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The Long Game(plan)

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 many years in practice, and experience on the stand, are the most important to being an effective and sought-after expert. You may also believe a forensic practice can’t be built any faster than the years accumulate. Of course, experience and long-acquired expertise are golden in the field of a forensic psychiatrist or psychologist, or any expert witness for that matter. That’s your long game. Your short-term gameplan doesn’t wait for years to pass. If you don’t have a lot of experience, we start with what you already know to relay advantages that outweigh a lack of experience.  If you have strong expertise and experience, we work with you to optimize your strengths on a broader stage.

What you lack in years of experience, or what you lack in years of experience in a specific area of your profession, can be balanced with compensating factors. When we tease out those compensating factors, we are here to help get out the message. Here’s a shortlist, followed by a more detailed discussion.

  • Define and communicate your most unique areas of expertise. We’re back to the micro-view. This is a surgical process, not a 2 page CV.  This is how you position your skills before the attorney who will be your client.  Collaborate in the surgery with someone experienced on both ends of the communication-you and your client. 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? Let’s discuss the possibilities.
  • 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.

  • Assess the strengths and weaknesses of your forensic colleagues and compare them to yours. This information drives a strategy to be what others are not.

  • Functional practice tools and methods that communicate quality and customer support. It’s my bailiwick, and as a result, I’ve seen financial advantages to everyone, client, and expert alike. Every interaction between your client and your practice communicates how well you know your business, or don’t, and whether working with you is going to be easy or a hassle.

Employ practice methods (case-flow, billing, communication protocols), and tools (software, hiring, training) that promote the quality-work product, and your bottom line.  How do you know what will or won’t benefit from changes? Skilled systems-analysis is a fancy way to say: a profession-centric analyst (one of our services) takes a close look at how to do things better/faster/cheaper/customer supportive.

  • Information is power. That’s why data-mining is a marketing term (Check out the Glossary.) We use data-mining to guide reorienting how clients find you and what works best.

  • A guiding workflow chart/case-management record that is complementary to your client’s.

  • Records management.

  • Billing, best-practices.

  • Technology. Your practice relies on it but what is “it”?  A little advice from a professional goes a long way.

  • Staffing. The right staff enhances your reputation–a compensating factor to grow a young practice. Staff can also be profit-centers and rainmakers. More below.

  • Training. You and your staff must know how to use the resources at your disposal, and, for example, the software your client uses. Otherwise, you’ll waste time trying to figure it out alone.

  • Skilled office management.

  • Tight file management. Well documented communication,* intuitive access to what you need.

  • Outside services that are more efficient.  Transcription, payroll, processing, accepting client payments by credit card, tech support. The smaller your business, the less control you have over how these outside businesses impact your client services. Spend your money wisely.

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.

Excellence is a goal for the long-haul. Master it and your reputation gets an uptick.

Forensic psychologists and psychiatrists charge a fee that’s sometimes more than the attorney.  Your work product should be excellent, impeccable even.  If it isn’t, then you’re probably charging too much. The report is only one example. If you don’t want to drop your fees, let’s do a cost/benefit analysis to be ‘excellent.’  The financial beneficiary is you.

The real costs and benefits of excellence.

If you charge $400/hour (a placeholder fee), 1/2 hour copy-editing a report costs your client $200.  Frankly, for every 1/2 houryou spend copy editing a few pages of a report, you could pay for a coterie of assistants to do it for you. Or at least one with paralegal training. Save your time and your client’s money for your highest and best use: a well-founded, clearly-stated opinion.

The going rate for a skilled legal assistant in Northern California is about $40/hour; a trained paralegal is nearer $55/hour. Two $40/hr assistants copy-edit your report (you probably don’t need two–it’s for the sake of argument.)

1/2 hour of Assistant 1: $20.00

1/2 hour of Assistant 2: $20.00

Savings to your client over your fees: 200-40=$160

An employee with paralegal training, trained to review for content and clarity, has a market value. In law, a typical billing rate for a paralegal is $125/hr., depending on experience.

Let’s look at how this plays out financially from your side.

1/2 hour of a $55/hour paralegal level assistant, cost to you: $27.50

Billed at $125/hr., cost to your client: $62.50.   Profit to you: $35.00.

Savings to your client 200-62.50 $137.50.

Everyone benefits.

Most experts don’t have two assistants dedicated to quality control, which makes the example all the more compelling. It’s cheaper to produce quality work-product than not. Expert Smith’s fees reflect a fairly high level of inefficiency and make a poor impression.

A warning to avoid pitfalls.  You can make bad blood without even knowing it. In video gaming, to “rage quit” means walking away from an investment of time because it’s too frustrating to withstand. I’ve spoken to many an attorney desperate to rage quit a forensic expert. From the other side of the desk, as a legal case manager, I encountered support services that impeded our ability to do a job cost-effectively. You pay them for the services (expert fees, in this case) and then spend billable time to work around someone else’s dysfunctional, or simply awkward, practice methods.

Be different.

*Marita K. Marshall, Former Senior Partner at Folger Levin, Professor at Stanford School of Law, pro tem Judge, and a former boss, taught me early that written communication should be self-explanatory, on its face. It should be possible to pick up any note, email, memo, correspondence and know what is being said and in context.