What Makes a Great Expert Witness?

expert witnessFor many years, I have been working on investigating and testifying in video forensic cases around the world. As a result, I’ve come up with a list of qualities that I believe all great expert witnesses must possess.

Obviously, a great expert must be an expert or have a lot of experience in their area of expertise. My career in video started back in high school when I was selected by the TV department to be the custodian, if you will, of all of the television systems within our high school. And back then half-inch recording tape was on an open reel they hadn’t even invented VHS cassette tapes yet. That tells you how long ago that was!

The second quality that a great expert witness must possess is character. If you have the right character and the right personality, then you will always be respected and trusted by litigators, judges, and juries. I believe integrity is one of the most important qualities that any successful expert witness should possess because it’s that character that earns you respect as an expert witness.

The next quality that I believe an expert witness should have is confidence. When you get on the stand to testify, the first litigator that starts to ask questions is usually the person that you’re working for, so you go right down the line of your expertise to be entered as an expert witness into that litigation, in that court, and qualified as an expert witness. Then you answer the questions of what you were asked to do, what you did, how you did it, and the types of things that are accepted in the scientific community to help qualify your opinion. Then, of course, you end with your opinion. Then the opposing counsel gets up and starts to cross-examine. That’s when your confidence really needs to shine because that opposing counsel will do the best that they can to create doubt about your qualifications as an expert and to make you look less confident. Sometimes that nervous energy that you can feel during that cross-examination can help break down your confidence, and that will diminish your character and cause the jury and the judge to start to doubt your ability. It’s very important to concentrate on your confidence and stay in that “confident zone” especially when you are on the stand, as well as during every conversation with all litigators prior to testifying.

Another quality I believe an expert witness must possess is the mastery of dialogue: the ability to speak with a good vocabulary and to know the words you should use when you’re delivering on the stand under oath. One of the things that I’ve learned over the years after testifying dozens of times all over the country is to take pauses as you’re gathering your next thought. When you’re nervous it’s human nature to stutter between words. However, you will come across as much more of a professional if you pause instead of saying superfluous words like “um” or “uh,” and take your time when answering the question. And if you don’t understand the question, don’t try to talk just to talk. Ask the litigator to repeat the question to you so that you can completely understand what they’re asking and know how to answer it using the best dialogue possible.

The last quality I believe a great expert witness should possess is the ability to know when to talk and when to listen. Oftentimes during heated discussions, which often happens on the stand, the expert witness could get their adrenalin accelerated because of the cross-examination. During that rapid-fire dialogue, it’s best to just relax and let the litigator vent or finish their accelerated questioning. I often will wait and count to five after the litigator is done talking before I say anything because that allows the energy in the courtroom to dissipate a little bit before you calmly answer the question, or say the next thing that you’re about to say. If you start to step on words you continue to increase the anxiety and the aggravation within the litigator and that dialogue exchange does not come across as professional. As an expert witness, you should always come across as professional, especially when you’re on the stand testifying.

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