Is Your Expert Witness Actually Helping Your Case?
The educational process represents one of the most challenging aspects of a complex trial because it is a building block toward persuasion. Trying to teach jurors about complicated information or concepts that they have little or no familiarity with is enormously difficult.
In this article, I will discuss what research tells us about expert witnesses and how jurors’ pre-conceived attitudes and experiences play into educating the jury. Understanding these components can help the expert testify more effectively and persuasively AND it can help the trial team select the appropriate expert for the case by understanding how the expert communicates.
What to look for in an expert
Great expert witnesses are credible and convincing—they can convey a lot of information to jurors in a relatively short period of time. Additionally, the best experts can convey complex information into relatively understandable concepts so jurors can be educated and then persuaded by the information.
The expert witness functions as a high-intensity educator who give jurors a deeper look into the inner workings of the case so that jurors feel confident enough to make their own educated decisions in the case. For most jurors, the expert witness functions as a guide to show the jurors why they should believe one side of the story versus the other. But as we all know, each side has an expert and many times the two experts are looking at the same evidence and rendering completely contradictory opinions in the case. So in that situation how does the juror decide which side to believe? What goes into the decision-making in the case?
Many times in a complex case the jurors cannot understand or relate to the material of the case. As the jurors are being bombarded with new, complicated, and confusing information, it is easiest to hold on to what the juror knows best: generalizations. While these generalizations make the job of a juror easier, from the lawyer’s perspective these generalizations often present a significant threat to the outcome of the case. This is where an expert can be critically important in a complicated case. If the expert understands what generalizations and pre-conceived judgments the jurors have a tendency to want to use or find, an expert can reinforce those generalizations and at the same time educate the jurors deeper into his/her opinions.
3 rules for choosing an expert
1) Make sure your expert witness is a good teacher. This person should be easy to understand and have the ability to explain complicated information in a way that makes a juror feel informed instead of overwhelmed. An expert who uses engaging, accessible analogies to explain information is a plus.
2) Choose a credible expert witness. Not only should your witnesses have impressive credentials, but he or she should also look and sound trustworthy and convincing. If what your expert is saying does not make sense to the jurors, the expert will appear less believable.
3) Select an expert who is personable and approachable. It’s great to have the smartest person in the industry, but if this person does not have social skills to back it up, their knowledge will be wasted on the jurors. Jurors want to relate to the witness and feel that the witness wants to help them. If the expert comes across as cold or standoffish, your jurors are more likely to discount the expert in their final decision-making.
Effectively utilizing an expert witness in a trial can make the difference at deliberations, and research shows that using expert witnesses in a complex case presents a significant advantage. Because jurors are more likely to rely on the expert to help them make sense of the case, the expert witness becomes a tool to effectively drive your case home to the jurors.