective experts to ensure that their testimony will be based on truth, not agenda. For example, an expert who believes that all brands of oats cereals contain poisonous glyphosate, who is on a crusade to increase public awareness, may not be the ideal candidate to testify in a product liability or false advertising case involving cereal ingredients.