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One of the most frequently asked questions ExpertPages receives is "what does it take to be an expert". An expert witness is a person with special knowledge, skill, experience, training and/or education – or a mixture -- that goes beyond the experience of ordinary members of the public.

Any ordinary witness can be called to testify in a pre-trial deposition or at trial about what he or she actually perceived. Thus an eyewitness to an accident can testify about where she was, what she observed, and what she heard. For example, "I was on the corner of 43rd Street and Madison Avenue when I saw a blue bus heading north, I heard a loud screeching sound and then saw the bus lurch and skid into a red car." However, the lay witness can’t offer her opinion that the accident was caused by the speed of the bus, a defective brake mechanism or debris on the pavement.

In contrast, an expert, even though he or she did not observe the accident, may draw an inference or an opinion from a set of facts. For example, an expert on skid marks using measurements taken by police officers from the accident scene, could testify that the bus was travelling 47 miles per hour in a 25-mile per hour zone. A brake expert could testify that the noise and lurching was the result of improperly installed brakes.

If you will be testifying at a trial, it will be up to the trial judge to serve as "gatekeeper" and determine if you have the requisite knowledge, experience, skills, education or training to serve as an expert at all, and thus present your testimony. If the jury will serve as the trier of the fact, it will decide how much weight, if any, should be given to your testimony and the other evidence. If the matter is set for trial without a jury, then the judge will make that determination. If the matter is to be heard by an arbitrator, or panel of arbitrators, then the sole arbitrator will make that determination.

How well you fare is largely dependent on your background (i.e., stature, education, hands-on/real-life experience, reputation, and so forth) and presentation skills (e.g., creditability, veracity). An expert may pass muster because of high marks in education, job experience, certification, or honors, but buckle under at trial because of attitude and demeanor. Conversely, an expert’s presentation skills may qualify for an Academy Award, but collapse under a close scrutiny of his or her credentials as an "expert."

Your profitability in terms of income and return business depends on forging a balance between academe and real life experience and mastering interpersonal skills.

One other cautionary bit of advice: before being tempted to offer an opinion on issues that are not specific to your case or expertise, pull back for a second and remind yourself of your own qualifying factors. A prudent expert knows and can verbalize the limits of the accuracy of the statement that he or she is addressing. For example, should you be called upon to analyze the handwriting of President Clinton in his impeachment trial, call a halt to any questions regarding the material or paper the signature appears on. Or be ready to indicate, whether asked or not, why you are not qualified to address the issue with any scientific accuracy.

In summary, a careful expert will cover a few simple steps in order to validate his or her trustworthiness and to avoid getting destroyed by opposing counsel:

  1. Become intimately familiar with the facts of the case by reviewing them before making any statement in a report, affidavit, or testifying at a deposition or at trial.
  2. Review the related professional literature in the field before making any statement in a report, affidavit, or testifying at a deposition or at trial.
  3. Express yourself firmly, impartially, and objectively. Try not to be perceived as a partisan. You are far more effective (and carry more weight) when you can walk into court prepared to give an honest and objective evaluation of the issues.
  4. Avoid frills, exaggeration and hype. (Crowing is troubling and debunks your professionalism.)
  5. Confine your comments to your area of expertise. For example, if you are an brakes expert, don’t volunteer your opinion on the speed of the bus based on the skid marks.
  6. Answer only the questions you are asked and do so briefly and to the point. Again, don’t volunteer. Always avoid the trap of "hearing yourself talk".
  7. Keep your cool. Never get into a battle of wits with the opposing counsel; even if you win that battle, you’ll likely lose points with the jury.