Try Kavanagh's wig on for size

October 21, 2005

Have you always dreamt of being the star of a courtroom drama, the jury hanging on your every word? If so, the role of expert witness is probably not for you. Harriet Swain delivers a reality check

Your reputation - and your bank balance - could do with a boost. You'd be willing to give lawyers the kind of answers they want - no problem. And you're a big fan of Kavanagh QC . Becoming an expert witness sounds the ideal way to develop your career. How do you go about it?

Whoa. That bit about your reputation needing a boost doesn't sound too promising. The first thing anyone looks for in an expert witness is expertise - the kind you can demonstrate through books and papers, and "things that make you stand out from the crowd", says Camilla Macpherson, a lawyer in litigation practice at Allen & Overy. She says lawyers always look for experts respected in their field. "We wouldn't choose someone whose views are a little bit maverick because under cross-examination they would look less like an expert and more like someone with ideas they want to justify," she says.

Graham Paterson, head of policy at the Institution of Electrical Engineers, says its list of potential expert witnesses includes only fellows.

"Fellowship means you have been peer reviewed and are in some standing in the profession," he says. On rare occasions, when very specialist knowledge is required and he has confidence in an IEE member who is not a fellow, he may recommend them, but this is exceptional.

Expertise through experience isn't usually enough either. According to Michael Cohen, chairman emeritus of the Academy of Experts, you're also likely to need academic and practical qualifications.

Both these, and your specialist knowledge, will need to be bang up to date.

Paterson says academics' weakness as expert witnesses is often that their prestige rests on past glories. "Technology moves on so quickly," he says.

"It is very important that experts who want to be used regularly keep up-to-date with their sector."

There is no requirement in the UK to belong to a professional body or to receive accreditation before you can act as an expert witness. But Cohen says that if you want to do the job properly, you should do some background reading - especially on the code of practice for expert witnesses - and get training. "You can know everything about your subject, but it doesn't mean you will make a good expert witness," he says.

For example, although an expert witness is the only witness allowed to venture an opinion, it must be objective. Brian Thompson, secretary of the Expert Witness Institute, warns: "You mustn't favour the side that has instructed you. If you don't understand that, you are likely to get a rocket from the judge."

Tom Mager, spokesman for the Society of Expert Witnesses, says you must be wary of getting caught up in the drama of a courtroom. "The lawyer's duty is to do the best for their client," he says. "If the science isn't helping them, they will use the drama. Don't get hooked into believing you should advocate what they tell you."

Training as an expert witness should teach you about all this, as well as explaining how the legal system works in the civil and criminal courts. The academy has been running training courses, and an accreditation scheme, for the past 18 years. The Expert Witness Institute also runs courses, as do some private companies. All charge a fee. Mager also recommends hanging out at the nearest Crown Court, talking to the listings office to find out if there are any cases involving expert witnesses coming up, and observing the cases first hand.

In addition, he suggests making contact with a medium-sized law firm in your area - perhaps offering to do a talk on your subject, and finding out generally about the kind of work that might be available.

To improve your chances of being asked for your expertise, it is worth getting in touch with the academy and institute to get your name on their lists. Both also run seminars and conferences, which may provide valuable networking opportunities. Joining a professional body and attending its events is also a good idea.

"A lot of finding people is done by recommendation," Macpherson says. In some cases, lawyers will ask their clients if they can recommend someone suitable. More usually, they will consult their colleagues about experts who have performed well in the past. "In terms of self-promoting," she says, "every job may lead to a lot more."

You can try to get your name included in a specialist directory (usually for a fee) and you may even find it useful to take out an advertisement in the Law Gazette or in specialist trade publications, especially if you have expertise in a niche area. But Macpherson warns that lawyers would not normally resort to answering adverts.

Algy Kazlauciunas, experimental officer in the chemistry department at Leeds University, who has acted as an expert witness, warns that the job requires "honesty, patience, stamina and a steely nerve" and is not for the fainthearted. "They are putting their reputation on the line and, if the work undertaken comes to court, their findings, relevant experience and reputations will be highly scrutinised," he says.

Cohen says many academics lack the ability to communicate their technical subject in court. "You are talking to a jury of ordinary people, and you have to be able to communicate," he says.

And there is a good chance you will never get as far as a jury. As an academic expert witness, you are most likely to be called in civil cases and only about 10 per cent of these reach court. In most cases, your most important task will be your report.

"An expert witness is meant to be a tool for the court and lawyers, and isn't meant to be a star," Cohen says. Those dreams of locking horns with Kavanagh QC will only come true if you're ever in the dock yourself.

Further information

The Academy of Experts: www.academy-experts.org

The Society of Expert Witnesses: www.sew.org.uk

Expert Witness Institute: www.ewi.org.uk ; training consultancy for non-lawyers: www.bondsolon.com

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