Balancing Humility and Confidence
Why expert witnesses need both
Posted Dec 28, 2016
The other day I was in Los Angeles being deposed by the attorney for a well known person in the entertainment industry. His ex-wife had hired me to conduct a case file review, and I had concluded that alienation was the likely cause of her son’s rejection of her. As I sat in the swanky law offices of opposing counsel and prepared for an intense deposition, I was almost immediately aware of how nervous I was. I don’t enjoy the experience of being deposed. I know that the attorney deposing me is looking for me to say one thing in the deposition and something else on the stand so that I can be made to look as if I am changing my opinions. He is looking for things to use against me in court.
Very early on in the questioning process I was asked a simple question about when I had last testified in California. I was trying to recall the date and answered that it must have been within the past 7 years as I had only been an expert witness since 2009. As soon as the words came out of my mouth I knew I had made a mistake, a real rookie mistake.
The first rule of depositions is to not offer any information but only answer the exact question asked. Not only had I offered information that I hadn’t been asked, but I did so in a way that created the impression that I hadn’t been an expert in the field for that long. I quickly clarified that although I had been an expert in alienation for quite some time, my first expert witness case was in 2009. But the damage was done. The attorney for my client looked as if she had lost all confidence in me.
Once again I was reminded that being an expert witness is not the same thing as being an expert. To be an expert requires extensive knowledge and experience in the field, to conduct original research, to conduct trainings and be sought after as an authority. I had done all of those things.
To be an expert witness requires a whole other skill set, such as thinking on your feet and staying calm while being attacked and ridiculed. In becoming an expert, it is helpful to exercise humility. Conducting science is an incremental process in which it helps to be mindful of gaps in knowledge, to remain open to alternative explanations, and to exercise caution when drawing conclusions from the data. I have developed my expertise in part because of my humility.
As helpful as that humility is in the scientific setting, it can be unhelpful in the courtroom. In the courtroom, to be successful one also needs a healthy dose of confidence if not outright hubris. In the courtroom how you say something matters sometimes as much as what you say. Speaking with authority and confidence is as expected of an expert witness as actual expertise.
Next month I will have a chance to be on the stand for this same case and I hope that I can convey the expert knowledge I have with a sufficient dose of confidence so that the judge will want to listen to me. Humility and confidence are both required and I will do my best to exercise both, each in the appropriate dose and the appropriate time. The client and her son deserve nothing less.