When hiring an expert, the most important quality to look for is someone who presents well, litigator Christopher A. Riley believes. Assess how he speaks, how he appears, and his degree of comfort with himself and his area of expertise.
"Jurors will tend to believe someone more easily who presents well," says Mr. Riley, a partner with the law firm Alston & Bird in Atlanta.
In selecting an expert witness, lawyers sometimes focus too heavily on what the expert will say, but how the expert speaks and presents can be even more important, Mr. Riley contends.
Hand-in-hand with how the expert presents himself is the nature of his experience. For Mr. Riley, it is important that the expert has practical, working experience in the field – not merely knowledge drawn from the Ivory Tower. This allows the expert to tie his testimony to real-life examples – to say, "I've done this."
"That goes a long way in establishing trustworthiness with a judge or jury," says Mr. Riley, a litigator who focuses his practice on complex commercial litigation with an emphasis on financial services cases.
These two characteristics – presenting well and real-world experience – build on each other and help establish credibility. Because he considers both important, Mr. Riley never hires an expert witness or litigation consultant without first meeting him in person.
"The expert can have spotless credentials and plenty of experience, but if, for whatever reason, he does not present well to a jury, the jury will focus on those nonverbal qualities and never hear the testimony."
In the initial interview, Mr. Riley assesses the expert's level of comfort with himself and with his area of expertise. "I tend to have a gut feeling within the first few minutes of talking to someone," he says. He describes the trait he looks for as a form of self-confidence, but one that comes not from an inflated ego, but rather from knowing one's field of expertise.
Not only do these qualities make an expert witness more trustworthy, but they also make him less vulnerable to attack. "If an expert is comfortable with himself and with what he knows, he can better handle cross-examination."
This is because the expert who is comfortable with himself is less likely when questioned to stray beyond his area of expertise, Riley explains.
"I see it happen all too often that an expert testifies beyond his expertise," he says. "The expert is then subject to an effective cross-examination on those areas where he went out on a limb. That ultimately discredits his entire testimony."
In his own practice, Riley works with a variety of experts. In each, he looks for that quality of presenting well. "Maybe it's a Southern thing," he jokes, "but it's my golden rule for hiring an expert."