More than 95% of civil cases in the United States federal court system settle before they ever reach a court room. In the early phases of a case, when the strength (or weakness) of your settlement position can change daily, you want the most credentialed expert to write the most detailed expert report to strengthen your position. But if your case is one of the few that makes it through to be presented before a jury, your expert’s extensive credentials may not be enough.
"Jurors will tend to believe someone more easily who presents well," says Christopher A. Riley, a partner with the law firm Alston & Bird in Atlanta. "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."
According to Riley, the most important quality to look for in a testifying expert is someone who presents well. Before hiring an expert, an attorney should assess how he speaks, how he appears, and his degree of comfort with himself and his area of expertise.
A witness’s expertise should, according to Riley, come from practical, working experience in the field – not merely knowledge drawn from education. Much like Kirkland & Ellis partner Andrew McGaan, who looks for passion and practicality in an expert, Riley prefers that an expert be able to say, "I've done this."
"If an expert is comfortable with himself and with what he knows, he can better handle cross-examination," says Riley. "I see it happen all too often that an expert testifies beyond his expertise. 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."
Editor’s Note: Christopher Riley’s interview with Robert Ambrogi was originally published in the April 2007 issue of BullsEye.
What are your thoughts on expert presentation skills?