Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Becoming an Expert Witness

Ned Barnett (C) 2008

Note: In another format, this blog column was originally written to a colleague - a crisis management expert - who asked how to become an "expert witness" in courtroom settings. I answered his question, but also expanded that to look (briefly) at how to become an expert on cable news programs and networks.


I've been an expert witness in two cases - one about 'fair compensation' for a PR agency in Nevada whose former client wanted to stiff, and one on a liquor-company billboard ad campaign in Ohio (the issue: were the ads targeting minors?). In the first case, I got in because I knew the attorney for one side of the dispute, and offered my services. In the other, I heard about this through my "network" and contacted the folks who were trying to find expert witnesses for the case.

If you want to do this - and if you've got the qualifications, you should, as it's both fun and lucrative - I suggest pursuing several avenues:

1. Find companies facing the kind of crisis that touches your areas of expertise - contact their in-house legal team and offer your services. Then, ask them who's their lead hired-gun outside counsel, and pitch them, too. Don't wait for the lawsuit to hit - if there's a crisis, you know (and they know) that the suits are coming. Act fast and get in on the ground floor.

2. Do the same for companies which, by their very nature, are likely to be caught up in litigation crises - get their in-house legal departments to put you on their expert-witness rolodex.

3. Find companies that provide outside expert witnesses to attorneys (they're out there - just google them) and get on their rolodexes, too.

4. Write "expert witness" columns for legal publications, including online legal publications that are frequently hungry for new ideas and outside opinions (i.e., they need content).

In general, selecting expert witnesses is done on a case-by-case basis, so work it that way - but it doesn't hurt to be on their rolodex in advance.

Another thing you can try:

Pitch the cable news networks - you can become an "expert witness" for them as they cover crises. Go after the show producers, and let them known your areas of expertise - then get on their rolodexes. But don't trust only that - when you find an issue where you could add value, pitch them again (people change jobs, they forget their rolodexes, etc.) - in other words, lay the groundwork then position yourself as top-of-mind for when they need you. At first, you'll be doing this for promotion value alone - but if you become an insider, you'll be put under contract and paid for what you do.

There's a book by a retired USAF General who gives some inside insights into this process: Perry M. Smith, USAF (Retired) - "How CNN Fought the War: A View from the Inside." Perry was one of CNN's hired-gun experts during the first Gulf War, and his book provides a fascinating inside look at the way that the cable news business works. He's very candid about his contrats, his compensation, how he worked (how they worked him), etc. Strongly recommended. Amazon has copies from $70 (collectors copy) to $0.01.