Expert Witness Credentials
Attorneys love it when their expert witness possesses a degree (or two) from a highly prestigious academic institution. Of course, this is not a coincidence, as lawyers routinely consider educational background when seeking out good candidates to be an expert witness. An impressive resume, the thinking goes, means the ultimate decision maker, typically the jury, will perceive the expert as highly credible. And a highly credible expert goes a long way towards putting forth a persuasive case narrative. Who wouldn’t want an expert witness with an engineering degree from MIT on a case involving an alleged product defect? But in the end does it really matter what school or schools an expert witness attended?
It does not hurt to have a witness with extraordinary credentials. But in talking to jurors over the years, I have come to learn that the most significant credentials in the eyes of jurors usually pertain to case-relevant work history. Specifically, what counts is the extent to which the witness has applicable experience. This trumps any type of degree, diploma or educational accomplishment. Most jurors assume highly paid highly skilled expert witnesses have impressive academic credentials.
Anecdotally, I once worked on a medical malpractice case involving a young child where one side’s expert received his medical degree from Harvard University and then went on to work successfully in various career endeavors including the 3 years prior to the trial practicing medicine as a pediatric neurologist. On the other side, the expert received his medical degree from a less prestigious academic institution. Because that expert had 18 years’ worth of experience as a pediatric neurologist as opposed to 3, jurors found her testimony more compelling. After trial, a few jurors said that one side offered up an expert from a fancy university but “in the end the expert with all the years of experience with kids and their brain issues is what helped us arrive at our decision.” I am not saying attorneys should shun expert witnesses from top-notch schools, but I am saying the degree from such schools won’t single-handedly carry the day in court with layperson’s trying to resolve issues in the case.
Another thing to consider is that oftentimes each side has an expert, one from Yale and the other from Harvard, so any benefit from such a school is a wash. In these cases, I have heard jurors say something to the effect of, “The plaintiff paid their expert handsomely, the defense did the same, so none of us cared that they went to these Ivy League schools.” I recently did a case with an expert from Stanford and the other from Northwestern. Both were equally experienced and credentialed but the upper Midwest jury embraced the testimony of the Northwestern witness.
I have heard jurors say they tend to like a local expert, but at the same time jurors have told me they were impressed with an expert witness that was from the other side of the country even though opposing counsel called a local witness. Some were impressed that an expert from South Florida would come all the way to Seattle to testify. So what is going on here? It really depends on the type of case, the venue, and the personality dimensions of the witness in particular. A jury in Santa Fe will get fed up with an expert with degrees from the University of New Mexico if the witness doesn’t communicate well. Jurors in the middle of Alabama would prefer an expert witness formerly educated at Dartmouth if the witness speaks to them in jury-friendly language compared to a witness from Birmingham who comes off as condescending.
In terms of absolutes, jurors like expert witnesses who appear genuine, knowledgeable, and who do not come off as being too strong of an advocate. Jurors like expert witnesses who appear confident and are competent, dynamic, smart and experienced. By the time expert witnesses are done testifying jurors forget about the school they attended and are more focused on the content of their testimony and manner of their communication style.
Lastly, lawyers sometimes spend too much time reviewing the educational credentials of the witness for the jury at the outset of direct examination. I often hear jurors succinctly say after a trial that “we got it, he was smart.” A balance needs to be struck, since jurors want to know about an expert witness’s background, but they do not need to hear about everything. One possibility is to put the expert’s background onto a document and have the expert identify it and place it into evidence for the jury to view when it deliberates. This keeps the expert from appearing to brag.
At the end of the day, the most important facet of expert testimony is whether that witness is deemed credible by the jury. And it is the teaching ability of expert witnesses that translates into enhanced perceptions of credibility. If teaching is clear and concise, and also relevant and immediate, credibility will be enhanced.