ForensicExpertPro Practice Development for Expert WitnessesBeryl Vaughan, Consultant | Nationwide

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What hourly rate should I charge?

May I charge a flat fee or work on contingency?

How much does a forensic expert make?

Do forensic psychiatrists make more than psychologists? How do they stack up against other med-legal experts?

By Beryl Vaughan

Because so many experts ask me this question, I’m taking it to the mat. 

Ideally, determining the right fee should be established from industry and government data, if it existed. Solid surveys would be helpful, if they existed.

Unfortunately, there is no scientifically reliable resource. A closer look at Bureau of Labor Statistics, and surveys by the APA and private expert directories are discussed below.  In brief, they are statistically unreliable and, in my experience, inaccurate. Instead I rely on my own experience, court records, and anecdotal information from many dozens of experts and attorneys.

The BLS estimates that in 2019 psychiatrists earned a mean $105/hour and psychologists $47/hour.[1]

Forensic fees are actually 8-10 times higher in my experience. 

Factors include expertise, skill, training, Board-Certification, reputation, and geography.  Testimony rates are always higher than the base rate.

In reality

Forensic Psychiatrists charge in the range of $350-$1,000 hour. Newbies fresh out of Fellowship in a semi-rural setting are near the bottom; established doctors at the top of their profession can exceed $1,000/hour. I go into more detail below.

Those not Board-Certified in Forensic Psychiatry generally earn a lower rate unless they are renowned in their field and/or associated with cases in a media frenzy.

Forensic psychologists charge about $250-$500/hour (Board-Certification in Forensic Psychology pushes these numbers higher.) Variations (higher and lower) include subspecialties like court-ordered evaluators, neuropsychologists and Workers’ Compensation Examiners.

How you can find out what others charge

  • Asking experts in your field what they charge, which I do every chance I get. 
  • Fees reported in an Expert Disclosure.
  • Fees reported by other experts during the Discovery phase of a lawsuit, such as in depositions and document production.  You’ll want to read their CV when considering the fees they charge. Remember, there will always be outliers.

Professional Warnings About Fee Structure

Contingency is a career-killer

You might be asked to accept a contingency arrangement–where you are paid only if the case “wins.”  Don’t. Attorneys (not Experts) sometimes practice “on contingency,” meaning they are only paid if they win the case, usually 30% of the award.  Typically, Personal Injury, class action and product liability cases may be on contingency; attorneys sometimes accept a case on contingency if the plaintiff can’t afford the lawsuit but the attorney believes the claim is sound. 

Only plaintiff attorneys work on contingency. Defense attorneys don’t because there’s no way to measure the “success” of the loss–you cannot know whether the award or settlement would have been higher or lower had they done their job differently.

Contingency means having a dog in the fight. 

An expert evaluation is what it is. There is no vested interest.  In fact, your opinions may be a hindrance to the case. It’s not your problem!

As a forensic expert there’s no model of profit ‘margin,’ markup, markdown, or discount.

Flat Fees vs. Set Fees

Flat fee professions like contractors, for example, build profit into a quote. Money is made in the difference between the quote and the actual cost.  The lower the “real” cost, the better the bottom line. In a worst case scenario, this can be accomplished by using discounted materials, lowest bidder subcontractors, and quality shortcuts.

An Expert Witness conducing an assessment with less than full effort, just to improve their bottom line, might as well retire now.

Set fees, on the other hand, are those mandated by regulatory, federal, state and local bodies. Courts may set a universal fee for expert assessments. Parole Boards and Workers’ Compensation Boards may pay predetermined fees.  In California in 2020, panel Workers’ Compensation psychiatric evaluators must be certified by the state and earn $250/hour or $312.50/hour (depending on the eval.) That is slated to change, downwards.[2]

The Meat of the Data

I wanted to know what the “official” data could tell me about fees. I’ll talk about Bureau of Labor Statistics, an American Psychological Association survey, and two surveys by private expert witness directories, and lastly, unique factors that drive charges.

The “Research.” Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

US Bureau of Labor Statistics: Data Dismissible

  1. Forensic Psychiatry and Forensic Psychology are not documented by the BLS.
  2. Data is helpfully described as “Psychiatry, All Other” and “Psychology, All Other.”
  3. No distinction is made between trainees clocking hours for licensure, part or full time positions, salaried positions that are low but come with high value benefits, locum tenens work, or clinical rates capped by medicaid or insurance payors. [1]

Don’t Freak Out

BLS, Psychiatrists. Mean wage estimate:

2019 $105.98/hour https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291223.htm (congratulations on the raise)

2018 $105.95 https://www.bls.gov/oes/2018/may/oes291066.htm

2017 $103.89 https://www.bls.gov/oes/2017/may/oes291066.htm

2016 $96.26 https://www.bls.gov/oes/2016/may/oes291066.htm

Psychologists. Mean wage estimate:

2019. $47.23.  https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes193039.htm (congratulations on the raise)

2018. $45.97 https://www.bls.gov/oes/2018/may/oes193039.htm

2017: $44.92 https://www.bls.gov/oes/2017/may/oes193039.htm (sorry about the pay cut)

2016 $45.51 https://www.bls.gov/oes/2016/may/oes193039.htm

I encourage you to follow the links to learn more about the BLS geographic data and collection process. 

The BLS tells us absolutely nothing about the fees and earnings of Forensic Psychiatrists and Psychologists.

By the way, you’ll see those BLS Numbers pop up again.

I found dozens or articles online quoting the BLS data and applying it to forensic work, as if it were accurate, like this one in the Chronicle family of newspapers. 

The APA: Dismissible

2009: American Psychological Association. “Report of the APA Salary Survey.” The numbers ultimately defer to, guess what? The BLS!  The survey was actually undertaken. Unfortunately, forensic psychologists–5% of the total surveyed–are addressed under a subcategory “Direct Human Services – Other Psychological Subfields (Licensed only).”  I call that dismissible on the grounds that it is irrelevant. https://www.forensicpsychologyedu.org/salaries/#:~:text=Forensic%20Psychology%20Researcher%20Salaries,median%2C%20annual%20salary%20of%20%2480%2C500.

Hearsay and Blogs: Dismissible

2000-2017: I found so many discussion of hourly rates in blogs, blogs, blogs. Mostly hearsay–very few experts actually reveal what they are charging and no supporting data is provided, although a few quote the same US Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers above, without pointing out the flaws.

Private Surveys: Dismissible

2017 Expert Witness Fee Surveys by Expert Directories.

Two Expert Witness Directories surveyed their membership about their fees. The sample is biased by the respondent’s decision to pay for a listing in a commercial expert directory. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, just that it colors the sample so I feel obligated to report it.

SEAK is a private expert witness directory for attorneys. They provide training, courses, and practice materials for forensic expert witnesses. They are not a research firm and do not disclose a methodology in their 2017 report. Of 1030 respondents in all fields, they heard from 32 psychiatrists and 29 psychologists. It’s pretty hard to extrapolate much about either profession.[3]

A second expert directory provides members with a private survey. In 2017, the sample size of forensic psychiatrists and forensic psychologists are not provided. They report survey answers, but not the questions! How did they determine the population to survey? Can results be extrapolated to forensic psychiatrists and psychologists? The answer is no.

The Numbers

Board-Certified Forensic Psychiatrists: $350-$1,000/hr.  Testimony: usually 30-50% higher than the usual fee. In many cases, doctors charge a minimum for testimony days because they tie up the whole day.  Also, doctors may charge a higher base rate if they have unique and exceptional qualifications such as a rare specialization. 

Most Forensic Psychiatrists fall in the bottom 2/3 (under $700/hr) because the bulk of Board Certifications in Forensic Psychiatry have been granted in the last 10 years than the prior 20 (per ABPN). Less experience means a lower fee.

Geography matters, but not as much as I imagined when I first encountered the fees charged by Forensic Psychiatrists.  Doctors practicing in rural areas charge about 25-30% less than in cities.  However, attorneys with a unique case who need a unique expert will pay whatever they would have to pay anywhere and the location of the expert is irrelevant.  A side note: a few states require a medical expert to be licensed in that State, which can change who can practice Forensic Psychiatry in a case there, but it doesn’t usually change the fees.

Otherwise, wherever they are in the country, a $500/hr. expert has a very similar CV to another $500/hr. expert.  (Except New York City and Los Angeles where fees higher.)

Setting your own fee:  Approach this with caution. The presumption made by an expert about their own value, based on no outside information, is dicey at best. I hear “I don’t think I can justify a higher rate so I won’t.”  Absent facts or information of any kind, that’s magical thinking.  Women are more likely to charge less than their male counterparts. Also magical thinking?

If charging more produces less work, then you have your answer. If charging more has no impact one way or the other, or produces more work, you have your answer.[4]

Why Psychologists Charge Less and When They Can Charge More

Psychologists (Ph.D. and Psy.D.), including those Board Certified in Forensic Psychology (ABPP): Psychologists charge less than MD’s, except if they have special background and skills that set them apart.  The reasons are obvious.  When advising a forensic psychologist I argue that forensic work should be billed at a higher rate than psychotherapy.  The training is more specialized for forensic work, the marketplace less populous, the stakes high and fixed for the litigant.  A forensic psychologist with extensive experience testifying, and practice specialty with a lot of chops can out-charge untested doctors if the issues are not medical (a physician’s purview.)

The least experienced licensed and forensically-trained psychologist might charge as little as $150/hr., but $300/hr. is more likely.  After 10 years of substantial experience, that psychologist may be charging $500/hr. The gap is less flexible for psychologists than psychiatrists.  Specialty matters. A neuropsychologist or psychologist Board-Certified in the treatment of children and adolescents can sometimes charge more than their counterpart without such training.

Don’t be Shy

A psychologist Board-Certified in Forensic Psychology by the ABPP recently gave me an education about the training he received and the rarity of such a Board-Certification. His rate was higher than his colleagues. My suggestion? “Put it on your website.”  [5] Similarly, if the attorney questions your rate in a call, and you feel it is fair, there’s no need to be defensive although that is a normal emotional reaction, especially early in your career. 

I will help you determine a reasonable rate based on a thorough understanding of you and your practice, but ultimately we test the waters.  Attorney feedback will tell us if it is appropriate to adjust higher or lower to reach the fee that, like Goldilocks’ breakfast, is just right.

Your fee is ultimately a function of what you know, how well you communicate and your ability to synthesize complex information into a forensic opinion everyone can understand. 

Credentials, qualifications and experience are important, but  secondary in my opinion, because all the credentials in the world are useless if you can’t testify effectively. Feel free to disagree.

[1] The BLS statistics are so complex that I am simply reporting the most general information they offer for psychiatrists and psychologists. The mean reflects that other categories, such as school psychologists or “physician offices” may be higher or lower.  The numbers are not in any way consistent with fees charged by forensic psychologists or psychiatrists in 2016-2019 from my “in-the-trenches” information.
[2] In California there is legislation proposed to limit Workers’ Compensation psych evals to a flat fee. Also, some IME Mills pay a flat fee for a record review or quickie opinion.  If Legislation forces a flat fee arrangement it is easily defensible if an attorney tries to discredit you on the stand as producing a ‘less-than’ report to increase your profit margin.  Affiliation with an IME Mill can also be trickier and should be approached cautiously.
[3] SEAK’s 2017 survey results are at https://seak.com/expert-witness-fee-study/   
[4]A market economy means fees are governed by supply, demand and perception of rarity.  You might find you’re getting so many cases that you have to turn cases away. I recommend increasing your fees.
[5] Articles, case studies, social media posts (judicious), video, interviews, audio, webinars– all can explain to attorneys about what you know, the quality of your presentation, and skill in your field.

 

As a forensic expert there’s no model of profit ‘margin,’ markup, markdown, or discount.

An expert evaluation is what it is. The forensic expert has no vested interest. 

In fact, your opinions may be a hindrance to the case. It’s not your problem.

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