ForensicExpertPro Practice Development for Expert WitnessesBeryl Vaughan, Consultant | Nationwide

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The Long Gameplan and The Short Gameplan

By Beryl Vaughan

Deepening your professional reputation is a short-term and long-term goal; it isn’t only a matter of ‘years in the game.’

Would you rather hire a med-legal expert who’s testified 1000 times, or 3? Licensed 5 years, or 20? You might assume that many years in practice, and experience on the stand, are the most important to being an effective and sought-after expert. You might also believe a forensic practice can’t be built any faster than the accumulation of years in the field. Of course, experience and long-acquired expertise are golden. Certainly that’s your long game.

Your short-term gameplan, however, can start now.  If you don’t have a lot of experience, let’s start with what you already know. Everyone has strengths, and they sometimes outweigh a lack of experience.  Attorneys faced with your competitors need to know the differences among experts and you can teach them. A classic example is the academic expert witness.  Training at a well-known Ivy League school, a professorship, a stack of publications does not mean that they have a particular strength in an IME of drawing out and interpreting complex cues, even malingering.  A well-written report is sometimes a turning point to settlement of a case. The expert with that skill becomes more valuable in a case that’s expected to settle than the case everyone knows is going to trial.  The list of such strengths that can outweigh years of experience goes on. I find attorneys may need to be informed about the strength itself and how it’s valuable.  Most attorneys don’t actually understand the many roles and skills an expert witness/undisclosed forensic expert can contribute to all parties in a case. (This is not beneficial in a biased way–solely plaintiff or defense, and never should be as a matter of maintaining a reputation for objectivity.)

What you lack in years of experience can be balanced with compensating factors. When we tease out those compensating factors, the next step is making a communication strategy. Here’s a shortlist, followed by a more detailed discussion.

  • Define and communicate your most unique areas of expertise.

This is a surgical process, not a 10 page CV–though a good CV is essential.

Remember, what attorneys seek, and what you think you know, can be very different. Knowledgeable about the use of antipsychotics? You may be qualified to testify about malpractice in the use of antipsychotics.  Alcohol dependency? Assessing DUI defendants. Clinical psychotherapy? Disorders that don’t respond well to psychotherapy alone. What are you qualified to opine about? A second set of eyes is essential to this process because people are notoriously blind about their own strengths. I hear from my clients all the time that they lack self-confidence and expect failure, or the far end of the spectrum, hubris, are the result of self-projection, and not necessarily reality.

  • Depth of knowledge can be a compensating factor vs. the greater years of experience of a colleague.

Prepare a CV that conveys that to your clients. Have your CV reviewed by another set of eyes, skilled with both successful and unsuccessful CVs of forensic experts in your field. Part of your gameplan is a CV that outperforms, or equally performs, that of your colleagues. Hint: take a look at the first line of your CV. What does it convey? I see CVs of experts all the time that unwittingly appear to rearrange what’s implied on a website. Assume no one makes it to page 3 of your CV. What’s their takeaway?

  •  Quality work product.

Experience doesn’t equal impeccable work product. Be impeccable. Capitalize with trained staff; there are savings to you and your client, and perhaps greater profit as well.

  • Know your competitors.

Assess the strengths and weaknesses of your forensic colleagues, and compare them to your own.

This information drives a strategy to be what others are not. Sorry to repeat myself but this process benefits from a second set of eyes–people are rarely objective or accurate in their self-perception. Therapists know that well.

  •  Functional practice tools and methods that communicate quality and customer support.

I feel strongly about this. Over and over, I find financial advantages to everyone, attorney-client, and expert alike. Every interaction between you communicates how well you know your business, or don’t, and whether working with you is going to be easy or a hassle. This, by the way, extends to anyone representing you to the work: your staff, answering service, website developer, billing service. In the long gameplan, you build a reputation for consistency and fairness in something as simple as how you approach collections, for example.

  •  Information is power.

Everything you do to build your practice is only as strong as your ability to determine what is working. That’s why data-mining is a marketing term (Check out the Glossary for more about “data-mining.”.) We use information feedback to reorient how clients find you, learn and reinforce what we find captures their attention. A well-written article on your website, for instance, helps underline your reputation for producing a well-written report.

  •  Capitalizing on someone else’s “misses:” a scenario.

Let’s imagine attorneys find Expert “Smith” online. It appears Expert Smith has been a practicing forensic psychologist for 20 years and has testified hundreds of times. Expert Smith’s website and a testimonial or two praise him for thoroughness and sound reasoning. In the absence of anything to the contrary, attorneys assume “thoroughness” means Expert Smith can be counted on to read the records closely and find what is relevant, however well-buried. Also in the absence of anything to the contrary, attorneys assume Expert Smith is persuasive and at ease on the stand as a result of all that time spent there (100 times!). Expert Smith is clearly at the top of his profession, attorneys think. Yet his bedside manner leaves something to be desired. His report is full of awkwardly worded, contradictory statements, or simply confusing conclusions. Dates don’t line up and the word “Draft” is embedded in the final report. Look hard enough and you might find that well-founded opinion.  This goes far deeper than copy-editing.

The nature of competition is to be different. Big numbers or flashy credentials do not define the playing field. Understand and master this, and you have tools to overcome what you may perceive as weaknesses standing in your way.

What you lack in years of experience can be balanced with compensating factors. When we tease out those compensating factors, the next step is crafting a communication strategy.”

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