What It's Like To Be an Expert Witness

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Written by CareerBuilder for AOL

Each year, millions of lawsuits are filed in the United States by people seeking damages for emotional distress, defamation of character, loss of potential earnings or bills incurred from the negligence or intentional wrongdoing of others. In order to win these cases, the injured party -- or plaintiff -- must prove that the other party caused them harm.

To provide clarity on the facts of the case, and to prevent such cases from turning into a "he said, she said," both parties often bring in expert witnesses to testify on their behalves. For example, in malpractice suits, the plaintiff may bring in a doctor who claims that the defending physician did not meet the industry's "standard of care" -- or the reasonable level of attention and watchfulness that their peers would exercise in a similar situation.

An effective expert witness can win or lose a case for either side, and law firms and their clients often pay big bucks to get the best experts. At the same time, because serving as an expert witness can be both financially and intellectually rewarding, it is becoming an increasingly popular career choice for those looking for a second source of income, or for retired professionals looking for occasional work.

Sound like an interesting career choice? Below are answers to some common questions about what it's like to be an expert witness.

What does an expert witness do?

Expert witnesses provide their interpretation of the facts of the case during the pre-trial period, or they may go to court and testify in front of a judge and jury.Throughout the trial process, expert witnesses provide extensive research and commentary and serve as the expert opinion on the facts of the case.

"Each case I am retained on usually has periods of intense research and work, followed by a quieter period," says Dr. Richard Weinblatt, a former police chief who now works as an expert witness. "Cases go on for quite some time. The work involves a lot of reading and reviewing arrest reports, use of force reports, pictures of crime scenes, autopsy reports, and reviewing policies and procedures."

How long does a case take?

"The time depends on how complicated the case is and what [has] to be researched," says Sylvan Tieger, a master plumber who works as an expert witness.

Echoes Dr. Wienblatt: "The time commitment varies as legal cases -- especially those in Federal courts -- wind through the system. Much like Hollywood, there is a lot of 'hurry up and wait.'"

Who qualifies as an expert witness?

Education and experience levels of expert witnesses vary, but one thing's for sure, Tieger says, "You had better know your field inside and out and be able to back it up with documentation."

Most witnesses do have extensive work experience in their industries. Tieger, for example, has worked in his field since 1965. "The majority of experts I am against are either professional engineers or architects and a few doctors who retired from medicine and now work as experts when relating to burns from scalding (children and hot water)," he says.

Dr. Weinblatt, for example, has a Ph.D., and has worked as a law officer, police chief, police academy instructor and director, and criminal justice professor. He has also provided commentary for CNN, MSNBC, CBS news, The Associated Press and The Washington Post.

Though a Ph.D. and more than 20 years experience aren't a requirement for being an expert witness, those with more experience and education will be viewed as more credible, thus have greater earning potential and more opportunities.

What skills are important for an expert witness?

According to Weinblatt, because expert witnesses spend so much time giving written and verbal reports, excellent communications skills are key. "Top notch communications skills are a must as those reports are subject to discovery and are often dissected by opposing counsel and their hired expert," he says. Expert witnesses must be able to construct direct, compelling arguments and counter-arguments.

Do you need a legal background?

Though it's important to be an expert in your field, it's also important to have a working knowledge of civil law and general legal proceedings.

"In our firm, [providing expert testimony] probably represents 15 to 20 percent of our practice," says Steve Bankler, a CPA who provides expert opinion. "While experience is very necessary, it is very important that the expert also have an understanding of the Rules of Civil Procedure of the courts in which they practice. I have seen 'experts' disqualified and their clients disadvantaged due to the expert's failure to follow the appropriate rule."

While you don't have to earn your J.D. in order to become an expert witness, it's a good idea to at least brush up on the way the legal system works before jumping into your first assignment.

According to Teiger, the figures expert witnesses can pull in are "disgracefully high."

"One retired doctor and I were talking and he asked how much does a master plumber charge these days (this was my third or fourth case), and I said $2,500 a day," Tieger says. "I asked what a retired doctor charges he smiled and said $10,000 - $15,000 a day depending on where he has to travel to."

Though not every expert witness earns five figures for a day's work, the field is definitely financially rewarding -- it's not uncommon for experts to earn hundreds of dollars an hour.

It may seem like a lot, but it's worth it for a good witness. Tom Kennedy, who own the communications development firm The Kennedy Group, prepares expert witnesses for testimony, and trains them on how to simplify complicated information and how to have a thick skin. Providing testimony is not for the faint of heart, he says. "[It's] very lucrative and they deserve it."

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