Practice Development for Expert Witnesses
Beryl Vaughan, Consultant
Nationwide

Email go@forensicexpertpro.com or Call (415) 302-9589

Building a Reputation for Fair-Dealing, Integrity and Goodwill

By Beryl Vaughan

Building a Reputation for fairness and integrity will drive a lifelong career as an Expert Witness.

Client “goodwill” and a “satisfied customer” are different. This is especially important for a forensic expert witness.

“Satisfied” refers to the entire client-expert relationship, except the expert’s opinion. An expert witness’ opinion will not, and should not, be geared to “satisfy ” customers. There can be no implication the opinion is not objective; that it is instead issued as a convenience to the client. That impression is a practice-killer. This article is about what isn’t the expert’s opinion.

Let’s approach “customer service” as a guiding principle manifested in the day-to-day business needs of the attorney-client (more about the day-to-day in “Nuts and Bolts.”)

Goodwill can be established with anyone. Failing to establish Goodwill has consequences for your business, just as it would in your personal life.

Goodwill is the mutual respect and sound personal relationship between business and client.  It is an intangible asset. Generating goodwill builds your reputation and your business’ integrity.

Without goodwill, you’re just a one-hit wonder–one case with one attorney.  The end. Establishing goodwill, however, is key to referrals for future work.  

How do you establish goodwill?

Be supportive in the way you conduct business:  working with you a pleasure. Minimal hassle. Professionalism.  Positive Consistency. Mutual respect.

Supporting the Law Practice Without Introducing Bias. The Golden Rule.

For 20 years I was lucky to work with great attorneys who mentored me about what’s important in an unfolding case.

At one time or another, I touched almost every task in litigation case management from international licensing conflicts to billing. I built personal relationships with attorneys and the clients we served, which I treasure to this day. 

Relationships were a significant factor in generating client loyalty, the building block of a career. 

I also found that services provided to the law firm, sometimes called “litigation support,” weren’t always supportive.

Litigation support includes an expert witness, depo-summarizers, records managers, even copy services.  In very real terms, when the attorney’s office has to do someone else’s job for them, it’s inefficient and costly to them. Don’t be that person.  

Answer phone calls, bill your time in a transparent manner, document conversations and tasks, follow-up, interact respectful of the other person’s time. 

 

BEST PRACTICES IN

BUSINESS SUPPORT

GARNERS REPEAT BUSINESS

Professional Relationships That Communicate Respect (vs. being a Pompous…)

Social Intelligence is, paraphrased, “the ability to understand and manage people to act wisely in human relations” (Edward Thorndike [1].

What your business communicates to clients.  Who is the go-to person–on the front lines with your clients? You? Staff? An answering service or Voicemail? These things matter. They convey your practice persona: Available? Behind a gatekeeper? Responsive vs. slow to respond? Likeable?[2] Helpful?

Consider negative implications when you don’t answer the phone, don’t respond to email, ignore second and third calls from an attorney, get someone’s name wrong or forget it more than once. You risk leaving the impression that

  • You don’t care enough to take your work –and their case–seriously (aka arrogance). 
  • You can’t be bothered to learn someone’s name.
  • You don’t understand case evolution and the march to trial which, as an Expert Witness, you should (I can help with more training on that score.)

Relationships.  Know the go-to people on your attorney-client’s case team as a sign of respect and because it will make your job easier.

Say my name, Say my name

Take it upon yourself to know the attorney’s case team by name, personality and role.  It’s an opportunity to communicate your respect.  Meta: remember how someone pronounces their name, what’s important to them, and the nature of their job.  

Paralegals and junior associates don’t get nearly enough acknowledgment, yet they are the people most likely to mention your name in a future case.

The Right Person for the job

Know a person’s role in the law firm and the case. You’ll save yourself time and trouble. For example, a paralegal might be the fastest source for records you are missing. An Associate Attorney might be scheduling discovery–you need that person’s name to schedule your own deposition or tell you when the Court Reporter has finished the deposition of opposing counsel’s Expert (something you will definitely need).  The lead Trial Attorney who retained you isn’t always in the trenches in the same way.

As an Expert Witness, you actually live in the trenches–with the meat of a case and a lot of moving parts to review.  

Growing Big Enough to Hire Staff

When you aren’t the go-to person on behalf of your practice, make sure you hire knowledgeable, personable staff.

Assume clients will have as much, or more, contact with that staffperson than you.  Frankly, your clients know the services of staff are free. 

At your hourly rate there is no situation where it makes more sense for an attorney to ask of you what they can, instead, ask of your receptionist or assistant. 

Attorneys know that!  It’s how they run their own practice. Paralegal time is billed at a lower rate than the attorney. A legal secretary’s time is not billable at all. No surprise that clients prefer to turn to the person who is cheap or free, and let them decide when to bump something up the food chain. 

Your staff must reflect positively on you.  Hire good people, express praise, pay competitively, reap profits. Your staff can get you work by doing their job well.

New Cases, Same People

Personal Connection.  People who have a personal connection with someone do a better job recalling them later. Similarly, a negative relationship can suppress their likelihood of remembering you later. [3] When someone remembers you positively, it is a cornerstone of building goodwill in the long term. 

Helpfulness, Social Intelligence, and Flexibility

The concept of being “helpful” requires emotional flexibility as well as the skillful handling of tasks. “Helpfulness” is a business asset. Let’s take it up to the level of empathy.

Example: As a paralegal my primary love was probate/trust administration.  I was the person clients turned to for help when the bureaucracy of death overwhelmed them. Helping people in the immediate aftermath of grief is intimate. We’re in this human business together. 

On the one hand, I was doing my job: enabling clients to accomplish their goals (collecting life insurance, for example).  Had I been cold or impersonal or incompetent, damage would be done. In fact, I observed others do that kind of damage and sink more than one law practice.

I have also seen physicians suffer when unkind or inadequately trained staff lost them work.  

Business does, and should have an emotional component.

It’s simple, have a good relationship and life is simpler and easier. Have a contrary relationship and you waste time dealing with it, emotionally and professionally. In business, getting this right has a profound impact.

Being “infected” by another person’s kindness and attitude can be a very good thing.

“Researchers have found that when subjects “catch” positive emotions from others, they’re more likely to be viewed by others and view themselves as more cooperative and competent.”  –Sherry Bourg Carter, Psy.D.  “Emotions are Contagious – Choose Your Company Wisely,” Psychology Today.

Empathy in any form drives a desire to help, a generosity of time and effort. It rarely goes unnoticed. In forensic medicine, psychology, psychiatry, law, or any profession, this lesson will never fail you.

 

[1]  Thorndike, E.L. (1920). Intelligence and its use. Harper’s Magazine, 140, 227-235.

[2]  The more your staff knows about law and your area of medicine, the more useful they will be to everyone.  Your human resources add value to your practice, nearer the “rainmaker” category vs. “overhead.”  Select, hire and treat them accordingly.

[2]  Levy BJ, Anderson MC. Inhibitory processes and the control of memory retrieval. Trends Cogn Sci. 2002;6(7):299-305. doi:10.1016/s1364-6613(02)01923-x 

 

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