What it takes to be a ‘go-to expert’: Tips from the San Francisco expert witness conference

BVWireIssue #138-3
March 19, 2014

The very dynamic James J. Mangraviti (SEAK Inc.) recently held a two-day seminar in San Francisco on “How to Be a Successful and Effective Expert Witness.” The workshop, organized by the Northern California chapter of the ASA, taught appraisers of all stripes, including business valuators, about the expert’s role in civil litigation and gave hands-on training on how to handle depositions or cross-examinations. It also instructed attendees on marketing and practice management.

Before he threw participants into the fire with relentless role-playing, Mangraviti explored what an expert can do to stand out in the field. Here are some basic truths.

Expert as teacher: The best experts see themselves as teachers. They approach questioning as an opportunity to help the jury understand complex and uncommon issues. A successful expert connects with jurors and exhibits sensitivity for what works and what doesn’t work in the courtroom. (Hint: Be careful about telling jokes!)

Also, says Mangraviti, there is a razor-thin line between appearing confident—an attribute jurors and the retaining attorney appreciate—and coming across as arrogant—an attitude an expert wants to avoid.

Mangraviti points out that business valuators face an extra challenge because they are asked to discuss topics that strike a lot of jury members as inherently “dry” and incomprehensible. The best way to overcome this handicap is by having a genuine interest in what you do and using language laypersons can understand.

Commit to the profession: Mangraviti had a chance to interview Michael Kaplan (Kaplan Abraham Burkert & Co.), one of the country’s foremost experts in forensic accounting, about how Kaplan defines the term “go-to expert” and how he has achieved that distinction.

According to Kaplan, a “go-to expert” is an expert who commits to learning all there is about his or her field of expertise in order to master the technical aspects; this means keeping up to date with industry developments and with the applicable professional standards. Don’t forget to adhere to them. A go-to expert understands the litigation environment and works well with retaining counsel. However, this does not mean becoming an advocate for the attorney’s side. Ultimately, the expert only represents his or her opinion, not a party in the case.

Key advice: Kaplan has three bits of advice for budding experts or somewhat experienced experts who want to reach the next level in their careers:

  • Speak plain English;
  • Always tell the truth; and
  • Challenge every assumption.

Regarding that last point, don’t believe anything anyone tells you. Counsel may ask you to “just” work off certain assumptions, but these may have no basis in the record. The best practice is to base your opinion on the evidence, not on a party’s spin on the evidence.

In fact, one of Mangraviti’s mantras during the workshop was that, even though experts are conditioned to be circumspect about the opposing counsel, the vast majority of their problems—80%— originate with the retaining lawyer. Experts are eager to please the hand that feeds them, but departing from the professional standards “can prove disastrous.” A reputation is an easy thing to lose.

More on the attorney-expert relationship and the expert’s tools to manage it will appear in an upcoming BVWire.

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