Due to the specialized nature of expert witnesses, attorneys may be find themselves in situations where they need to hire an expert witness who doesn’t live or work nearby. While experts usually charge set hourly fees for relevant tasks such as court testimony, depositions and file reviews, the proper compensation for an expert’s travel expenses can be a more uncertain, nebulous area.
It doesn’t help that there are no set standards which dictate how to handle experts’ travel costs. While some professional organizations have drafted relevant guidelines concerning ethical billing for experts, they are voluntary and nonbinding. It can be an uncomfortable topic, but compensation for airline tickets, gas, hotel costs and/or other related expenses must be addressed early.
Set Travel Fee
One option is to agree on a fixed fee for time the expert spends traveling. This can be an attractive choice, as it allows the attorney to know precisely how much the expert’s travel will cost ahead of time. It also gives the expert flexibility to potentially work on other projects while they travel. This may be supplemented with a stipend for meals and other out-of-pocket expenses.
While this option may appear perfect, complications can arise when the expert experiences unforeseen circumstances or delays, such as a canceled flight. This can lead to an expert missing out on wages they would otherwise be making while they wait for another plane or make alternate travel plans. For this reason, some experts may be reluctant to agree to a fixed travel fee.
Travel Costs Only
Another straightforward method eschews set fees and rates altogether and involves the attorney reimbursing the expert for expenses incurred while traveling (such as plane or train tickets, rental cars, gas etc.) only. This gives an expert the flexibility to work on other projects or take part in leisure activities while traveling, as they are not expected to work on the attorney’s case while doing so. However, if the expert doesn’t have the ability to work on other items while away from his or her office, they may consider this a less attractive option as it will leave them unpaid for their time as they travel.
Full Hourly Rate
Some experts will expect to be paid at their standard, full hourly rate for all travel time. From the expert’s perspective, this is logical; they are traveling in order to work on the attorney’s particular case, as opposed to spending time working on other cases. For the attorney, however, this can represent a large, seemingly irrational expense. As an attorney, why would you want to pay an expert 100% of their hourly rate for time they aren’t actually spending working on your case – especially in circumstances where the expert’s trip to get to you is lengthy?
A way to manage this is to request, to the extent possible, that the expert work on your case while they travel. For example, they could theoretically spend time on a plane ride investigating the matter, or listen to relevant recorded statements as they drive. Of course, the expert likely cannot spend all of their travel time working, which is why this may be an unpopular option for attorneys.
Modified Hourly Rate
Another accepted approach involves paying the expert some portion of their hourly rate for travel time, rather than the full hourly rate the expert would charge while working. The rationale behind this option is that, while traveling to the attorney, the expert is theoretically preparing for the case, whereas when they travel back home, they are no longer doing so and can focus on other matters or projects. Experts who choose this option will often charge 50% of their standard rate.
Of course, there are numerous other options and methods that attorneys and experts may mutually agree upon. Regardless of the method, attorneys should make sure to work these items out with their expert before the expert heads to the airport or hops into a rental car. Never make the mistake of waiting until the engagement has begun (or even worse, it has ended) to try and settle matters of compensation.