Deborah Dickson, CPA, is president of an Irvine, Calif., accounting firm. Along with juggling a busy practice, Dickson and her associates find themselves involved as expert witnesses on at least a six lawsuits at any given moment. The legal work, which pays professional experts anywhere from $150 to $500 an hour, is a lucrative supplement to her accounting practice, says Dickson, who is also the president of the Forensic Consultants Assn., based in Newport Beach, Calif.
So why should small-business owners take note of Dickson's sideline? As she explains, the answer is simple: Entrepreneurs from a wide variety of industries can use expert-witness work to supplement their business incomes or bring in extra income after they sell their companies and retire. She spoke recently to Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Q: How would a small-business owner determine whether he or she would be able to find work as an expert witness?
A: They would need to know a whole lot about their profession and have many years of experience, first of all. Having developed prominence in their field -- serving on boards of national associations, winning awards -- any tangible proof of expertise helps establish the credibility you need to put yourself out as an expert.
Q: How do people get started working as expert witnesses?
A: A lot of times, people fall into it by default. They help an attorney friend who has a case related to something they're familiar with, or they are subpoenaed to testify in a case. When they're in court, they realize they know as much or more as any of the experts they see there.
Q: We all know that doctors and accountants and police officers are called in to be witnesses, but what other sorts of entrepreneurs might get work in legal cases?
A: We have a lot of cases that involve real estate appraisers. We have a pool-safety expert who started out as a lifeguard and then became a swim coach for a university. We have construction-defect experts who still work in the construction industry or have retired [then there are] accident-reconstruction and safety experts from many industries, like railroad, automobile, home, boating, elevator, horse, workplace...nurses who testify about proper patient care, engineers who testify in cases involving environmental contamination, scientists -- even tree surgeons! There is growing demand for experts in legal settings, as more litigation is filed and cases are more and more complex.
Q: At what stage of their careers do most people start working as experts?
A: Most experts are in their mid-50s to mid-60s. Some of them are actively running their business or professional practice, others have sold their companies and are doing the expert work on a periodic basis as the next phase -- or really the culmination -- of their careers.
Q: How much does "looking the part" help someone get hired as an expert?
A: It's very important. For instance, we had a young female doctor who was looking for work as an expert witness. She was only a year or two out of medical school and was working for another doctor -- she hadn't opened her own practice. I told her she just looked too young to get work competing with doctors who have 20 or 30 years' experience managing their own practices and treating patients.
But it's not only your physical looks and dress, which should be conservative yet sophisticated, it's also your confidence, mannerisms, and demeanor. You've got to have a persona that will make people believe you and rely on your opinion. Very often, almost the whole case revolves around the expert's opinion and how credible it is. If you really know your stuff and you're absolutely confident in your opinion, that comes across, and it really helps.
Q: What is the Forensic Consultants Association and how long has it been around?
A: It's a California professional organization for expert witnesses. We're different because we cut across industry lines, so anyone who works as an expert or hopes to do so can join our group and get information, education, training, and networking that will help them get hired by attorneys. We've been around about 10 years and we're planning to open some new chapters -- we have three now -- in the near future.
Q: Why do experts need a professional organization like yours?
A: There are certain professions that have good, organized efforts to help expert witnesses. For instance, the CPA organizations offer a lot of education and training for their members who want to testify in court cases. But many professions don't have anything like that -- our pool-safety expert, for example. There is no training for expert witnesses in her industry, so we offer her a professional affiliation, ethical guidelines, training seminars, and a chance to be in our directory, which is sent to 40,000 attorneys across the state.
Q: How are experts paid?
A: We must be paid for our time, either on an hourly basis or short-project basis. We can't take cases on contingency...we wouldn't be perceived as independent and lose all credibility. What we do is estimate how many hours we'll put into a case, then collect a retainer up front. Once those hours have been exhausted, we ask for another retainer to cover the next phase of the case, if there is one. For me, $2,500 would be the typical amount I would ask for to look over a small or medium case and do a couple days' work with the documents and talking to the attorney.
Experts are paid prior to going to deposition and trial, so that the attorney on the other side won't try to attack our credibility by suggesting that we'll only get paid if we say what the lawyer who's hired us wants to hear. When we can say we've been paid upfront and our fee won't change depending on our testimony, they can't attack us.
Q: What are the going rates? Do experts in different industries command different fees?
A: They sure do! Doctors have more education and they're giving up more money in terms of their time, so they get larger hourly rates. A doctor will generally charge about $1,000 for a quick review of a case, maybe where they would spend two to four hours to advise the lawyer where the case should go. Generally, they get around $400 or $500 an hour for testimony -- which would be the high end. Someone like a tree surgeon, who doesn't charge that much in his regular job, would get around $150 an hour, that's the low end. Still, for someone in a vocation, they can make far more as a witness than they could per hour in their business. And it's a wonderful supplement for a retirement income.
Q: Isn't it intimidating, testifying at a deposition or in court and being cross-examined?
A: Sure it is! But our association holds seminars to teach things like techniques of cross-examination. You never really overcome those butterflies, but you learn how to cope with them. It's like being a performer or a speaker: With experience, you learn how to harness the adrenaline rush and use it to your advantage. And you do need to have that confidence that you really know your stuff and you've done a thorough job of preparation. Then you'll be OK. Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who specializes in covering covered entrepreneurship and small-business issues.