By Beryl Vaughan
Forensic means “forum.” For a forensic expert witness, this means your job is making the direct connection between knowledge and public health education. (Merriam Webster)
Ultimately, it will be your job to act as a Rosetta Stone for a Jury, so they can understand what your training has helped you understand.
You use the same skill to reach attorneys.
Connecting with attorneys is more effective when your skill and expertise are communicated in a language they understand.
I.e. medical-legal, not medical.
How it happens
Like everyone, attorneys begin most searches with Google. They don’t use medical terminology. Sometimes they put on their armchair psychologist cap and misuse terms based on what they think they know. This doesn’t always work out for them.
Reframing your practice can be impactful to getting case calls. what does that mean?
“Frame or express (words or a concept or plan) differently.”
The Art of Translation
You are experienced in out-patient treatment of Anxiety Disorders.
A personal injury attorney is seeking an expert in PTSD because their client is nervous all the time following a horrific accident.
The attorney doesn’t know much about PTSD so, of course, Googles “PTSD accident” and doesn’t find “Out-patient treatment Anxiety Disorders.” They might miss you entirely.
In a situation like this, the data unmasks the disconnect. What does the Google search produce, and why are some results popping up? Google Analytics and other data sites will tell us. My experience is that what attorneys look for and what they find do not “match” what’s important in their case relevant to the forensic doctor they find.
1. Writing about how to distinguish PTSD from “look-alike” Disorders.
2. Describing traumatic events, like motor vehicle accidents and the “sequelae” (never use that word in a forensic site–but I’m talking to you so I get to use your language.)
3. Subtleties and variations of Anxiety Disorders as opposed to PTSD.
4. You might choose to post this article elsewhere, but you have the most control on your website.
A relieved attorney now finds someone who understands what’s relevant, in spite of the attorney’s understandable lack of mental health training.
When the Expert Witness and attorney disconnect in verbiage, it takes time to straighten out. For example, your expert report assumes a shared understanding of words and their med-legal implication. If the attorney isn’t getting what you are saying, neither will a jury.
If the attorney doesn’t think you can speak to a jury in plain language, there is no benefit for you to do so.
Another example, “Trauma.”
“A wound; any injury to the body caused by external violence.”
In Psychology, per the APA:
“Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.”
“an injury (such as a wound) to living tissue caused by an extrinsic agent.”
Attorneys may identify self-described “traumatic” experiences as a cause of action in a Complaint. Who’s the right expert to opine? The doctor running an emergency room? Trauma Center standard of care expert? A forensic psychiatrist or psychologist? You see the problem.
Because you’re building your forensic practice, writing about these types of translation disconnects will find an audience. Attorneys don’t want to be confused; their cases will suffer. And they may very well look for an expert using search words that don’t lead to the expertise sought.
Whenever you communicate your med-legal opinions, assume you’re talking to someone who would like to better understand the most complex elements. Don’t be patronizing–in fact, when the language gets technical, be an educator.
Talking Shop with Lawyers
A trial isn’t the only time you’ll face a language barrier. Legal language has to be parsed by you. If you have forensic training, this will be easier to do; if not, you will have a learning curve.
What’s a Motion to Compel (an IME), Discovery, Disclosure, Pre-trial Conference (not in that order)?
Lawyers plan a strategy within the framework of the march of deadlines established by law. The better you understand how a lawsuit evolves, the more effective you will be in communicating with a lawyer and staff.
Example: Motion to Compel an Independent Medical Examination
If opposing counsel is trying to block an IME of their client, counsel demanding an IME may have to file a Motion to Compel which is as it sounds: to Compel an IME.
If you are the examiner, you will likely be asked to prepare a Declaration in Support o Motion to Compel an Independent Medical Examination. In it you will describe your credentials and experience and explain to the judge why you believe an IME is relevant or necessary, parameters for the IME itself (how long, scope, features, etc.). The Judge will need to know more about your work and if your methods meet the Daubert standard, and best-practices. Before your Declaration is filed, your first student is your attorney-client.
A lawsuit contains verbiage. Just like you, the attorney has a language you need to learn, just as the attorney needs to learn yours.
Learn what attorneys say to each other as a Language class
I recommend watching webinars by attorneys for other attorneys. As a non-lawyer you can become a member of The American Bar Association. Subscribe to learn about attorney continuing education events. Sign up if it seems relevant (“How to Cross-Examine an Expert Witness” was a recent webinar.)
Build your Glossary
If an attorneys says something you don’t understand, ask them to explain or look it up online. If you’re afraid of looking dumb, you might consider putting the question to a paralegal on the trial team, so it is in context of the case itself.
Attorneys appreciate an Expert Witness who speaks a shared language. No one wants to feel left out and using big medical words or terms of art that attorneys don’t understand can backfire and make you look elitist or arrogant instead of erudite.
Communication is at the heart of the Expert Witness’ job. The lawyer is the person you will communicate with for the most hours of your work.
Embrace and enlarge these skills using some of the examples I describe above, on this site or in a conversation between us.