Attorneys for construction litigation firms handle complex cases that require expert witnesses who can present testimony to help them win cases and/or minimize damages. But finding the right expert for your case can be tough. Your expert will be called upon to do more than just give their scientifically-backed opinions. They’ll also need to connect with the jury, keep their attention, and gain their trust. This article will shed some light on five ‘soft skills’ that an expert witness for a construction litigation case needs to deliver effective testimony.
1. Demonstrate Credibility
Demonstrating credibility is probably the single most important thing for an expert witness.
Chris Matthews, Vice President & Principal Consultant at GCI, explains:
“Attorneys are looking at the credibility factor first. They want to know your years of experience. They’ll go over resumes and CVs. Sometimes this can create a challenge for younger experts. Ask yourself: what happens when my expert goes up against an expert with thirty 30 years of experience? Will the jury believe him?”
The most credible experts have a combination of academic knowledge (related academic degree, industry training, and certification, etc.) as well as many years of field experience.
“Juries value both but there’s usually more credit given to actual experience and functional knowledge than theoretical book learning,” says Matthews.
2. Demonstrate Likability
While the majority of cases will not make it to trial, you should still evaluate your expert for likability. You should ask yourself: “Even with the facts on our side, can this person connect with the jury and bring it home?”
As Matthews says: “Your expert should be able to deliver his or her opinion confidently, but not arrogantly. Facts matter, but so does a jury’s impression of the expert. Does he/she sound like they know what they’re talking about but come off as a jerk? That could hurt your case.”
We recommend looking for an expert who has a friendly, conversational manner.
“Two opposing experts can both deliver impactful testimony. But we’ve seen it come down to who the jury likes better.”
3. Communicate Clearly
During a trial, everyone has a job to do. The attorney is an advocate for the client, while the expert’s role is to inform. Specifically, an expert must shed light on very technical concepts that most people don’t understand.
“It’s amazing how quickly things can get complicated. In some cases juries will have to sit through three to five different experts all offering opinions from different perspectives,” says Matthews.
An expert’s job is to clearly communicate to the jury what he or she thinks has happened or gone wrong, and who is to blame.
Matthews advises: “Juries typically want to do the right thing and take their decisions very seriously. It’s hard to know what that right thing is without a clear understanding of expert testimony. Our job is to make sense of this for them.”
4. Provide Physical Examples
Your expert should use a combination of media to convey their opinions. Not only will this help you make your point, but it will also help hold the jury’s interest.
“Remember, the jury is not there because they want to be. They’re being subjected to hours of long-winded testimony full of technical jargon,” says Matthews.
Things like video, drawings, and live demonstrations can help clarify complex testimony and provide interest.
“Prior to a recent trial, I did a water leakage test on video to show how a sliding glass door functioned under extreme conditions. I presented my testimony and used the video in court to help make my point. Then, I brought in a sample of the door so I could show it to the jury up close. This helped me tell my story and it helped my client win his case.”
5. Keep Calm Under Cross-Examination
Your expert needs to be able to hold up under the pressure of cross-examination from opposing counsel as well as the scrutiny of the opposing expert.
Matthews explains: “Your expert needs to be professional and not take things personally. If you gave a great statement and then got antagonistic with the opposing counsel, you’ve blown all the hard work you’ve done thus far.”
Cross-examination will test your expert’s resolve, but it is important that they stay calm and confident and stick to their opinions, no matter what:
“If under cross-examination you start to seem unsure or rattled, the jury will sense that. Stick to the truth you’ve told all along and you’ll be fine.”
6. Screening Expert Witnesses
GCI Consultants recommends getting to know your experts well in advance. Ask to speak to them in person or over the phone so you can get a feel for their personality. If they’re willing to spend the time with you to do an exhaustive interview, that’s a good sign. Here are a few starter questions and ideal responses, according to Matthews.
Does your knowledge base fit what’s in dispute in this case?
“Look for a 1:1 match on expertise. We’ve gotten calls from previous clients who liked working with us because we had the people skills they needed and we connected with the jury, but if it’s out of scope for what we do, we’re going to tell them they need a different expert.”
Have you testified before & How many times?
“Don’t let your case be the guinea pig. Look for someone who’s been in court at least 10 or more times – if they’ve done it that many times at least they know what to expect and how to act.”
What is your methodology for developing your expert opinion?
“Everything you say must be defensible from a scientific perspective and there are industry standards in place now to validate expert opinions. Ask your expert: what standard will you be basing this opinion on?”
Have you been up against the opposing team’s expert before?
“If their answer is yes, then they’re already familiar with what the other expert will say and how they’ll approach the case. That’s very helpful. If they’ve never been up against this expert before, it doesn’t mean that they can’t help you or that they’re not the right expert for you. Help them by getting some background on prior cases that the opposing expert has worked on.
Matthews says that expert witnesses are by no means silver bullets, but they can definitely help your case:
“The right expert for your case is one who can blend superior communication skills with the technical expertise necessary to build a credible opinion.”
You can visit our “People” page to learn more about our experts and download Chris Matthews’ full bio.