Practice Development for Expert Witnesses
Beryl Vaughan, Consultant

Email or Call (415) 302-9589

What do you want to know?


Are video meetings or exams a good idea?

  There are 3 questions here: Video meetings with attorneys, video IMEs and Video testimony.

Attorneys and experts usually exchange a phone call before deciding to work together. However, working from home has changed everyone’s comfort level with video conferencing. You can always ask the attorney what they prefer.  Ultimately, the attorney is going to want an impression of you that is more than auditory. There is only one way to know what a jury will see and that is to see you–how you communicate, your body language, eye contact, set of your shoulders, whatever it is that conveys confidence and knowledge.

The meat of your work–an IME or deposition or testimony by video is also changing. Video depositions and trial testimony have been allowed in some courts. Conducting an IME by video is still controversial and professional standards, guidelines and ethical protocols have yet to be established.

As a matter of best practices, if you must do an IME by video, insist on the best possible equipment and always discuss in your report specifics of the video IME, caveats and any reservations you may have.  For example, can you state with certainty that signs of malingering were all noted? What if the webcam is fuzzy?


Who needs a forensic psychiatrist or psychologist? What are lawyers looking for?

Attorneys. Plaintiff, Defense, Prosecution. Any attorney whose client has an interest in the outcome of a case and believes there is a psychiatric issue, may retain a forensic psychiatrist or psychologist. Forensic opinions are blind to the party retaining the expert or paying the bills.  Any forensic psychiatrist or psychologist worth their salt will encounter cases in which their opinions are contrary to the needs of the attorney and must express an objective, unbiased opinion regardless.  Courts.  Judges may appoint a forensic doctor to provide an expert assessment and render an opinion. The uglier the dispute and more uncooperative the parties, the more likely it will be necessary for the judge to appoint an impartial third party expert.  For example, a court-appointed expert is not uncommon in custody disputes. Juries.  Testimony by any expert witness is intended for the jury, so they can better understand psychiatric or psychological elements to a case.  Employers. Employers require a forensic psychiatrist or psychologist if there is a concern an employee might be unable to perform their job due to psychological problems.  In safety-sensitive jobs, the stakes become higher if an employee’s inability to do their job might leave others vulnerable to danger.  Understandably, a psychiatrically compromised person is a concern if he or she is working in a power plant or carries firearms as a feature of their job, for example. Violent or threatening employees require a special type of assessment focused on risk of violence.  The employer has a duty to other employees to provide a safe workplace.  A violent event with firearms is only one way in which a job environment may be unsafe.  Sexual harassment, wrongful termination and discrimination lawsuits may also require an evaluation by a forensic psychiatrist or psychologist.  Administrative Venues. Workers’ Compensation, Discrimination Complaints to the EEOC, certain Union regulations, even sentencing mitigation may operate outside the typical trial setting and a psychiatric condition or element should be evaluated by a skilled expert. “When is your opinion needed?”  offers examples of cases that can benefit from assessment by a forensic expert in psychiatry or psychology. Click here for a printable version of this answer.

Do I have to be Board-Certified to call myself a Forensic Psychiatrist or Psychologist?

Adjectives are up for grabs, lying is not. Lying is a strong word; I include misleading statements, implying by omission you have credentials you do not. Your credentials and experience are the measure of what you are/do and should standalone. Many psychiatrists and psychologists are self-titled as “Forensic Psychiatrist” and “Forensic Psychologist,” who are not Board-Certified in this subspecialty. Some are qualified by experience, training and expertise to render forensic opinions but are not Board-Certified. Of course, a physician must be Board-Certified in his or her primary specialty, Psychiatry.  This is a prerequisite to Board-Certification in Forensic Psychiatry.’ Board-Certification in Forensic Psychology by the ABPP is a little different. Board-Certification for a psychologist is not as familiar, though the training is rigorous.  Forensic Psychologists so Board-Certified have a leg up on those who do not inasmuch as attorneys care.

I know of no official threshold for a psychiatrist or psychologist to hang a shingle as a Forensic expert in their field.  I am not an attorney or a doctor.

States vary on licensing requirements, use of terms like “Doctor,” descriptions of qualifying experts in a given field and other distinctions.  In one state you must be licensed to practice medicine in that state to render a medical-legal opinion in court. In other states you do not. If you are retained for a case in a state where the rules are unfamiliar to you, common sense dictates you become informed, and work closely with the attorney retaining you before moving too far into the case.

The distinction between an MD and OD, or a DC and MD is sometimes lost on attorneys. The meaning of Board-Certification is only part of what attorneys need to know to retain the right expert.

Note that whatever you call yourself, you will likely be scrutinized by attorneys seeking to retain you, unsure how concerned they should be that you are not Board-Certified in the Forensic subspecialty.  Your qualifications, Board-Certification in general Psychiatry or Psychology, experience and training are relevant.

It would be naive not to expect opposing counsel will minimize the reliability of your opinions if you are not Board-Certified in Forensic Psychiatry or Forensic Psychology. Not being Board-Certified is not a deal killer, but be prepared to answer questions about it under oath.

In the interests of making a full disclosure to your potential clients, I would recommend you address this on your website. Your website is your best forum to explain your relevant forensic experience, Board-Certification in the subspecialty notwithstanding.

Other mental health professionals also render forensic opinion. A Licensed Social Worker (LCSW) may give testimony.  Presumably, those opinions fall within the scope of an LCSW’s training. Attorneys conduct due diligence and you can help them to understand who is qualified to give testimony on what topics.

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How do I become Board-Certified?

If you are are not Board-Certified in your forensic subspecialty, you should consider it. There is no scenario where Board-Certification hurts. Continuing education is a part of professional life, though Board-Certification is not the easiest option. That said, Board-Certification is another layer of training that makes you more credible to a jury.

It may not be as hard as you think.  From the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law:

Per the ABPN the primary requirement is  “…successful completion of one year of ACGME-accredited fellowship training in forensic psychiatry……may be completed on a part-time basis as long as it is not less than half time; credit is not given for periods of training lasting less than one year except under special circumstances that must be approved by the ABPN Credentials Committee.”  There are other requirements and exclusions, and the certification examination.  The ABPN site is the best source for this information, not me. Click here for a printable version of this answer

I'm not a doctor. Can I be an expert witness?

Whenever you have unique knowledge and experience a jury likely doesn’t, and you can communicate your opinions effectively, you are much of the way there.  Your credibility and credentials will be scrutinized by attorneys and the Court, so you have to pass muster.  A good place to start a career as an expert witness is to be a “consultant” to the attorney and not a “disclosed expert witness.”  As a consultant, you are simply sharing with the attorney your insights about the case, including about counterpart experts on the opposing side.  Over time, you’ll learn the strengths and limitations of your expertise, and attorneys will tell you if your perspective is helpful. Attorneys are usually helpful with feedback and supportive, in my experience.  They may end up retaining you as an expert witness.  The transition from consultant to Expert has been an established border in case law subject to different protections and duties, so consider a separate retention contract before being disclosed as an expert witness.

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What sort of official Certifications are needed if I'm not a doctor?

Every field holds its most skilled professionals to a standard. Training, licensing, and experience all contribute to meeting that standard. Many fields require a license to legally do their job. Professional Boards exist in every State to protect consumers by guaranteeing a certain quality of experience and training. College or trade schools offer degrees and/or credentials on completion of a course of study.  In forensic work, that degree and/or credential further qualifies you to testify.  The more rigorous the standard, the more respected the school, the more oversight from a licensing Board, the easier it will be for an expert to defend the reliability of their opinions on the stand. Attorneys are ethically bound to provide their clients with the best possible representation.  Therefore, if an expert witness is needed, they consider quality in an expert first. Click here for a printable version of this answer.

Check out the FAQ “How do I become Board-Certified?” 

How do I become a Forensic Psychiatrist or Psychologist?

Answers are different depending on whether you are a psychiatrist or a psychologist.  An important question to ask yourself: do you want to do forensic work with training but without the credentials or do you want to go all in–by which I mean Board-Certification?  It’s that upper case Forensic vs. lower case forensic thing.  Whatever route you are taking, you will need special training to perform forensic assessments and render courtroom worthy opinions and testimony.  I’m not qualified to answer this question thoroughly but an important resource is the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law’s Guidelines to Forensic Assessment and Guideline to Ethical Practices.  It’s good reading for psychiatrists and psychologists.  Psychiatry I refer you to the AAPL site for more information.

A few resources I have come across (but am not appropriately trained to endorse): There are schools that offer a Masters or special credential in forensic psychology (the ABPP has an interesting option–check out their website.) A  Fellowship with a good forensic training school is an option.  For psychiatrists, Phillip Resnick, M.D. is in charge of the Case Western Reserve Fellowship and it is considered one of the best.

Once you have a forensic practice and want it to grow, come back. I’ll be here! Apparently few programs offer a whit of practical advice about getting work and keeping it.

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Can I be an expert witness if I mostly treat patients?

Of course!

In fact, you are considered a more valuable expert witness when it is clear you practice what you claim to know.  Attorneys prefer an expert witness who can testify about what they experience in their day-to-day practice treating clients/patients.  By “client” I mean a person you are treating. You should not consider testifying or acting as an expert witness on behalf of a patient, however.  Ethical conflicts abound.

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What's the difference between a "forensic" professional and being an "Expert Witness? Do they always go together?

A forensic scientist studies material to form educated conclusions. Experience and skill in forming opinions and communicating conclusions is a Forensic investigator’s job.  An “expert witness” is someone whose opinions help a jury to understand what the investigator has found and how that might impact their decisions about the damages experienced by the injured party. For example, an expert witness who explains a construction defect that led to an injury will help the jury decide how much the construction defect contributed to losses.  Punitive damages also can be impacted if liabilty is proven to have been avoidable or untenable.  I’m not an attorney and the law on the parameters of an expert’s testimony are better answered by a lawyer. In short, a forensic professional conducts a thorough investigation of the circumstances giving rise to a lawsuier.  They provide their conclusions to the parties. An expert witness is officially named to the Court and all parties, acquiring certain legal obligations and qualifying to give testimony. If that doesn’t answer your question, let me know in the comments below and I’ll try to get you more answers.

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What does "forensic" mean?

Etymology: Forum, as in presented in a public forum (Latin)

“Relating to or dealing with the application of scientific knowledge to legal problems…”  (Merriam Webster)

“Belonging to Courts of Justice.”

(Black’s Law Dictionary per “The Law Dictionary Featuring Black’s Law Dictionary Free Online Legal Dictionary, 2nd Ed.”)

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What is Forensic Psychiatry? How about Forensic Psychology?

“Forensic Psychiatry is a subspecialty of psychiatry in which scientific and clinical expertise is applied in legal contexts involving civil, criminal, correctional, regulatory or legislative matters, and in specialized clinical consultations in areas such as risk assessment or employment. These guidelines apply to psychiatrists practicing in a forensic role.”

American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, Ethics Guidelines for the Practice of Forensic Psychiatry, Adopted May 2005

The American Board of Professional Psychology provides a similar definition:

“Forensic Psychology is the application of the science and profession of psychology to questions and issues relating to law and the legal system.  The word “forensic” comes from the Latin word “forensis,” meaning “of the forum,” where the law courts of ancient Rome were held.  Today forensic refers to the application of scientific principles and practices to the adversary process where scientists with specialized knowledge play a role.”

Forensic Psychology as defined by the American Board of Professional Psychology

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How much do Forensic Psychiatrists and Psychologists earn?

This is the question I hear the most often and unfortunately, no sound data exists for many fields but I’ll share what I know.

My experience is $250/hour to $1200/hour, the bottom being someone fresh out of school and without testimony experience.  Forensic Psychologists earn less than Forensic Psychiatrists.  $1200/hour is limited to psychiatrists at the top of their field who have testified hundreds of time with great effect.  Sometimes the hourly rate reflects only testimony, which tends to be  higher than the “regular” rate. For those experts with 1-3 years of experience and having testified 5-15 times, the mean is nearer $350-400/hour for psychologists and $500/hour for psychiatrists. Again, this is from my own personal experience.

Two questions impact income: what is your billable rate? How many hours do you want to work in forensic practice?

I recommend reading “Your Hourly Rate” for a more in-depth discussion.  To summarize my research:

There exist 3 private surveys conducted by expert witness directories. The samples are small, the statistics misleading and application to your field is next to null. Most importantly, annual income reported is not usually identified as being full time or part-time. Not helpful.

Bureau of Labor Statistics is often cited but actually is not helpful because forensic work isn’t a separate category of study.

I believe forensic psychiatrists do not make as much income as they could, by which I mean more billable hours morethan rate. That is the point of my services–to get more billable hours.

Limitations on income include geography, competition, and an area of expertise which is in high demand vs. low demand. Testimony experience is a pivotal factor.

Whatever you decide to charge, don’t intentionally try to undersell your competition. Your services are not available on Groupon. Further, your rate reflects your experience. If you cut your rate because you want more work, it will be easier for attorneys to assume the rate is an accurate reflection of your experience even if it is not.

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Is forensic work profitable?

This is the elephant in the room.  When you want to be known for your sage knowledge, you might not want your motivation to seem to be money.  The fact is, forensic work and Expert Witness work are conducted as a business.  Fees are charged.  Payment is expected. Costs are incurred.  Taxes are paid.  You have competitors who will take work from you if you aren’t actively promoting yourself. As a general rule, forensic work is considered a higher and best use of skill and experience than the ongoing business of providing services.  In other words, an Expert Witness on the topic of safe plumbing practices would be expected to know more than a garden variety plumber. For that reason, Experts are usually paid more than they receive in carrying out the duties of their profession.  Testimony is usually charged at a higher hourly rate than other work because it is more difficult and the stakes are higher. In some professions, Forensic work pays considerably better than an ongoing job.  To know the value of your skill in a legal environment requires research.  The usual sources of data, like the Bureau of Labor Statistics don’t tend to break out income for forensic work from the profession at large.  Some online services that provide information to attorneys about specific Experts have conducted surveys that may be helpful. When I am helping someone determine their fee, I consider the rarity of their knowledge and competitive value among others in their field. A commercial electrician is more valuable in commercial construction cases than a residential electrician. The commercial electrician can charge more, in my opinion, as a result.  A casual informational interview with a few attorneys in your area wouldn’t be amiss if you are just now considering taking on Expert work. Click here for a printable version of this answer

How much do you charge?

This is one of the first questions put to the expert on a first client inquiry call and I’m no different.  The question is actually “how much is this going to cost me?”  You do need some idea in order to make a realistic budget. The answer relies on what “this” is.  Is this a marketing plan with moving parts?  Are we talking about a website design?  Which of the parts will I handle and which will you?  Turnkey is fine.  Or are you more of a DIY person with hidden talents?  Experts sell their time and experience. That describes both you and me. I do my best to describe a reasonable range from what I have learned through experience.  I suggest choices about where to spend your money. My job is to help you make educated and wise decisions for the practice you have now and the one you want. I charge less than you do or, if I don’t, then we should discuss your rate.  Let’s talk. Click here for a printable version of this answer

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